My buddy Hall Anderson shot this video of yours truly wandering around my yard and then out to my studio. Tim Kennney at the Burke Museum edited it as a promo for my ‘Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline’ exhibit
My buddy Hall Anderson shot this video of yours truly wandering around my yard and then out to my studio. Tim Kennney at the Burke Museum edited it as a promo for my ‘Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline’ exhibit
Back in 1980 I was in an art-punk-new-wave band with my graduate school professors Jim and Jo Hockenhull along with fellow MFA student Charlie Nathan. We called ourselves Zuzu. Who or what was Zuzu? I can’t really say, it just sounded like a good band name. Jim and I wrote the tunes, mostly songs about space travel, robots, alien kidnappings, funny photographs and dark, twisted love.
I had the privilege of working with a talented young director named Colin Arisman and producer Elsa Sebastian on a short film called ‘Salmonscape’, about the extraordinary place I’m lucky enough to live in.
You can watch it right here :
I’ve had the privilege of being the “un-o-fishal” Salmonstock/Salmonfest artist from its inception in 2011 all the way til 2020. Right from the start my artist pal Memo Jauregui has been absolutely essential in making that art happen. He’s been a fabulous collaborator all along. Here are some highlights and snapshots from our adventures together.
In 2019 the Ratfish Wranglers had a primo slot on the main stage. It was a true joy to have the whole band there for once.
What a wonderful journey it’s been celebrating Alaska’s wild salmon through music.
Back in late 2010 a number of activists came together to try to stop the Pebble Mine, a massive open-pit gold and copper mine proposed for Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay area, home of the world’s largest sockeye salmon run. I was a part of the initial group that proposed a rock and roll music festival to garner attention to this dire situation, offering to be the uno-fish-al festival artist, a task I happily fell into.
Many, many people helped to pull the whole thing off. Jim Stearns and his wonderful family and his vast network of friends have been vital, key players all along. Anders and Hannah Gustafson and Renewable Resources Coalition shepherded Salmonstock into being back in the first few years. For various reasons the name evolved into Salmonfest in 2016 when Kachemak Bay Conservation Society and Cook Inletkeeper took over the sponsorship of the festival. Check out https://salmonfestalaska.org/about/
My key collaborator in making art for and AT the festival has been my buddy Memo Juaregui. He’s from San Diego but I’m certain he’s an honorary Alaska at this point. Memo designed and painted the main stage at Salmonfest. Memo designed a new main stage mural in 2019, and I added a couple of fishy elements. My son Patrick Troll helped with the spray painting as well.
This is a photo gallery of the art I created over the years for the festival.
Alaska artist Ray Troll tackles landscapes and wildlife in the boundless AK wilderness.
By Jan Mercker for Artistic Fuel : www.artisticfuel.com
The wild, wonderful world of Alaska artist Ray Troll feels like fantasy. But his work captures scientifically accurate images of real-life creatures–prehistoric and contemporary
. For four decades, Troll has honed in on the magic and the weirdness of the natural world, inspired by the Alaskan landscape that surrounds him.
“It’s really just fascination with the planet,” Troll said. “If you open your eyes and soak it in, it’s endlessly fascinating.”
Troll is based in Ketchikan, Alaska, on the state’s southern panhandle that runs along the border with British Columbia. It’s a charming coastal town that depends on the c
ruise ship industry with around a million tourists each summer in a normal year. Troll’s studio is also on the edge of the pristine Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest national forest.
Ketchikan is the perfect place for an artist with a lifelong passion for science to capture the strange wonder of the natural world. Troll’s work has been described as “scientific surrealism,” a label he fully embraces. And he’s in his
element in southern Alaska, with its fossil-rich coast, hundreds of species of fish, an abundance of plants and other wildlife and a thriving native culture. The southern panhandle is home to the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian communities with their own rich artistic histories.
A Childhood Superpower
Ray Troll has been drawing dinosaurs since kindergarten. Growing up as an Air Force brat, he learned that his artistic skill was a way to make connections as the perpetual new kid.
