Have questions about this story? Let's chat
One of the best fishermen on the island of Martha’s Vineyard stands at just over five feet tall. Casting her lines from the shore and alluding to fallen dreams of art school, she speaks about fishing like it’s a drug and about fish as art.
On a clear night, the sky over Martha’s Vineyard lights up with hundreds of stars that seem to stretch on forever. Beneath those stars, dark waves roll in, and Janet Messineo—petite with curly brown hair and a gold fish necklace around her neck—paces the shore. She watches for any snag on her line, any hint that a fish has taken her bait. “Every night I’m out under the stars and the clouds—no moon, full moon, little slivers of a moon,” she said with a heavy Boston accent.
Messineo fishes at night because she is most interested in the nocturnal striped bass. By day, at home in her basement workshop, she perfects an art that she took up more than 20 years ago: taxidermy. Piles of acrylic paints, airbrushes, ceramic eyeballs, carving foam and gloss fill the space, and Messineo sits for hours at work.
She starts by laying the fish out on her working table, taking detailed measurements of it, and slicing it open along one side of its body. Then she spreads the skin, and begins the long process of scraping the meat from the inside of the fish until the inner skin looks as smooth and white as a sheet of paper. She must be meticulous here: If she leaves any meat inside, the meat will begin to rot and smell.
Even at home, Messineo’s main focus, as when she faces the shoreline, is fish. People from around the world bring Messineo their prized catches to preserve and mount. It’s a process that can take a year’s time, and Messineo’s skill and attention to detail turn every creature on which she works into a piece of art. Some of her better-known clients include Bill Clinton, Spike Lee and Jim Belushi. More recently, Messineo’s work has also been featured in art galleries and on people’s walls as far away as China.
Some of Messineo’s personal works—the ones that end up in the galleries—incorporate pieces of driftwood that she found washed ashore, or feature re-created ocean bottom scenes. She calls them “wildlife art sculptures,” and refers to taxidermy as the medium she uses to create sculpture.
But it took time for Messineo to arrive at a point in her life where she can spend days creating art and nights fishing. Adversity is a running theme in her life, but time and again she has stumbled upon ways around other people’s expectations and impressions of her. She beat drug and alcohol addiction by picking up a fishing pole; she found art in dead fish.
Once she has cleaned out the meat from inside the fish, Messineo stretches the skin over a foam body that she has carved based on the fish’s measurements. She then sets it out to dry. But her work is far from done. As the fish dries, it loses its shape, so Messineo will spend hours after restructuring it—a sculptor working with some of the most delicate material on earth.
Growing up, she never would have envisioned herself in this line of work. Messineo, 61, first lived in low-income housing in Lawrence, Mass., outside Boston. Her parents, both factory workers, moved the family to New Hampshire when Messineo was 8. She remained there until she turned 18, but dreamt of going away to art school in a beret.
Her parents felt differently. “At that point in my life, I was supposed to become a factory worker or a teacher. Or to marry a rich doctor,” she said.
By then, it was the mid-1960s, and Messineo found herself on Cape Cod, caught up in the counter-culture movement—beads, bell-bottoms, long hair, marijuana and music. When friends asked if she wanted to go to Martha’s Vineyard, she imagined tropical banana trees and monkeys. “Sure, I’ll go to an island,” she said, excited by the prospect.
Messineo landed on the Vineyard in 1966, and left only a few times (for Woodstock and to check out the Haight-Ashbury scene in California), before settling in for good in 1971.
She quickly learned of the island’s fishing roots, and bought her then-boyfriend a rod and reel. When he neglected to use it, Messineo took it over and begged friends to take her out with them. One finally did, and near a drawbridge in Vineyard Haven, Messineo caught a 16-pound bluefish. “That’s what got me thinking and dreaming about fish. What if I went by myself and a big fish drew me in? I was drawn to the mystery of the whole thing. I just wanted to be a fisherman.”
Clearly a woman in a man’s world, it took Messineo until the 1990s to find a pair of waders—waterproof boots typically made from rubber that stretch from feet to chest—that fit her. She was often scared early on to venture to the shore at night alone, but when she wrote about her feelings years later in magazines such as On the Water, Messineo said that men admitted to her that they’d felt the exact same way starting out.
Now, she sees more women picking up the sport. “Not many years ago people felt like women fishermen had to be very masculine and muscle-bound. It’s just not true. Women say they look at me and think if she can do it, I can do it,” Messineo said. “You can be a wife and a mother and be a hardcore fisherman. You can be a feminine, small person.”
