I guess it’s been awhile since I’ve last mentioned Jerry Tanner and his artwork with The Modern Fly. Months ago, I asked Jerry if he’d answer a few questions for a interview on T.F.M. and then his answer back was more or less was lost in my inbox.
From the first time that I first saw his artwork, I was struck by the fun and freestyle of his interpretation of flies that I have in my own fly boxes. I enjoyed reading his story and hope that you will as well. I figured a Sunday morning was a good time to get this interview published and thank Jerry for his time with his thoughtful answers.
What was your first exposure to art and your realization that you could tap into it?
Thank you for inviting me to your interview, Cameron. Great first question! Coincidentally, my wife and I were just talking about what led us each into the art profession last evening. We had just been watching a talk with the legendary artist and graphic designer, Milton Glaser—creator of the I♥NY logo—when he was asked the very same question. And his answer was quite similar to my own personal experience.
I was probably 5 years old when my mother showed me something that seemed like magic. She started putting a few lines on a piece of paper when suddenly they became a rabbit’s face and ears! She is 88 years old, and when I asked her for a sample of the doodle, she sent it the next day (see below). To me, it seemed like she had just made something out of thin air.
Presto! I think at that moment I was fascinated and hooked on the idea of creating art.
Okay. This is also another great question, and it’s centered around my brother. Like any younger brother, I looked up to my elder. But, it wasn’t until he introduced me to fishing when I was about 15 that I realized we had something in common that would become a real bond. We lived in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, near dairy and fruit farms. A mile down our street was a farm pond. Like a lot of the local ponds, it was stocked with largemouth bass and bluegills. My brother, worked for the apple farm that owned the pond, so he had permission to fish it. He set me up with a spinning rod and reel, and we headed down to the pond.
With a rubber worm, and my brother’s coaching about how to fish the lure, and how to play a fish, I caught my first bass. Now THAT was exhilarating! We fished that pond often and always had a great time. One day my brother announced he was taking up fly fishing. A few days later, at dusk on a summer day, we went to our favorite pond. The air was humid, still and warm. The surface of the pond was like glass as my brother started his new found fly fishing cast. At the end of his leader was a small, red and white popper fly. In my memory, he had barely laid the fly onto the water’s surface and given the popper its first twitch and pop, when the water suddenly exploded with the hit of a largemouth bass! I don’t remember if he caught the fish. I just remember that amazing moment. And that’s when I became in awe of fly fishing.
Your background is in graphic design and how has that shaped your style of art over the years?
I’m not sure if it’s graphic design that shaped my style, or if it’s my style that led me to graphic design. When I was a sophomore in high school, students were asked to write a paper about a career that interested us. I chose what was then called “Commercial Art”. And the rest is history.
In high school I started creating a lot of personal art. Quite often I would use compasses, rulers, and other shaping tools like grids to start parts of my art. This added a sort of a graphic style to my pieces. In my college graphic design classes we were encouraged to slip trace photos from magazines, using various techniques—stipple, cross hatch, continuous line, etc. Not only did I learn technique, I also learned that source material can come from anywhere—whether from life or from printed matter. We used slip tracing in our rough layouts of page design for ads, books, posters, etc. So this probably shaped my approach to art. I was always on the lookout for sources.
When did you get interested in creating artful renditions of flies and how have those pieces of art changed over the years?
Before The Modern Fly, I had an art series called Toucan King of the Yucatan. It was also developed using Adobe Illustrator. Based on a small, geometrically shaped toucan, each piece started with a pun on the word “toucan”, such as “Toucan Tango”. It enjoyed some success at art shows. And a writer friend and I made a book, “You Can Do What a Toucan Can Do Too!” And then the economic downturn of 2008 occurred, and for various reasons the toucan was grounded.
After a few years of concentrating on my career as a graphic designer for high-tech companies in Silicon Valley, I got the itch to develop a new line of art. I wanted it to be something that would
interest me for years to come. And that’s when I remembered the time I spent fishing with my brother
One day while I was in my garage thinking about what my next art project could be, I looked at the pegboard where my tools hang. In addition to the tools, there were some random things like mini bungee cords, an old California license plate, and a Mitchell Garcia spinning reel from the 60s.
That’s when I noticed two old spinning lures (a spoon and a spinner) I had found sometime in the past while hiking around a lake or stream. I immediately thought that they would be interesting to photograph. And they would certainly be cool to draw.