“Art has always been what I’m good at. It was my childhood superpower,” he said. “I’m lucky enough that my curiosity and my drive and inspiration are still basically the same stuff as when I was a kid. I think Picasso said something along the lines of, ‘Every child is born an artist. The trouble is keeping that artist alive in you as you get older.’”
Troll was born in Western New York. He moved 11 times with his fami
ly due to his father’s military career. Troll has a BA from Bethany College, a fine arts-focused liberal arts school in central Kansas. He earned an MFA in studio arts from Washington State University in Pullman. In 1983, Troll was just out of grad school and looking for teaching jobs. His sister, the writer and environmental activist Kate Troll, was managing a seafood shop in Ketchikan. So he joined her to work for the summer. That summer job turned into a lifelong home and a source of endless inspiration for his work.
“It’s tremendously inspiring…Alaska’s the biggest influence on my work,” Troll said. “I can walk three blocks up the hill and be in wilderness. I can walk two blocks downhill and be by the ocean.”
“Spawn Till You Die”
For an artist with a passion for biology, paleontology and the natural world, Ketchikan is an artistic paradise. Nicknamed the “Salmon Capital of the World,” it’s also a hotspot for prehistoric ammonites. They are iconic spiraled mollusks that may be the world’s most recognized fossils. Fish and fossils are Troll’s artistic claims to fame.
One of Troll’s most notable works is the 7×12-foot 2010 mural
“Fishes of the Salish Sea.” It details the aquatic inhabitants of the network of waterways in Northwest Washington and British Columbia that include the Puget Sound. But his work is also populated with clever puns and more than a little nerdy humor. Troll’s classic “Spawn Till You Die,” T-shirt was made famous in the 2007 comedy “Superbad,” and his merch has a cult following up and down the West Coast.
Troll frequently collaborates with well-known scientists on books. His work is the subject of traveling exhibitions at natural history museums around the country. Science and natural history are passions for the 66-year-old creator. However, art has always been his way of accessing the natural world.
“I strive to make compelling images that draw you in, that are pleasing to the eye. I strive to make them dynamic and eye-catching,” he said. “Art has always been first for me…There’s a lot of science that informs what I do…I think everyone should be multidisciplinary in their lives and everyone is really.”
Troll’s book “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline” created with his longtime friend Kirk Johnson, the director of Smithsonian‘s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, explores the fossil history of North America’s West Coast. An exhibition associated with the book is currently in Fairbanks and scheduled to move to Seattle this winter. Troll’s exhibit “Prairie Ocean: Long Time No Sea,” a collaboration with Kansas-based artist and fossil hunter Chuck Bonner. It is on display at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, Kansas. It explores the natural history of Kansas via fossils from the period when the midwest was covered by an inland sea 85 million years ago.
With COVID crushing the cruise ship industry, 2020 has meant a summer like no other in Ketchikan.
For Ray Troll, this has meant more time exploration in Tongass and fishing from a deser
ted cruise ship dock. But it has also taken a toll on the artist’s bottom line. Troll and his wife Michelle run the Soho Coho Gallery in Ketchikan. The sales of Ray Troll T-shirts are their bread and butter. He’s seen a big bump in online sales in the last few months. It can’t compare with hundreds of thousands of tourists streaming through the town of 13,000 during a normal summer.
On the upside, the COVID shutdown has spawned a cool collaborative project for Troll. Earlier this month, he launched the new “Paleo Nerds” podcast with the California-based ventriloquist David Strassman. The two fossil lovers clicked 20 years ago when Strassman walked into Troll’s gallery in Ketchikan and have been friends and collaborators ever since. When COVID canceled a planned tour for Strassman, the longtime friends decided to a jump into a virtual
Funny back-and-forth (what’s the correct pronunciation of “epoch”) to thoughtful conversations on the wonders of paleontology and the profound meaningfulness of evolution.
“I think most people don’t know what we are, who we are, where we came from, how we came to be,” Troll said. “It’s a mission to me, in a way, to open eyes up to these relationships.”
