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Fishing for meaning amid the tides of life

More than a decade ago, Stanley Meltzoff, the master fish artist who preferred simply being called a picture maker, taught me how to "see" under water.

An avid, pioneering diver since the 1940s, Meltzoff gave me some practical tips for finding striped bass beneath the waters of Southern New England. But more importantly, he explained how the mind works to form an image of a fish when the visibility is poor based on just a few visual clues and our understanding of what we're supposed to see.

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Amid sandy, swirling, pale-green water, the diver catches a glimpse of a few stripes, the flash of a gill plate, and the brain does the rest of the work to complete the picture.

"All of a sudden, a bass leaps into sight," Meltzoff explained with passion. He was right. From that point on, I never had much difficulty finding these fish again.

Stanley Meltzoff was a talented, complex man: physically and intellectually robust, articulate, unpretentious, fearless, curious, outspoken. The artist didn't suffer fools, and more than a few folks found him a tad intimidating. I liked his insight and candor.

Meltzoff died in 2006 at age 89, but a project he'd been working on for more than two decades has finally seen the light of day. "Stanley Meltzoff - Picture Maker," a new book on the life and work of this remarkable artist, was recently published by Silverfish Press. It was co-

authored, edited and published by Mike Rivkin, a longtime California angler who has written four other books on the art and history of big-game fishing.

Rivkin became a fan of Meltzoff in the mid-1980s when he first spotted one of the artist's fish paintings (which he couldn't afford at the time) in the window of a gallery in New York City. After he sold his company in 2004, Rivkin was finally able to buy a Meltzoff original. In the process, he and the artist became friends. When Stanley and, later, his wife passed away, Rivkin writes: "The project fell to me."

The book is a wonderfully rich collection of Meltzoff's work and his writings, along with useful commentary

by Rivkin.

"Stanley was the first to paint these gamefish as they were in their underwater environment," Rivkin, 54, told me. "No one has done it better. And there has simply been no one like him before or since. That's quite a legacy."

Stanley Meltzoff is not a household name, but if the yardstick for such things is artistic talent or the ability to create in oil on canvas the undersea world with such vision and vigor, then he should be.

There is a lesson, I believe, for all of us in the larger story of Meltzoff's life, especially given the difficult economic times from which we're emerging. Starting in the late 1960s, Meltzoff arrived at a life-changing juncture. The magazine industry from which he'd made his living as a successful illustrator for so long was undergoing transformative change brought about by a rush of new technology, everything from color photography to computer software that could manipulate imagery. The market for Meltzoff's skills - "artists working from life ... pictures laboriously finished by hand" - vanished.

"My wife was ill, my children needed college money and I was almost 60 years old," Meltzoff writes in the book. "I stood on the corner of 56th Street and Lexington Avenue in the rain with a soggy portfolio in my hands and improvised a sad little song about defeat, flat feet and flat broke while I tried to think of something to do."

It was at that point that Meltzoff combined his love for diving and fish with his skill as a painter and illustrator, and started down a path that would see him emerge as one of the world's pre-eminent "picture-makers" of fish and the undersea world. "I learned to be a painter long before I learned to paint fish," Meltzoff told me in an interview a number of years ago. "I didn't paint my first fish until I was probably in my late 50s, close to 60." He was in his 70s before he completed paintings of all the billfish of the world.

During a visit many years ago to his home and studio in Fair Haven, N.J., Meltzoff talked about the need to reinvent one's self when your world undergoes seismic shifts. "As any journalist knows, you really live off your wits," Meltzoff told me. "If you're not clever enough to figure it out, you shouldn't be in that business to start out with."

At the time, I didn't fully appreciate the meaning or import of his words, although I never forgot them. Today, I understand exactly what Stanley meant.

If you admire art, fish, the sea and the wonderfully complex "ribbons of light" (Stanley's words) below the surface, this new book belongs in your library. And if you enjoy reading the story of a life in full, this one won't disappoint.

For information, contact Silver Fish Press at (858) 625-0220,,

"There's very little room when you're fishing for thinking about anything else. All those other thoughts disappear, and your mind becomes focused on that one thing, and it calibrates down to zero again."

- Stanley Meltzoff

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.