By ROBIN MILLER, The Advocate
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — The destination was marked only by a pin on her GPS map, a pin that landed her on a levee in the middle of nowhere.
Leslie Charleville glanced behind her, where a bayou flowed to who-knows-where. In front of her were the murky waters of a Louisiana swamp with no breeze to stir it.
Thoughts swarmed like mosquitoes in the Louisiana heat. Was she in the right place? What was she doing out there? Would the alligator hunter find her?
And the man coming for her was, indeed, a Louisiana alligator hunter, the same kind as seen on the History Channel’s “Swamp People” series. He’d heard that Charleville was an artist who made alligator prints and wanted one for himself.
He also knew that Charleville’s prints aren’t representations made in a studio. They involve actual alligators, which require them to be created on site.
Her medium is called gyotaku, or “fish rubbing,” an old Japanese method of documenting sea catches. The first gyotaku print was made in the mid-19th century from a red snapper caught by a Japanese emperor.
There were no cameras, and the sumi ink gyotaku print on rice paper was the only way the emperor could authentically prove that he caught a fish “this big.”
Why? Because the print was lifted directly from the fish, just as Charleville now makes her prints from alligators. But to her, the process is more than art.
“It’s a tribute to the animal,” she said. “It’s a way to honor the animal and its creator. The print not only preserves the animal’s image, it preserves the animal’s DNA in this print.”
The process is part of a mission spelled out on her website, lcharlevillestudios.com.
“If you look at our statement, the mission of the studio is to elevate the natural world and the one that created it,” Charleville said. “And what I set out to do is to elevate the natural world. Whether it’s a fish or an alligator or a spider web or botanicals of some sort or a bird or feather, I want to look at God’s creation and honor it through printing.”
Charleville isn’t merely paying lip service to the spiritual side of her mission. She openly gives God credit for her studio’s success.
“My faith is strong, and this road did not start off easily,” she said. “I made tons of mistakes, and I made poor decisions with it. But in that time where it was a little bit more difficult, I was praying, and God gave me promises and said, ‘You know, this is what I’m going to do, this is what I’m going to do through your art.’ And that’s what’s happening, and that’s what’s unfolding now.”
Which is why she can’t help pinching herself when taking a day off from her full-time job as the Louisiana Art & Science Museum’s special events manager to ride with an alligator hunter.
“I ask myself, ‘Is this real?‘” Charleville said. “And it is. I do love seeing how those things I felt were put in my heart are unfolding in the here and now. It’s almost like I’m watching it happen in real time, because, yes, I do trust what God says.”
Which was why she didn’t panic when the alligator hunter’s GPS pin location led her to a remote levee. The hunter eventually pulled up in his boat and told her to load up her supplies.
After the hunt, he and two other hunters met at his houseboat, where Charleville spread out her supplies and made the print from one of his catches. The print was to be a gift for the hunter’s wife, a memory made in the very swamp where he and the gators thrived.
That was a couple of years ago. Fast forward to Aug. 31, the first day of alligator season in 2022. Charleville has booked a hunt with hunter Logan Davis, whose camp stands along Chef Menteur Highway approaching The Rigolets strait near Slidell.
The arrangement is a win-win for both Charleville and Davis. She has the opportunity to cut down on her four-week backlog of alligator commissions, after which Davis walks away with a morning catch of tagged reptiles.
And among a pile of 7- and 8-footers is a prized monster the crew has labeled “Sweetie,” measuring 10 feet, 3 inches.
The beast reminds Charleville of her first attempted alligator print at Duffy’s Market in Pierre Part. That’s the place owned by Louisiana’s best-known alligator hunter, Troy Landry, of “Swamp People” fame. It’s also where Landry and other area hunters bring their tagged gators each day for measuring, weighing and processing during Louisiana’s monthlong alligator season.
Charleville had been making gyotaku prints of fish, crabs and Louisiana’s other aquatic creatures since 2012. Her medium was more traditional brushes and canvases before then, having earned her bachelor of fine art degree in 2008 from LSU. But her art of choice changed while watching a fishing show on TV.
The setup was familiar. The host was fishing and talking. But his guest was lifting prints from the host’s catches.
Was Charleville just channel surfing at the time? Maybe not. With her love for the outdoors cultivated by a family of hunters and fishermen in Rosedale, fishing shows naturally appealed to her.
Besides, the idea of creating gyotaku prints in Louisiana’s waterways replete with wildlife, aquatic creatures and botanicals was especially attractive. There definitely was fate in the show’s timing.
Charleville began reading everything she could find and watching YouTube videos on the art form. Then a friend offered to start her off with a flounder from his recent catch.
“It was my first try,” she said. “The fish was slimy, and I realized there was so much to learn.”
The fish are still slimy, but Charleville now wipes them down with towels. Her print repertoire has grown to include marlons, a duck-billed catfish, a scorpion fish and even an octopus.
News of her work spread by word-of-mouth. Fishermen throughout the state began calling with “Hey can you meet me here?” requests for on-site prints.
Then came the alligator hunters.
“I was thinking, ‘I live in Louisiana, so I should be doing alligators,’” Charleville said.
So, she drove down to Pierre Part and waited for the hunters to drive up to Duffy’s with their catches. Charleville spotted Landry and asked if she could try making a print.
“He was all for it,” Charleville said. “He said, ‘Which one do you want?’ I said, ‘The biggest one you have.’ For me, it’s either go big or go broke.”
That was in 2014, and Charleville quickly realized that her first-time alligator would attract a large audience of hunters and “Swamp People” fans. As was the case with the flounder, there was lots of room for error with the gator.
“I didn’t call them ahead of time, and it was really crazy of me to choose the biggest one,” she said. “I had a lot to learn on that one, because I got what I call the butterfly effect on that print.”
The butterfly effect, she’ll point out while making the gyokatu prints on Logan Davis’ dock, happen when she spreads the paint over the entirety of the alligator’s sides.
Acrylic paint is what she uses to make the prints, by the way. She spreads it with rollers, painting the alligator’s face, back, tail and legs before covering it with cotton duck. She rolls the paint only halfway down the sides to get a more realistic effect.
Otherwise, the sides will protrude, much like butterfly wings. Which is what happened on that first gator in front of her audience at Duffy’s.
But Charleville didn’t let failure stop her. She continued her visits to Duffy’s, and Landry kept supplying her with alligators. And when she finally conquered the technique, she gifted Landry with one of the prints.
Now, standing on Logan Davis’ dock with one of the smaller gators captured earlier that morning, Charleville wipes down the animal with paper towels, clearing blood away from the kill shot in the head.
“We’ll make at least two prints from this alligator,” said Cindy Verdin, Charleville’s business partner. “My goal today is to fill commissions.”
Gyotaku prints can be made in different colors. Once the paint is rolled onto the animal, Charleville and Verdin cover the gator. Charleville then presses the heavy fabric on the gator, making sure to slide her fingers in every crevasse.
She does the same on the larger gator, which takes a little more time. Once the fabric is lifted, the paint is hosed off the gators.
“This is what it’s all about,” Charleville said, looking at the print of the big gator. “This is our way of honoring these animals. But in doing this, we’re also doing something more — we’re preserving a culture.”
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