SEQUIM — In most years, artist Luke Filmer can trade his labor of love for his passion of fishing for two one-month trips into the backcountry.
With wildfires raging across much of the West this summer, however, the Sequim newcomer had to curb his annual fishing treks.
Though he enjoys being in his workshop with his hands on his handiwork — high-end, custom-designed fish sculptures in their natural habitat — Filmer admits it can be a bit frustrating creating idyllic recreations of fishing moments rather than living them.
“Then I’m reminded of selling shoes,” he said.
Filmer and his wife, Carola, moved to Sequim about four months ago, trading their home and art gallery in Gig Harbor for a home and home workshop off Old Olympic Highway.
With a view of the Olympic Mountains looming to the south and mostly sunny skies streaming in, Filmer finds inspiration as he turns clients’ fish stories into works of art.
“It’s custom work per the client, per the fish,” Filmer said as he carefully painted scales to his newest creation. “It’s kind of like building models as [we did as] kids, but with fish.”
Filmer specializes in salmon, trout and steelhead, but “I’ve done pretty much everything that swims.”
“I know what to do because I’m a fisherman myself,” he said.
Clients are generally those who fish or who appreciate fishing, people looking to accent their home or places of business.
Filmer said it takes him abojut 50 hours to make one of his creations.
Though he has an art background, Filmer hadn’t planned to become one of the more well-known fish replica artists over the past two decades.
He was fishing by the time he was 6 after learning the ins and outs from his father, who worked for the National Park Service. His childhood playgrounds included Yellowstone, Yosemite and Rocky Mountain national parks.
Filmer got hooked — so to speak — on the art of fish replicas when he ordered one himself. After a fishing trip to British Columbia in the early 1990s, Filmer sent his photo to an artist.
“I got the fish [and] I was happy with it, but I saw things in it. … I thought, ‘I could do it better.’ ”
He made some for friends — he charged a nominal fee for the work — and then took a piece to a sporting goods store in Fife, dropping it off with the owner for some consideration.
“Twenty minutes later, I got a call: ‘Can you make more of these? I want to sell them in my store.’ ”
Filmer sold out his stock of fish within a week. Later, he added four more stores to his distribution list, then a fly-fishing shop in Seattle. Lodges in Alaska began asking for his work.
By 1998, he had formed Blackwater Fish Replicas and now has more than 700 pieces to his credit.
By day, Filmer — who boasts a formal art background but was selling shoes for Nordstrom when his fish replica art took off — was working full time and then burning the proverbial midnight oil on his fish replicas.
“I was basically not sleeping for a few years,” he said.
Now clients find him by word of mouth and via social media like Facebook, with a significant number of work coming from outside the country. Filmer says it’s about 50-50 between local and out-of-region clients.
“It just kind of snowballs,” he said.
His art has been featured on several television programs in the Pacific Northwest including “Evening Magazine,” King-TV’s “Northwest Backroads,” KCTS’s “Northwest Outdoors,” as well as with newspaper and magazine coverage.
“Here I am, 20 years later. I’m booked out for at least a year,” he says. “I’m very pleased and very fortunate.”
Typically, a client will send Filmer a photo and measurements of a particular fish along with some details about their experience. Filmer then orders a fish form and begins work putting on layer upon layer of color and scales.
“I visualize the stream in which the fish was caught,” he said.
Details, he says, are crucial to reliving the experience of catching a specific fish.
“Every scale I paint on a fish I do at least twice,” Filmer said, adding that it gives the piece a valuable depth and shimmer.
He’ll add a streambed and rock shaped out of foam and, if applicable, a piece of sanded-down freshwater driftwood to round it out.
“It’s not just the fish, but fish in its habitat,” Filmer said. “It’s a museum-quality streambed display.”
Luke and Carola spent the past 13 years or so in Gig Harbor, the past three running an art gallery (Blackwater Trading Co.) that boasted about 50 artists.
But Filmer found he was so busy running the gallery and doing commissioned work that he had no time to fish; his tradition was to take time off in June and September and go to Idaho and Montana.
“I’ll be gone the whole month, hiking around,” he said.
That’s part of what prompted the move to Sequim. With Carola doing the marketing for the business, Luke is able to create in a prime scenic spot — and it doesn’t hurt that he’s near some prime fishing spots, too.
“I love Sequim: the Blue Hole, the 16 inches of rain, the trail,” Filmer said.
Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum. Reach him at editor@sequim gazette.com.