Ray Troll: A story of fish, fossils, and funky art
© Washington State University
Ray Troll '81 sees plesiosaurs playing in the clouds. He pictures nurse sharks circling him in his hospital room, and he spots trilobites in the desert sky. He calls Charles Darwin "Chuckie D" and paints pictures of him hugging fish and driving dinosaurs around in an "Evolvo."
He sees these things and he wants you to see them, too. Nature, history, prehistory, and evolution-they're all around you. "Just look at them," he says, whether he's holding a pencil, pen, paintbrush, or a guitar.
One of his most recent drawings, a pastel he has titled, "The Paleohunter's Den" is at first view a mundane picture of a guy in a plaid shirt watching TV. But mounted on the wall behind him are the deer of prehistory, fantastic, but real. One antler, twisted antlers, antlers branching out from the snouts, they're all based on renderings of deer fossils that Ray unearthed in an old book. "What do you think?" he says, holding the picture out. "Look at that one."
Ray Troll is a primate of the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens. If he were sub-subspecies, he might be categorized as a popular artist, a wit, a fish-lover, or best yet, a scientific surrealist obsessed with evolution. The 52-year-old bearded male admits that humans are just a speck in the history of life on earth. While they figure into his artwork, they're hardly the most interesting, he says. But it's fun to mix them in with the ancient sharks, the ammonites, and the waterscapes.
His habitat is Ketchikan, a southeast Alaska city snugged up between a rainforest and the salty water of the Tongass Narrows. If you look from the window of his studio over the real bones and fossils and small plastic dinosaurs that line the sill, you can see the blues and greens and grays of the far Northwest, the colors that resonate in his art.
In the past few years, Ray has traveled the West with a paleontologist working on a book about the fossil highlights of America. He has also done artwork for an interactive exhibit at the Smithsonian, floated the Amazon in search of exotic fish, and lectured on campuses around the country, reaching out to science students with his art and to art students with his love of science. In the past few months he has spoken at Cornell University about "The Artist's View of the History of Life," written a song about evolution titled, "The Devonian Blues," and come up with a "DaVinci Cod" t-shirt design, a bestseller among both Alaska tourists and Dan Brown fans.
Digging down to the data
Ray is constantly glancing up to see if you get his joke, or like his work. When riffing about life in Ketchikan-"With all the rain, it's the wettest you can get without actually being underwater"-he tucks his hands into the pockets of the fleece jacket bearing the Soho Coho logo of his local gallery. He unzips it, revealing a yin/yang salmon t-shirt from his collection, as we sit down to breakfast at the Cape Fox. The lodge towers on a cliff above the old part of town. "I'm an omnivore in a big way," says Ray, dropping the napkin in his lap and ordering the biscuits and gravy. Through the gray drizzle out our window, we look down on Ray's city of 23 years. He points toward the dock where he had his first job as a fishmonger, and up north a bit to the cannery where he had his first studio. It was there in the early 1980s, printing up "Let's Spawn" t-shirts with salmon running across them, that the odd fish artist with mass-market appeal was born. The shirt sold out in two days.
Later he made his most famous t-shirt, "Spawn Till You Die," with a skull and two mature salmon as crossbones. The shirt is standard apparel among motorcycle riders, teenagers, and fisherfolk. Seeing what caught on, Ray quickly enhanced his t-shirt empire, diversifying into posters, postcards, paintings, and eventually whole books filled with his art.
Looking to the community around him, he started what he calls "culture-jamming," borrowing from his environment, the fish, the fishermen, the seascape, and the local Native American imagery, and then putting in touches of Brueghel and Bosch.
As he developed his Ketchikan style, he began to understand more about his environment. His drawings became more accurate. His early red snappers, for example, didn't have the right number of fin rays. They were "cartooney a little bit," he says. Now his fish are close to exact almost down to the number of scales. "It got to be fun to blow people's minds with what was really real," he says.
For Ray, the coolest reality is evolution.
Charles Darwin got it after five years aboard the HMS Beagle and a trip to the Galápagos. He came up with the theory of evolution through natural selection, and later, in The Descent of Man, published his findings that man and ape descended from a common ancestor.
Most people get the connection back to the apes, but how many take it further, asks Ray. How many of us can name the steps that connect the earliest life forms with Homo erectus? "How about all the stuff in between?"
For Ray Troll, a better understanding of the in-between came just a few years ago at a natural history museum in Los Angeles. A scientist there explained how Homo sapiens were vertebrates descended from fish and that our hands are an evolved version of fins. "That was my epiphany," says Ray. "All of us with backbones are basically the fish group," he says. "Wow. Then you start seeing the world in a different way."
He found himself making the connection between man and fish again and again. "You learn these things in biology classrooms, but a lot of times science is so detail oriented, the bigger realizations are not so apparent," he says.
