Library’s new rockfish carving honors longtime Kodiak resident

Kodiak Public Library acquired a new art installation for the children’s room last week. The colorful carved wood panel featuring a collection of rockfish hanging at the circulation desk was funded by a donation from former Kodiak resident Madelyn Poland Gale in honor of her mother, Estella Layton.

Jim Pryor sits with his new rockfish carving at the Kodiak Public Library. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)
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The first thing you notice about Jim Pryor’s carving is its placement. It’s not on a wall or behind glass, it’s hanging on the side of the children’s library circulation desk, exactly the right height for curious little hands to touch.

Pryor said he thought it was odd positioning at first, but “the more I thought about it, it’s kind of appropriate.

“When when I was younger, I always wanted to touch the artwork, and you could never touch it, right? If you have it low like this, and it’s three-dimensional, a child can sit there and actually put their hands on it and it won’t destroy it.”

The wood panels, which Pryor worked at for about nine months, feature more than a dozen brightly colored rockfish swimming among bull kelp on a gray-blue underwater field. The low-relief style of the carving lets a child feel each scale and spine with their fingers. “They can look at it, they can touch it, and hopefully they can have questions about the ocean and the natural world and things like that,” Pryor said.

Jim Pryor’s rockfish carving is displayed on the circulation desk of the children’s library. (Photo by Kavitha George/KMXT)

Pryor is a 50-year Alaska resident, a fisherman, and a sculptor. A lot of his inspiration comes from nature, and particularly fishing, he says. As for rockfish?

“They’re fascinating because they’re beautiful fish and there’s a huge variation. The one that looks like an orange tiger is called a tiger rock fish,” he said, indicating toward the bottom right fish on the left panel. “And it can be anywhere from that that orange and sort of maroon color to a pink. Tremendous variations in these fish.”

That said, you might be able to spot one non-rockfish fish in the mix.

“I kind of slipped it in there, the long thin one, it’s a ling cod,” he said, pointing toward a long, brown fish. “Oftentimes the ling cod will circulate among rockfish and they prey on them. I like the ling cod because they’re sort of a voracious toothy fish.”

Pryor, who says he’s used to working with stone, carved each fish out of slabs of a type of walnut called butternut using woodworking knives and chisels.

“A palm chisel,” he clarified. “Which means it’s a chisel that you push with your hand, you don’t really use a mallet.” He laughs, “there was much blood spilt on this, because the tools were extremely sharp. And if you’re not careful, it’ll really get ya.”

Each hand-painted fish features scales etched with a woodburner, and three-dimensional spines made out of well-placed toothpicks.

Pryor said he doesn’t pick favorites among his carved fish. “No you know, every time I look at it I think ‘Oh I like the tiger’ and then ‘Well I like the China,’ which is the black and yellow one, and then ‘Oh I like the yelloweye which is hiding behind the kelp.'”

Pryor said he likes getting to see his work displayed permanently, especially in a children’s library. The commission is part of a gift made by Madelyn Poland Gale in memory of her mother Estella Layton, who worked at the library for many years. So far she’s only seen photos of the piece.

“Oh yes, I like that a lot,” she said over the phone as her husband showed her a picture.

Gale, a former teacher in Kodiak, lives in Washington now. She says she wanted the gift to go toward something for Kodiak’s children.

“Just actually something lovely that kids would enjoy seeing, and that I will enjoy seeing when I come up to visit.” she said.

The installation, which will soon be accompanied by a plaque, is on display now at the Kodiak Public Library.

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