The Smithsonian’s Johnson has described Troll as a “scientific surrealist,” and for Troll, it applies 100 percent. Nature itself can be pretty surreal, from evolution to the wild adaptations of prehistoric life to the insanely cool features of contemporary deep-sea anglerfishes, with their sci-fi jaws and luminescent lures. And Ray Troll will keep tapping into the beautifully surreal right in his backyard.
“I once came up with the phrase ‘verisimilitude like you wouldn’t believe.’ It’s so astoundingly weird that it’s unbelievable– but it’s real,” he said. “I’ve specialized in a lot of those kinds of things.”
On June 20, 2020 I participated in a very fun, live zoom “webinar” with my paleobotanist pal Dr. Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History along with our host, the inimitable Maggie Benson. On this webinar we discuss our 26 years of collaboration including our two books, two exhibits and many a fossil adventure.
Check it out right here:
Alex Trokey, host of the Alaska Show podcast, sits down with Ray Troll, Ketchikan-based artist, to discuss how Alaska’s fishing industry inspired him to build a t-shirt empire that would ship millions of shirts worldwide and adorn the chests of rockstars and actors, the business of art, the founding of Salmonfest, the ongoing fight against Pebble Mine, and Alaska’s precarious future.
Ray Troll Interview is at 5:15 – skip ahead to it if you’d like! Listen here:
You are probably familiar with Ray Troll’s shirts. His most well-known designs like “Return of the Sockeye” and “Spawn Till You Die” have graced the chests of movie stars and rockstars, not to mention thousands of Alaskans.
As I talked to Ray on The Alaska Show Podcast I was curious about his rocket-fueled journey from a fishmonger in Ketchikan, Alaska to the artist behind countercultural touchstones that have lasted from the 80s through present-day. He has spoken to the hearts and minds of those who love the ocean and have sold millions of items in the process.
Ray was in something of a transition period in the summer of 1983. He just got out of graduate school and was teaching at his alma mater in Kansas. His dream was to be a college professor, but as a fresh MFA graduate it wasn’t easy to find a college that would take him seriously enough to consider giving him a full-time job and tenure.
So when his big sister Kate asked him to come up to Ketchikan and help her and her husband manage a little seafood shop on the docks called Hallelujah Halibut, Ray took the opportunity to have an adventure and make some cash for the summer.Like many dreamers before him, Alaska proved to be Ray’s personal Hotel California – and he found it hard to leave. Instead of returning to Kansas in the fall Ray stayed in Ketchikan and worked the slime line at a local cannery and taught part-time at the University of Alaska Southeast campus.
After selling fish and processing them day-after-day, it was only natural that the trained printmaker and artist would try his hand at drawing them. Heck, he could run downstairs from his studio above the cannery and grab a subject any time he wanted. He was passionate about fish culture, pop culture, and science and started to develop his surreal, yet scientifically accurate artistic style.
Summer of 1984
1984 was a turning point for Ray. He took one design he particularly liked – called “Let’s Spawn” – and printed up a few hundred shirts for a seafood festival in town that summer. Over the course of the three day event he practically sold out. Then he took the leftover shirts in odd sizes and wholesaled them to a local store for $1 profit per shirt.
Pretty soon the store had run through those shirts and were calling him for more. Ray realized he had stumbled on a real business opportunity and instead of gutting fish he could draw them for a living. He and his wife made a little hand-drawn catalog of designs, hopped on the Alaska Marine Highway, and started meeting with buyers in stores all over Southeast Alaska, many of which still sell his shirts almost 4 decades later.
The next chapter of Ray’s business started with a printer in Seattle in the early 90s. That printer took Ray’s designs, scaled up production, and hired reps to go all over the country and put his shirts in stores.
They started with Anchorage and Seattle, then expanded all over the Pacific Northwest. Soon after they had placed shirts in stores in the midwest and the east coast and Canada and by the mid-90s sales were going, in Ray’s word, “gangbusters.”
In spite of the early momentum, Ray says the business “collapsed in on itself,” because the new owner who bought the printer took on more artists, hired in-house designers, and put Ray’s line on the backburner. Without a small army of active salesmen traveling around the country the numbers plummeted and Ray went looking for a new printing partner.
