The whole fish tale

Many people wouldn’t be surprised to hear that long-time Yukoner Josée Carbonneau is a passionate fisher. Like many northerners, Carbonneau has an affinity for fishing. It’s what she does with the fish that leaves people awestruck.

Long after her fly fishing flies have been tied, and after her hip waders have dried, Carbonneau takes the fish and tans the thin skin, turning the once scaly exterior into beautiful, pliable leather that she incorporates into artwork.

“Fishing is a resource and this goes with it,” Carbonneau said of her unique process. “It’s a whole circle where my fishing becomes part of the art.”

Originally from the East Coast, Carbonneau says her dad was a fisherman. From the time she started walking, she was also fishing. Now, she takes her passion for fishing one step further.

“The idea is that I catch my fish so that I can eat fish, and use all parts of it to make art, and when I’m done a piece, there’s a whole story with that artwork.”

This summer, after applying to her first national art competition, Carbonneau was selected as a finalist in the Salt Spring National Art Prize (SSNAP). Out of the 1,200 artists who applied with over 2,100 art submissions, Carbonneau’s piece, titled “Drying Time in the North” was one of 50 finalists chosen. She is the only Yukon artist featured in the national exhibition.

Her artwork features a two-dimensional scene of a northern clothesline, with jackets, pants and mittens hung on a line. The intricately created winter clothing on Carbonneau’s clothesline features a wide variety of tanned fish skin: burbot, pink salmon, lake trout, grayling and whitefish.

Carbonneau says that once the scales are taken out during the drying and tanning process, the leathery skin turn to different degrees of mostly grey shades.

“What I like is all fish have a different skin, with different thickness and textures. Some fish skin that is thinner, like whitefish, is easier to work with.”

Carbonneau also uses fish skin and recycled materials to create three-dimensional dolls. These sustainable dolls are rich with details, such as sewn booties, felted textures and silk scarves – another art form that Carbonneau has spent a lot of time exploring.

“What I like about creating dolls is I can give them characters and movement.”

Her dolls will be on display from November 3 to 25 at the Yukon Arts Centre’s community gallery. Her show, co-created with local painter, Marie-Hélène Comeau, is called Something’s Fishy.

Her artwork is now displayed in the month-long exhibition on Salt Spring Island and on October 21, she will be traveling south to participate in the gala and awards ceremony where prizes amounting to $30,000 will be awarded.

“I know what I did is original because not many people work with fish skin, and my goal was to be a part of that,” Carbonneau said of her decision to apply for the competition.

Even though Carbonneau has been incorporating fish skin into artwork for more than 10 years, her selection as a finalist was still unexpected.

“I didn’t think I was going to be chosen,” she said with a laugh. “I was doing the Arts Underground festival when I got the email and I didn’t believe it.”

For Carbonneau, who also works full-time as an educational assistant at Whitehorse Elementary School, this year seems to be all about putting herself out there.

While many locals may recognize her work, they might not know the artist behind the fish skin, and Carbonneau has yet to do a solo exhibition of her artwork.

“I want to do a show by myself at some point, but I don’t like to be in the spotlight and don’t like the attention. I need to work on that.”

In the meantime, attending the Salt Spring National Art Prize Gala Awards night is a big first step.

“Going down to the awards night is a big deal. I want to go see the show and be part of it, but I’m scared of winning something,” Carbonneau said.

Carbonneau’s art can be viewed online on her Facebook page (Josée Carbonneau) and on display at the Yukon Arts Centre in November.

When asked of her weekend plans, the avid fisher’s response shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“I need to go fishing,” Carbonneau said with a big smile. “I’m going tomorrow or Sunday, depending on the weather.”

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