From New Zealand to Japan and everywhere in between, Dinah Bowman has seen it all and even brought back artwork that is more precious than any souvenir you might find at a tourist gift shop.
Bowman is an artist and runs the Bowman Studio and Gallery, located at 312 5th Ave. in Portland, and has so since 1979 housed in the city’s old VFW hall which has survived three hurricanes yet still stands.
She mostly uses the Japanese art technique of gyotaku or “fish rubbing” and was the first Texas artist to practice the craft when she started in the 1970s.
Born in Tennessee to an Air Force family, Bowman was traveling all over the country at a very young age.
“I ended up coming here to go to university of Corpus Christi,” Bowman recalled. “It was a small university, but they had a strong marine science program and that’s what I was interested in. I wanted to get my feet on the ground, and then transfer eventually to either Scripps Institute of Oceanography or Woods Hole in Massachusetts.
“But I met my husband to be so that didn’t happen. I stayed here.”
Bowman worked doing coastal and zone management work and some freelance illustrations. One of those jobs was a three-year project doing illustrations for Fishes of the Gulf Coast for Texas A&M Press.
“So 130 illustrations down the road, it proved to me that I could be my own boss,” Bowman added.
“The quality of my work steadily improved and I liked doing it.”
Thanks to her professor, she was able to double major in Terrestrial Biology and Art and got her master’s degree in two years.
“And then I opened the store in 1979, and never looked back,” she said with a grin.
Her gallery also holds the distinction of being the oldest commercial building in Portland. It’s also made of shellcrete, which is a process involving oyster shells, lime, water and sand that, obviously, strong enough to survive hurricanes.
She also bought all of her framing supplies from a business that was closing down for 10 cents on the dollar.
“So instantly I was in the framing business,” Bowman added. “It’s been a nice marriage, if you will, of businesses because some years the framing carries the business and other years my art carries the business.
“I’m still doing the fish rubbings, and I’m celebrating doing that over 50 years now.”
She said she learned the technique of “fish rubbing” when her dad was stationed in Japan and she was studying to be a marine biologist.
“I thought it was cool making art with fish,” she laughed. “So I came back and started printing fish for friends and family and then it grew into a business.
“The oldest known prints are from the late 1700 or 1800s and there’s not a lot of people who do it in Japan, but they do it as a form of trophy.
“I been back to Japan several times to study under masters there.”
Bowman said she first started with black ink on white paper, then moved into adding more color then adding backgrounds so the fish rubbings become part of a true-to-life underwater scene.
So what did her friends and family think of her newly found love of creating art by rubbing fish?
“Well, they were amazed,” she said. “In some instances they’d asked, ‘Well, do you have a fish a certain size?’ and I said I’d have to go check my freezer,” she laughed.
“Or you can bring me the fish because but their head didn’t wrap around the fact that I was using the fish as my block.
“And we have new generations coming into the area and because there’s not that many of us, they’re still not familiar with the technique.”
Bowman is one of only a handful of people in the state that practice this art technique and has grown quite popular amongst fisherman and women on the coast. So much so that when a massive Yellowfin Tuna, nine feet long and weighing more than 650 pounds, was caught off the coast, it was Bowman they called to do a rubbing of the fish.
“We printed that one on the dock as with most big fish like that I print on the dock,” she continued. “I’ve done the state record Bluefin Tuna caught in South Padre and the state record Blue Marlin ... and the state record Junior Piggy Perch,” she paused for a laugh.
“It was this kid who was just charming. He came in here with his Superman cape on and he caught his piggy perch on his Snoopy rod and reel.
“I asked him what he was going to do next, and he said, ‘Catch a bigger fish’.
“It was priceless.”
Back to the massive tuna for a second.
When Bowman got the call, she was sitting at the doctor’s office waiting with her partner who had an appointment. She asked if she could do it the following day but was told no because tunas rot very quickly.
“So I called Betsy (her gallery manager), and said we’re going to saddle up and ride. Get all my bags with my brushes and my paints.
“Then I went home and got all that stuff and threw it in the car and away we went.”
Once she arrived at the dock she gathered anyone that was available and had them grab the edges of the large fabric and gently set it down on the fish and hold it in place so the ink wouldn’t smear when she began. Once she was done, everyone carefully lifted it up and, voilà, there was the tuna print.
“Then it’s a party,” she said. “It’s exciting and it’s fun and everybody joins in and people are interested in what’s going on.
“I’m pretty sure a lot of these people have never seen this before so they get to help out and see what are you doing.”
And in case anyone was wondering, her prints don’t smell like fish. Well, they do a little bit, but they won’t stink up a house or anything.
“Some of them will have more ... aroma,” she joked.
Over the years Bowman has visited Egypt where she rubbed Nile Perch, the Amazon where she rubbed some piranha, and Alaska where she just missed halibut season but plans on returning.
She’s also had her work in a Smithsonian Institution traveling show, which she couldn’t attend due to being pregnant with her daughter at the time.
Having traveled all over the globe many times over, perhaps it’s not where she’s been that tells her story, but what she leaves behind instead.
“When I do the pieces for people it gives them a memory that they can have,” Bowman recounted. “The catching of that fish or who they were with when they caught it or a grandson’s first fish.
“It was some sort of milestone in their life and they can now have that memory recorded.
“So now they’ll have that the rest of their lives.”