The Final Run
Ray’s next found a printing partner in Post-Industrial Press in Tacoma, Washington.
He admits they had more modest wholesale ambitions, which fit Ray’s style. They diversified to include posters, stickers, calendars, and magnets and he worked with them to build out his online presence at TrollArt.com which is a website that Ray controls and is the only place people can buy his work online.
Ray never set out to build an empire. He just wanted to make cool designs and get off the slime line. The result is business that he estimates has sold “millions” of shirts since the mid-80s.
How did he do it?
Ray attributes his success to hard work, being true to himself, and a right relationship with his audience.
As far as hard work is concerned, he is a firm believer in putting in 40-60 hours each week on any enterprise you undertake. Ray is zealous about putting in his time at the studio everyday, and for that reason has developed a body of work over almost four decades that goes well beyond just fresh t-shirt designs every year. Ray has also helped create books, murals and large paintings, and museum exhibits. He’s done public speaking and teaching gigs, and even headlines a “sub-aquatic neo-folk” band called the Ratfish Wranglers.
Ray says new artists need to be bold. They cannot be afraid to put their work online and build a following or walk into stores and ask to speak to the buyer to get their work sold.
Finally, he says, his art is true to himself and his taste and his audience. He must be excited about something and truly think it is cool or interesting to put it on a shirt or a poster and put it in his store. And while he doesn’t pander to his audience, he values the feedback loop he gets. Sales don’t lie!
Ray Troll has built an unexpected Alaskan t-shirt empire since the 80s and his art has become iconic of the Southeast Alaska. True to the way Alaskans naturally diversify their skillsets, Ray’s used that platform to seed a number of other interesting ventures, including helping to found arguably Alaska’s best festival: Salmonfest, and we’re excited to see what he does next.
more at https://www.theakshow.com/post/an-unexpected-alaskan-t-shirt-empire
Photos and story by Alan Berner, Seattle Times, February 29, 2020
From the In an empty munitions bunker at Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Ray Troll and his band, the Ratfish Wranglers, were rehearsing and recording two songs for an upcoming album. The only light in the old storage space was what spilled through the open, heavy metal doors. The concrete walls provided amplification and resonance.
The battlements used to protect Puget Sound from attack by sea. Obsolete by World War II, the last of the guns were removed never having to fire a shot in war. In 1973, Fort Worden became a state park. The park is now home to Centrum, a gathering place for artists like the Ratfish Wranglers, who came from Ketchikan, Alaska, for a weeklong residency to record songs and put on a performance.
Troll, an Alaskan Renaissance man, is an artist, author, naturalist, musician-songwriter and shameless punster. He worked in a print shop on Seattle’s Capitol Hill before moving north in 1983. “At 29, I got a job to sell fish in Ketchikan. I was a fish monger with an MFA from WSU.He fell in love with that place, though it’s one of the rainiest cities in America. He figured he’s endured about 5,550 inches of rain since moving there.
His gallery is on a creek that’s home to every species of salmon, so fish inspiration is close at hand.
The Ratfish Wranglers have tentatively titled the album “Shake That Halibut.” Troll says they play “paleo-ichthyological rock ‘n’ roll. It’s subaquatic rock.”Songs are often fish- or geology-themed, with tutorial messages about subjects of natural history, such as plate tectonics, hagfish, halibut, salmon and sharks.
“We all come from the sea and we throw in the science for free!” What other band does a song about omega-3’s? Their album “Where the Fins Meet the Frets,” is all about the benefits of fish oil for the mind and body. They’ve done a bluegrass song about trilobites, extinct marine arthropods.
Sea creatures also inhabit Troll’s art. T-shirts, many sold through museum shops, are adorned with his puns: “The empire strikes bass.” “Dungies and Dragons.” “The Baitful Dead.” “The DaVinci Cod.” He was honored by scientists who named a species of ratfish after him, Hydrolagus trolli, as well as the genus of extinct round-bellied herring, Trollichthys.
Troll believes “everyone should be in a band, regardless of talent.” “It’s joint creativity. It’s fun and takes a little bit of courage.” The new album is expected to be released early this summer.
