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They're all keepers

Give this man a fish, and he creates the print of a lifetime.

Published May 25, 2007




Some artists can draw the eye of a fish with the fast dab of a paintbrush. A fleck of gold. A dot of black.

Not Burt Lancaster. His eyes, the crowning finish of his Gyotaku creations, take hours. "The eye is the window to the soul of the fish, " says Lancaster, a practitioner of this centuries-old Japanese art form. "That's the coup de grace." Such passion, and a love of all things oceanic, have made Lancaster a successful and sought-out artist after a lifetime of creative endeavors.

From the modest Carrollwood neighborhood of Four Oaks, he produces works of art, some priced in the thousands and some hanging in galleries and restaurants hundreds of miles away.

Originally a way for sailors to prove the size of their catch, Gyotaku (pronounced ghee-oh-ta-koo, with a hard "g") became a widely accepted art form about 200 years ago.

The most basic form involves applying ink or paint to the skin of the fish, laying rice paper over the fish and pulling up a print.

Lancaster, 59, was introduced to the medium as a boy living in Japan with his mother and father, an Air Force fighter pilot.

"I was enthralled by the entire process, " he said. "It did not seem weird even in the slightest."

Over the years, Lancaster, an avid fisherman, has had many creative endeavors, from air brushing cars to sculpture and taxidermy.

He and his wife, Gladys, moved to Four Oaks in the early 1990s, seeking a somewhat rural setting without the subdivision rules that might get in the way of his taxidermy business.

"There are just some things you can do here that you can't do in Hyde Park or Avila, " he said.

"We like living here. I've got chickens running in my front yard, and no one here cares about those. I haven't bought an egg in 10 years."

He settled into Gyotaku exclusively about eight years ago, around the same time he started to come to terms with the trauma he experienced as a Marine in Vietnam - and the shame and inner anger that followed.

"I went to serve my country that I love so much, but someone forgot to tell me everyone back here hated my guts, " he said. Gyotaku became almost therapeutic, helping him to move on.

The product of this transformation hangs on the walls of more than 100 Bonefish Grills, the Javits Convention Center in New York and the 9/11 Memorial Room in the Pentagon.

His work surface consists of huge granite slabs, which he keeps almost freezing with blocks of ice and 6 tons of air conditioning blowing from above in order to maintain the fish.

He sometimes travels to the fishing docks to get the freshest catch; other times, his customer will catch the fish.

He filets it and sends the customer home with half to be eaten, the other part becoming his "canvas."

That half is pinned on the granite as Lancaster prepares to apply the paint.

He mixes almost all of his own colors, preferring iridescent shades. He applies the paint, removes the excess splatter, and then lays a sheet of rice paper over the fish, where it sits for about five minutes before he lifts the print.

Details, including those eyes, can take days.

Fisherman Tom Nichols, 51, a neighbor in Four Oaks, has watched Lancaster's artwork blossom.

"His selection of colors, the way he combines those colors on the fish, there's just a deep talent here that speaks for itself, " said Nichols, who owns about a dozen of Lancaster's rubbings.

"You bring the man a fish, and he'll create a very profound lifelong memory."

And unlike a taxidermied fish that hangs over the mantelpiece and might turn some people off, Nichols said, the Gyotaku is a high-class piece of artwork that can be appreciated by everyone, including those who may not fish.

In the end, that's exactly Lancaster's goal.

"In this whole poem of life, " the artist said, "if we can leave one good verse for all to value when we're gone, then we've done a really good thing."

Contact reporter Sheryl Kay at or at (813) 230-8788.


. details

To buy or look

Burt Lancaster does most of his work on commission, but he keeps about a dozen pieces in his gallery for general sale. Prices range from $150 to $3, 500, and entry to the gallery is by appointment only. Call Lancaster at (813) 961-5132 or see his Web page at


[Last modified May 24, 2007, 08:18:00]

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