So, I set to work photographing, then drawing the lures from the peg board. And from that came research into other spinning lures. Spoons. Spinners. Plugs. Rubber worms. But something was missing. Sure, they were great subjects but I wondered if there might be something else related to fishing that would really spark my interest. Then, somewhere in my search I came back to fly fishing. I guess you could say that’s when The Modern Fly was hatched.
The colors, patterns, artistry, and endless variety of fly fishing lures had me hooked. Even the act of fly fishing is an art form. And the funny thing was that I had never actually been fly fishing. I had always been a spin fisherman. So, I knew this would open new doors of experience, not only in my art, but also in my fishing, which I had always enjoyed. It was the best of both worlds.
Finally, I needed to find a way to lend my style to the art of the patterns. And from that came another thread—the mid-century modern style of art and design. After all, the second half of this design movement spanned the fifties and sixties. And those years had led to the time when my brother introduced me to the sport of fishing in 1969
Initially, the art pieces included my rendition of the fly accompanied by its name and a short description of its origin, how to fish it, or its creator. Callouts were added describing the ingredients and type of hook used. Finally, it was framed in a reclaimed barnwood frame with a small metal plaque that held a photo of the actual fly that inspired the art. I still offer these for sale, although I now concentrate on larger, free-standing prints of the flies themselves.
A few years ago I took part in an art challenge of creating a drawing a day for 100 days. I thought it wold be a great way to keep my creative chops going. I chose to do quick doodles of fly patterns. After all, during team meetings at my full-time design job, I found myself doodling flies. Why not put those sketches to use? I read somewhere that people that doodle during business meetings are more productive, recalling more from the meeting.
Creating a sketch a day was a lot of fun and highly educational. There are so many fly patterns. It didn’t take long to find 100+ patterns as my subjects. That’s when the doodle style of The Modern Fly was born, resulting in the Doodle Fly and Doodle Catch posters. I also sell the individual doodles, framed in a 4×6” format. However, they do look awesome blown up to 22×17” size!
Lately, as a companion to the fly art, I’ve been drawing river scenes.. Someone on Twitter noticed one of my tweets of a scene and commissioned me to create an original of the John Day River. It was a thoroughly enjoyable process.
Finally, I thought that creating a book for The Modern Fly would be a great way for someone to own multiple pieces of my art for one small investment. So, I self-published The Modern Fly Book. It contains more than a dozen original pieces accompanied by their brief story or description, and the ingredients used to create the actual fly pattern. It’s available for previewing and purchasing here.
When I get started in the studio, it’s typically around 5:30 in the morning. That’s my most creative time of day. And nothing happens without a cup of coffee. Sometimes I’ll listen to music—lounge music, jazz, classical, or eclectic. I like to mix it up.
If I’m looking for inspiration, I’ll go online to some of my favorite fly fishing websites, such as The Fiberglass Manifesto, MidCurrent, and Tenkara Angler. This is where I can be sure I’ll find something amazing.
When the fly starts taking shape, I’ll think about mid-century modern style. This can be anything such
as art from that time, to the design of furniture, apparel, and home products from the period. The bodacious tail on The Antique Popper is inspired by the graphic patterns found on Pyrex cookware from the 50s and 60s. And the repeating circle pattern in The Llanalope is derived from patterns in room divider screens from the day.
Color is the final element I add to the art. I’ll think about the colors in the fly pattern’s ingredients. Or I might consider typical color palettes from mid-century modern design. And finally, I may use colors that just work.
Overall, the viewer will notice that some of the The Modern Fly art is more representational than others. And that’s where the surprise element of my art comes into play.
Typically, a new piece of art will take between one to three days to create. And the studio really gets active when I am preparing for an exhibit or show. That’s when I fire up the large format printer and break out the frames. It’s two weeks of full steam ahead creativity and production (and a bit of mess and mayhem in the studio). The end result is an art booth, filled with a variety of sizes and versions of my art, shown below.
Where are some of your most favorite places to spend time fly fishing?
Honestly, between my full-time graphic design job, my freelance work, and keeping the home front together, I seldom have time to get away these days. So, I fish vicariously through folks like the fly fishers that I see online. I can tell you my last fishing trip was at Florence Lake in the California John Muir Wilderness. It’s a beautiful spot where the trout are plentiful.
What’s next for you as an artist and angler?
As I think about what’s next for The Modern Fly and getting back out to fish, I’m looking forward to retiring in the next couple years. I plan to use a good amount of my free time for creating and sharing my art with the fly fishing community, while stealing some time to get out and explore fishing opportunities up and down the west coast. I love fishing and camping to recharge my creative battery, and can’t wait to get out there.