Next December, the Burke Museum will feature Troll’s drawings and paintings from “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline,” the book he published with scientist Kirk Johnson, director of the National Museum of Natural History.
A BED IN THE WOODS II
44 YEARS LATER
JANUARY 19, 2020, SMOKY HILL RIVER
It’s 8:15 in the morning and 20 degrees. I am cold, my right hand is ungloved as I write this with my Pilot razor point pen. I’m wondering if the ink will freeze.
I’m in a thin black sleeping bag in a tiny white frame metal bed on the banks of the Smoky Hill River. The sun came up at 7:45. I intend to stay here until sunset tonight at 5:40 PM. It is cold. I was facing north west but have now flipped around to face the east and the rising sun. It’s coming through the branches of the bare trees now.
The sky is clear only a few wispy clouds gold against the blue. Birds now to my right. The river is flowing east to west. The water is brown. Here comes the sun. I hear birds but have seen none. Are there clear sections to the river? Will I see a fish? The creature that has ruled my life all these years…. a catfish perhaps.
I intend to stay in this bed all day, only to stray 15 or 20 feet to poop or pee or to look around a bit. Damn it’s cold.
It’s was nowhere near as cold when I ‘performed’ this same action 44 years ago as a young man 21-years-old and full of myself, so confident, sweetly naive, inquisitive, skinny, oh my radiant youth. That brief period when we’re “in bloom” but here I am 65 on the edge of 66 still doing the slightly ridiculous.
Down by the river in a single frame bed, looking all around just scratching my head.
Inventory time: the essentials.
A jet overhead. The sun is at one hand width high. It’s still down in the trees in front of me. I’m hoping for more warmth as it rises, otherwise all I can focus on is the cold.
The color all around me is brown. Brown, black trees stretching their branches in a slow motion are down to the golden-brown river. The mud is brown the dry leaves are grey brown.
I tried to move the bed to a sunnier spot, but the legs are frozen solid into the ground.
I ate my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich for the first time in maybe 20 years. As Warren Zevon once said, “enjoy every sandwich” and I did. Oh yes, I did. On Marsha’s homemade rye bread in fact.
There’s a slight very cold wind from the north now. It stings. I shiver a bit. Will the sun prevail?
A beautiful red-tailed hawk – now a second one across the river. I recognize their call now. One landed in a squirrel nest, seeming to check it out.
What counts the most over all these years are friends. It sounds trite but it’s true.
That’s what drew me back to this town. Joan a close friend who seems to look into my soul and see my core being flaws and all, but yet she is still there for me. Joan and the circle of friends around her. Marsha, Brad, Michael Bray, Kathy Olsen, Merle Larson… and I guess that’s about it for Lindsborg in the close pal dept.
Don – my mentor and art hero is in the Bethany Home now. lost in the haze of Alzheimer’s disease. I’m out here today freezing my ass off because of Don. He told me he always liked my “Bed in the Words” performance piece. “Troll, you were onto something,” he’d say in his cowboy twang. That simple approval moment from a mentor, a teacher, an art guru meant the world to me. That’s all. Just a few simple words from an elder that I admired, that I wanted to emulate, to be like. So here I sit by the ever-flowing river. The river that is always here and never here. It’s the eternal now, the ever present flowing into the past. The water is always flowing, a river to the sea. Siddhartha-like, Buddha-like, only some of us seek the truth. Oh, the pitfalls of the examined life. Those who try to lift the veil will always pay a price.
I cried writing this just now.
It’s a little warmer.
We’re all just little kids seeking a nod of approval. Most, if not all. of my closest friends are artists or creative thinkers. I’m drawn to originals.
Thinking of originals, Jan and Martin Eddy. What a force they’ve been in my life. What are they up to now? Did they succeed? Am I just as happy?
What I thought was a loud, angry squirrel was actually a red headed woodpecker.
Propeller plane overhead.
3 hands high – the sun moving from left to right. Arcing in the sky to the south. I’m finally more in the sunlight – but it’s still cold as hell.
The river looks greener now as the sun goes higher.
