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Byline: Mike Stahlberg The Register-Guard

Say what you will about Larry Stark's art, but the man's a genius at coming up with unique fishing opportunities for himself.

Stark, a 63-year-old Michigan artist who once lived in Westfir, completed an epic 13-year quest to fish in all 50 states last June, targeting a different species of fish in each.

The fishing images and fish tales gathered during his cross-country fishing trips were distilled into "Fishing America - A Work of Art," on exhibit at the Coos Art Museum in Coos Bay. The exhibit continues through May 8.

The series of silk-screened and ink jet prints Stark made from photographs he took while fishing with 50 different people for 50 different species in 50 states includes subjects ranging from Apache trout in Arizona to Muskellunge in Wyoming.

But fishing was simply an artistic device, Stark said, "like the dog in 'Travels With Charlie' or the center lines in "Blue Highway,' or the boat in 'Old Glory'....(it's) what brings everything together for a focus on American culture and American landscape."

Stark said he's "after three things when I'm on a fishing trip - I want to catch a fish. I want to catch a story. And I want to catch a good image."

The "Fishing America" project, Stark said, is an example of "conceptual art," in which "the product is not as important as the idea.

"I like to define conceptual art as: 'You doing something weird and call it art.' '

This is the same man who, in 1970, received a grant from the Addison Gallery of American Art for a conceptual art project that involved "traveling 9,500 miles and eating only at McDonald's hamburger establishments" while producing a portfolio of McDonald's prints he called, "One Culture Under God." For another project, Stark traveled the country photographing nothing but freeway interchanges.

Stark studied mathematics in college, earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan in 1965. He worked two years as a cost accountant (`and wondered why') before deciding to become an artist.

He and his former high school sweetheart, Barbara, have been married 43 years. They moved to Westfir in 1971 but returned to the Midwest about a year later "because it was impossible to make a living on art out here," he said.

Stark's work has been purchased by dozens of public institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, The Smithsonian Institution, and the National Gallery of Canada. His "Fishing America" art has already been displayed by museums in Kansas City, Mo., and Wisconsin.

In the name of conceptual art, Stark once tried to spend a month in an 8-by-8 ice-fishing shack on a frozen Midwestern lake.

"I had to quit after 26 days," he said. "I got so bored I just couldn't stand it any longer... I had hook and line in the water 24 hours a day the whole month, and I think I caught less than 10 fish."

That particular art experience ended up being included in a book about ice fishing and the architecture of fish houses that Stark co-authored, titled "Hook, Line and Shelter." (Four of his fish house prints are included in the Coos Bay show.)

Stark also plans to write a "Fishing America" book, although he admits "I don't have a good story for every state, so I have to deal with that."

When he first conceived "Fishing America," Stark said, "I thought it would take two years, maybe three," and two or three extended fishing trips around the country.

While researching which species to fish for, Stark said, "I spent weeks and weeks in the library looking up fish." He learned that many of the fish he wanted to fish for could only be caught at certain times of the year.

And he didn't target just the biggest or most glamorous game fish.

Stark also chose to fish for some species that many anglers wouldn't bother with - such as carp in Illinois, eel in New York and "squawfish" (subsequently renamed northern pikeminnow) in Oregon.

Being a lifelong fisherman, he realized that not every trip would produce fish - a fact underscored by the project's very first outing.

"I drove all the way from Minnesota to South Carolina to meet a guy and fish for a 'red breast,' which is in the sunfish family," Stark said. "He had one in his refrigerator that he'd caught the day before and he had me take a picture of it. I should have known that was a bad sign, because when we got down to the river the water was way up..."

No red breast were caught in two or three days of trying.

So some of Stark's images feature fishing scenes rather than fish.

"I wanted to have a show that's interesting, and if you have 50 photographs of fish, it's only interesting to a few people, and I wanted to have something that's interesting to a lot of people," he said.

The largest fish he caught was a 60-pound skate, hooked while fishing for halibut in Alaska.

The smallest: a two-inch snail darter, an endangered species in Tennessee. (It's illegal to fish for snail darter, but Stark arranged to go out with the university ichthyologist who discovered the species and who had a permit to net snail darters as part of his continued research).

All told, Stark was skunked in five states. In five others, he caught species other than the one he'd targeted.

"In some states, I fished more than one trip and targeted more than one species," Stark said.

For example, Stark went to Louisiana to fish for Alligator Gar. Skunked, he returned later and tried for the long-ear sunfish in a reservoir that forms part of the Texas border.

"When we realized we weren't going to catch anything on the Louisana side, we went out on a boat on the Texas side, and we caught it on the Texas side," Stark said.

"But as far as I'm concerned, that fish swam over there from Louisana just so I could catch it."

That's what you call artistic license.

"When you make up the game," Stark said, "you make up the rules."

And when it comes to the game of coming up with ever more artistic excuses to go fishing, Larry Stark can't be beat.

Larry Stark's work can also be viewed at, and purchased through, his Web site:

How to Catch "Fishing America"

What: "Fishing America - A Work of Art," by Larry Stark.

Where: Maggie Karl Gallery at the Coos Art Museum, 235 Anderson Ave., Coos Bay.

When: Opening night reception will be Friday from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Stark will give a talk on his fishing experiences at 9 a.m. Saturday. His work will remain on exhibit at the museum through May 8. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Added attractions: Members of the Lower Umpqua Fly Casters will give fly-tying demonstrations at Friday's reception; fly-casting demonstrations will take place in the museum parking lot following Stark's talk Saturday.

Cost: All events are free of charge.


Larry Stark used green earthworms, found only along a 25-mile stretch of the Missouri River, to catch this shovel-nosed sturgeon in Nebraska. Larry Stark went on a 13-year quest to fish in all 50 states and put together an exhibit of images he made during those travels. "Fish Tails," a print from a photograph of a bucket of bluefish, represents New Jersey in "Fishing America"
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Title Annotation:Recreation; For art's sake, Larry Stark went fishing in all 50 states
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 18, 2004
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