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Sturgeon art exhibit

Landing a Masterpiece

By Tara Roberts
Photos courtesy of Mark LaMoreaux

Lonnie Hutson needed 38 fish.

Over three years and across dozens of rivers, lakes and streams, Deary-based artist Hutson teamed with University of Idaho fisheries biologist Michael Quist to track down even the most elusive of Idaho’s native fish. As each was found, Hutson captured them — by molding their forms with handcrafted paper.

The UI Prichard Art Gallery will display Hutson’s collection of “fish casts” — from a finger-length slimy sculpin to a six-foot beast of a sturgeon — Feb. 19 through April 6. After that, the collection will be exhibited at venues across the Idaho. The show is part of UI’s yearlong 125th anniversary celebration.

The idea behind “38 Minus: The Idaho Fish Project” was born on Idaho’s rivers, where Hutson has worked for decades as a guide.

“Just watching how the whole ecosystems on these rivers over 30 years have changed, I got fascinated with how fish play into that change,” he says.

Hutson began creating plaster and paper fish casts. In 2010 UI fisheries professor Christine Moffitt bought one of Hutson’s pieces, and she encouraged him to continue his work.

“I was really curious about pursuing fish of Idaho — not realizing there were a lot of fish in Idaho,” Hutson says.

With support from Prichard director Roger Rowley, Hutson narrowed his focus to native fish of Idaho,

working from a list of 39.

The exhibit’s name refers to the one fish — the sand roller — that is so rare Hutson didn’t think he’d be able to find one. But eventually he did.

To find the full list of fish, Moffitt introduced Hutson to Quist, an assistant leader of the Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Quist was excited about the educational opportunities of the project and involved friends and colleagues from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Nez Perce Tribe, Idaho State University, College of Idaho and other groups — as well as his students — in the search.

Roger Rowley, Lonnie Hutson and Mike Quist
(l-r) Roger Rowley, Lonnie Hutson and Mike Quist

When field volunteers found needed fish species, they’d freeze them and send them to Hutson. The common fish, like rainbow trout, rolled in quickly.

Others were trickier. Biologists thought they’d landed the leopard dace several times, but the first several fish turned out to be something else. To find fish in isolated Bear Lake, home to several unique species, Hutson joined a special fishing expedition.

Ten species turned out to be too rare to find in the wild, so Hutson and Quist tracked down preserved specimens.

“There were a lot of examples of people going out of their way to collect good specimens for us,” Hutson says.

One of the greatest challenges was sockeye salmon, an endangered species that federal law prevents the general public from even touching. Quist and Hutson wrote letters to government officials assuring them the project was for educational purposes, and eventually Hutson was able to work with biologists from Fish and Game to secure a fish for casting.

Hutson hadn’t anticipated the challenge of gathering the fish, but the final result is exactly what he and Quist hoped for – an exhibit that displays not only the beauty of Idaho’s native fish, but also draws attention to the importance of wild species and river systems.

“A lot of what I do as an educator is getting people to understand and value natural systems,” Quist says. “Fish are a great connection, but they’re not accessible to most people. Lonnie’s work makes them accessible.”

By looking at one of Hutson’s delicate, detailed casts, people can observe the fishes’ characteristics and understand how they live – without encountering a slippery, smelly live variety.

When K-12 school groups from across the region visit the exhibit, Prichard’s docents will join with Quist, Moffitt and UI fish and wildlife students to guide the young visitors through the exhibit, teaching them about Hutson’s papermaking as well as fish biology.

Rowley says educational, science-meets-art exhibits like “38 Minus” are made possible by the wealth of expertise across disciplines at the university.

“It’s natural, yet doesn’t happen enough,” he says. “The only way we’re really going to deal with the issues facing society is if we bring in different perspectives and ways of looking at the issues.”