Experiment: move around a lot and see if I get warmer. Jumping jacks!
Facing a challenge. This is about. Isolation. Endurance. Sensitivity. Absurdity. Surrealism. Unplugging. Relaxing.
Commitment. Documentation. Reflection. Introspection. Observation. Breathing. Being. Examining. Paying attention. Perseverance. Just thinking.
At midday a beautiful blonde woman* brought me an extra blanket and a pair of fingerless gloves.
* My wife Michelle.
Low and behold around 1:30 that day an earthquake shook my bed up and down! “What the hell”, I said. “Do you feel that?” I asked Michelle when she was there. “No”. So, I ignored it. Only later when I was back in town did I hear about the earthquake.
Easy connections – those you can relate to with ease, you click into place with little or no effort.
Reflecting – the people you become when the two halves meet and mirror each other – you create a unique ‘third person’.
Why do the riverside trees reach to the river and then bend over? Is it gravity? Water? Erosion? Losing their grip?
It’s been interesting staring at these same trees all day, studying their twists and turns, how they bend to the river, wondering how old they are and how they’re related. Were they planted here on the prairie?
Individuals who otherwise would never do such a thing. Even I the artsy provocateur was really pretty nervous about taking on this challenge… especially on this super cold day. I’m literally buried in layers – a sleeping bag and two big blankets. The metal frame bed circa 1930 I’m guessing.
Perhaps taking a day out of your life to sit in a strange place in a bed should become a thing, a tradition that should be practiced all around the world. After all our memories are so random, so half hazard, taking a day out of one’s life to contemplate one’s place in the world is truly a worthy effort, to enforce self-reflection on.
My generation, my g-g-g-generation is the first one in the history of our species to witness the end of the wild world, the end of the idea that nature will always rebound, that our resources are endless. It’s an empty, dark feeling. But sitting here by this river all day long in the bleak winter of 2019/20 I have some vague feeling of hope. I saw so many birds today, here in the middle of a mammalian trackway I felt the vastness of this fertile flat land and thought maybe we haven’t fucked it all up, maybe there’s hope right here in middle America. Kansas, still somehow my home.
As I looked over my shoulder to see where the sun was about to set, I saw a squirrel – my one and only mammal sighting for the day. He jumped from tree to tree high up and now he’s gone.
I made it from dawn till dusk on this bitterly cold winter day with a little help from my friends.
Teaching people to draw is just a matter of showing them how to simply “see” what they’re looking at. Is being an artist simply doing an exercise like I did today? Taking the time to look and listen and process it? To understand it.
Thousands of Canadian geese are chorusing madly in the distance just to the north of me beyond the tree line by the river just as the sun sets. And then they fall silent. A jet above heading west.
It is cold, cold, cold again and I have packed my gear waiting to go.
“The river will find its course.”
Rivers are the veins of the earth. Echoes in the branches of the trees above… The river is always there, the river is never there. The river is life, renewing itself, the river is death, sweeping everything away. Duality defined.
Teaching someone how to draw is simply teaching someone how to see, how to understand what they’re looking at and how to convey that to paper. It’s really that simple but it takes a while to break the novice through to the “other side”, via a series of lessons, experiences.
Those who seek to make art, really significant art, take the time to look at life, to examine it, to ponder it, to process it and give it some sort of meaning, some sort of truth. Not that we ever arrive at it, we simply try to understand it, reveal the beauty of it, wallow in the horror of it, revel in its connections, vibrate in its sweet harmonies, resonate in the planetary groove, quake in terror at its finiteness drawn to the light driven to the dark.
Some of us want an audience, the vast majority of us are the audience. Here we are now entertain us, and those of us up here dangling in the spotlight….
Ein tagder Selbstbeobachtung German for a day of introspection.
Naisei no hi. Japanese.
Un dia de introspeccion. Spanish.
Mike Bray – Transportation, bedding
Brad Howe – Loaned the bed
Marsha Howe – Bread, peanut butter and jelly sandwich , sandwich bag
Joan Kimball – Sleeping bag, extra gloves, blanket
Michelle Troll – Delivered extra blankets, photographed me