He wanted to explore it further. In 1994 he and writer Brad Matsen decided to tackle the subject with their book, Planet Ocean, tracing life on earth over the past four billion years. They filled the book with a summary of prehistory in plain English and Ray's fanciful drawings; they told of the trilobite, the first creature to have eyes, and the lobe-fin fish, the first vertebrate to get oxygen from the air. In his art for the book, Troll took the fish out of the water and the fossils from the strata. In Ray's world, primordial soup comes in a can, and the fossil record is "a dusty old album with lots of skips and scratches with a great beat-easy to dance to." Maybe evolution would be a little less scary if only we could see how fun and amazing it is, he says.
"He gets what paleontologists get," says Kirk Johnson, curator at the Denver Museum of Natural History. "He gets that these things are real, and cool, and weird."
Nature and nurture
It would be hard to define Ray's childhood because, he admits, he's still in it.
But back when he was shorter and less hairy, when he was younger and living with his mother and father and five siblings, he would wander through his neighborhood and pick up a rock, saying hopefully, "Maybe it's a dinosaur bone." It never was.
"My first love in life was dinosaurs," he says. So he drew them. Obsessively. "Then it was battle scenes. Then airplanes. Then dinosaurs again." He and his brothers would "play museum," setting up bones and arrowheads for display and then charging their friends for a tour.
After high school in Wichita, he studied art at nearby Bethany College, a private Lutheran school where he had his first fish encounter. In a pottery class, he hit upon the phrase "plenty of other fish in the sea." Creating raku-fired vessels with the fish and the phrase gave him a chance to get in touch with the natural world and mix in a little lesson about the universal search for love and romance.
After college, Ray moved to Seattle. It was the late '70s, and he found plenty of music, couch surfing, and work in a variety of jobs. He waited tables at the Aurora Tavern, answered calls for the IRS, and was a silk screen technician at Silver Screens on Capitol Hill, where he and his co-workers made thousands of t-shirts announcing "KISW Rock!" After a few years he had enough of living as a loose end, and decided to formalize his life as an artist.
What drew a kid from Kansas to Washington State University? Maybe it was the similarities of the landscapes, all the wheat fields, he says. And then "there was kind of a vibe to the place that clicked with my sensibilities." He loved the close interaction between the instructors and students. They hung out together, posed for Ray's photos, and wrote songs with him. Ray rattles off their names-Gaylen Hansen, Bob Helm, Arthur Okazaki, Francis Ho. And, of course, Jim and Jo Hockenhull, close friends, and founders of that not-so-well-known band, Zuzu and the Robot Slave Boys. "We were huge," says Ray. "We played the CUB."
The early 1980s was a great time to be part of the art department, says Jo Hockenhull, who was one of Ray's advisors. Back then, the scene was pretty open-students and faculty collaborated on projects, performed together, and often staged theme exhibitions that they pulled together in just a couple of weeks. "There was a lot of egging each other on to do better, be weirder," says Hockenhull. Ray was right in the middle of it, one of the hardest workers, accomplishing and producing a lot of material.
One of Ray's favorite places in Pullman was the Conner Museum in Science Hall. He loved to go look at the specimens. He was delighted to discover that he could check out an eagle or a jar of frogs. "The scientists were over there putting cool stuff in jars and putting them up on shelves," he says. That's just a waste. "I would go over and get a roomful of magpies and bring them back to my studio."
The one scratch on the record of his time in Pullman was the C he got from his drawing instructor, Pat Siler. "It really did bother me," says Ray. "But it was good for me." It wasn't that Ray wasn't doing the work. The critique was more about his line quality. "Art is hard to grade. It's really a squishy, intangible thing," says Ray. "But that's the challenge for a professor, finding something that causes you to focus your shtick, form your vision."
Impact of the environment
When he rode the ferry into Ketchikan in the early summer of 1983, a 29-year-old Ray discovered some of what he'd had in Pullman, a tight community of artists, local characters, and musicians who could prompt and foster his creativity. Now Ray hangs out with printmaker Evon Zerbetz, and his gallery connects to native artist Marvin Oliver's. He's active in the local arts council, is a regular at the high school and the historical museum, hosts a radio show, and shares his talent as an illustrator for regional environmental causes.
Built on a steep hill and partially set on pilings over the water, Ketchikan is a town with as many stairways as sidewalks. It's a place where rubber hipwaders are standard attire, and where fish smokers are part of the patio furniture.
Here Ray found a family. He met and married Michelle, a graphic designer working at the local newspaper. They settled into a 1910 home built part-way up the hill, with space in the back yard for a studio. Michelle, a Tacoma native, is a cool foil to Ray's spicy energy. Their children, Corinna, now away at college, and Patrick, a high-school junior, are a blend.
Ray Troll's family tree, a drawing he did for his Planet Ocean book, starts with stardust, reaches up into bacteria, splits off into plants on one side, and on the other, animals branching up into vertebrates, moving past chordates, sharks, reptiles, and dinosaurs to mammals. You don't see it in that picture, but Ray's own family tree is just as important. He may enjoy his artist's life, but his greatest satisfaction comes from his wife and kids, he says.
Mealtime at the Troll house is a delicious affair, with Michelle turning from the pasta dish she is inventing to warn Ray not to get too absorbed in the computer before dinner.
Sitting down at the table, Ray mentions an award, a medal, he's getting next spring. "My bling," he calls it, saying he's going to wear it all the time, just like Flavor Flav.
Patrick, a big kid with a tangle of red hair, scarfs most of his meal before announcing, "We had school pictures today." Everyone looks up. "I wore funny glasses. I borrowed Dad's."
Michelle rolls her eyes, "OK."
A few beats pass.
"And I may have made a funny expression," he says. His mother groans.
A smile slips over Rays face as he glances around the table, seeming to say, "Look what I made."
At 8:00 every morning, Ray crosses his back yard and climbs the steps to his studio. He calls it his "boy fort," but it more resembles an old cannery rising up three stories at the back of his property, high enough for him to capture the view over the houses below. Inside, he has a great room with a couch, a giant wall where he hangs his works in progress, stacks of out-of-print archaeology and paleontology books, and lots of windows looking out to the water.
Fish specimens in old mayonnaise and peanut butter jars, some given to Ray by scientists, are placed throughout.
His primary workspace is a drawing table in the front corner. As he settles in, he turns in his chair and picks out some music. Maybe it's Jim White, or maybe his latest favorite, The Horseflies. It depends on his mood. Then he'll turn the volume way up.
Sometimes he'll look into his sketchbook/diary to draw on an idea that hit him on the road a few months earlier. Other times, he'll make a clay model and see how the light plays off the features. Depending on the animal he's rendering, when he's "way deep" he might start humming, or growling, or purring, imagining the noises it might make.
When he needs a break from his own work, he often drives south to Saxman to hang out at the carving center, where artists from coastal clans make totem poles out of giant red cedars. When it comes to art, Ketchikan is the place, says Ray, as we drive back through town and past dozens of totem poles, some new, some very old. "That one's Haida," says Ray. "And that over there is Tlingit." "At first I didn't notice it," he says of the indigenous art. "But then I fell in love with it." Ray feels a connection with this creative group, especially since his tendency to iconify fish resonates with the form-line design images of Northwest Native American artwork.
After a lunch break or a field trip, he's back at work until dinner. One thing about Ray, say his friends, he is a disciplined worker. People often think art is created out of mood and whim. With Ray, it's a full-time job.
Scientists love Troll for his interest and enthusiasm, but also for the care he takes in making his renderings as correct as possible. The Gilbert Ichthyologic Society recently made him an honorary member. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries lab in Santa Cruz hired him to paint a mural. And he created the artwork to aid in species identification for the National Marine Fisheries Services Website.
He even has a fish named after him: Hydrolagus trolli, a species of ratfish. The scientist who discovered the unique species in 2001 said she named it for Ray because he was someone who shared her fascination for the odd-looking cartilaginous creature that hadn't changed in over 300 million years. Ray describes his interest as "an unhealthy obsession," calls himself "Ratfish Ray," and even carries the Ratfish moniker on his license plate.
Today Ray travels around the country hunting for new fish to draw and real dinosaur bones. Collaborating with writer Brad Matsen and paleobotanist Kirk Johnson, he goes crawling over fossil beds and combing through museum collections, eager to feed his hunger for details about nature, fish, and man. And then he puts it all into his art.
"He comes to this with great enthusiasm," says Johnson, his most recent companion and collaborator. Where many artists render prehistoric animals and prehistoric jungles, Ray connects with his creatures. With his scientifically accurate renditions, he manages to go deeper, say the scientists. "His pictures bring forth other emotions," says Johnson. "What he draws is what we see. These creatures are literally out there in our minds as we drive around."
Even if Ray's art pieces are destined for an exhibit or a book, the originals usually show up in the Soho Coho gallery, a warm, wood-floored space on Creek Street in the old part of Ketchikan. "In the day, it was the big house of ill repute on the creek," says Ray of the structure, noting the irony that Ketchikan Creek running below the wooden pier-supported street is also a place where salmon come to spawn.
We visit the gallery at the end of our day together. The rain has stopped, but the wet weather makes the Creek Street shop lights sparkle. "There's where Michelle and I went on our first date," he says, pointing to the second-story Chinese restaurant next door. He spins around, "There's Dolly's House, another old brothel. And down there is where they hold yoga classes."
The neighborhood is quieter than usual. The tourist season is coming to an end, and the last of the cruise ships left town earlier this afternoon. Even the summer workers have headed to the lower 48. "The town is ours again," says Ray, noting that winter in Ketchikan is a perfect time to hole up and work, and "create your own fun." When he emerges in the spring, his next book should be completed.
"I'm a 50-year-old guy still drawing dinosaurs with crayons," he says, as we walk away from the gallery and down the wooden street. "And like a kid, when it's done, I'll hold it out to see if you like it."
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