Art in Dead Fish
At 3 in the afternoon, Messineo is sitting in her basement workspace, one of her dried fish on the table in front of her. She fits it for eyes, and uses an airbrush to add color back into the scales, pulling paint from the jars that line her shelves. One striped bass, for example, could require two-dozen different colors. And once she has finished painting, she coats the scales with a gloss to protect her work.
For the 33 years since that first big catch, Messineo’s obsession has led her away from the addictions that plagued her since the hippie era and to the water. But in conversation, she prefers not to dwell on her past, and focuses instead on where she is now. Most nights from April through November, she leaves her house by 9 p.m. and returns home after midnight.
“I don’t know how I can do it, five or six hours at a time. I’m almost 62, and I don’t know how I have the energy. If I’m not catching fish for a while, I get the aches, pains, hair in my face and in my nose. But one little hit will set me up for the next couple hours,” she said.
At home, Messineo’s husband Tristan Israel, who “has a whole pile of jobs,” supports Messineo’s love of fish and fishing. Not a fishermen himself, he serves as an island politician, landscaper and musician. According to Messineo, if Israel didn’t have the steady work to pay the mortgage and health insurance, she couldn’t afford to live her passion. The couple has also raised an adopted son together, Christopher, who now attends Cape Cod Community College.
Teach a Person to Fish…
Messineo’s love for fishing is most pronounced in the month of September, during the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby. Last year, 1,629 fishermen registered, and Messineo was one of 217 women. She closes her workshop for the entire month, and spends day and night at the shore. “I guess it’s sort of like when people meditate and go to this place of being really centered,” she said.
During a recent derby, the Louisa Gould Gallery in Vineyard Haven featured Messineo’s work. Israel encouraged his wife to go see her fish on display, but Messineo refused to leave the water. “I can’t take time off to go to an art show,” she said. “And I hate the schmoozing.”
It was because of the Derby in 1984, that Messineo realized she wanted to learn taxidermy. That year, she came in second place with a 45-pound striped bass and decided to have it skin mounted. “It looked nice, but I just knew there was a better way,” she said.
Borrowing money from her father to pay the $2000 tuition, Messineo enrolled in the Pennsylvania Institute of Taxidermy at 38-years-old, in 1987. All of the other students, except for one 19-year-old woman who Messineo still keeps in touch with, were men.
Messineo was undaunted. She focused on fish, learning to trace their bodies in order to create foam inserts; to skin and scrape them, removing their carcasses and all the meat from under their tongues and behind their eyes in order to prevent oil from leaking through to the scales and damaging them. She learned to use a de-greaser to further draw out the oils and then to tan and mount the fish.
Then, degreed after three months, Messineo returned to the Vineyard. She waitressed for three years to supplement her new income before leaving to focus exclusively on taxidermy. “I was so busy I thought I was going to become a famous taxidermist,” she said.
Customers who walked the steep flight of steps down to Messineo’s basement workshop marveled at how artistic her work was. “But it didn’t really feel like that to me. I was elbows deep in fish guts,” Messineo said.
Then she began to notice nuances about the fish that she was catching, as the waves crashed around her and splashed into her face. “When you catch a striped bass, you see a beautiful purple in there,” she said. She began making her own color charts and trying to notice something different every time she went out, details that she could bring back to her workshop and use in bringing her customers’ fish back to life.
She was turning a craft into an art. “To me it’s a fine line, and there’s a difference between my regular commercial work and my artistic work,” Messineo said. Yet, when she works on a commercial mount for a customer, Messineo admits that she has a hard time letting things go, and she often gets so invested in a piece that when she balances the hours against what she charges, she ends up making close to minimum wage.
“My focus is here on the Vineyard because I could never afford to go anywhere else. I know the island really well. I put my 33 years of compulsive fishing into the Vineyard. It’s still my passion, still a mystery. It’s really part of my spirituality. It’s who I am now. It’s not even about fish,” she said.
And now, Messineo wants to start sharing that with people. She takes charters out and teaches novices to tie knots and read the water. “Then they can catch their own dinner. I love that,” she said, adding that fishing goes back to ancient times, when people survived off of what they could catch from lakes, rivers and seas. Taxidermy, too, traces back to ancient Egyptians who preserved kings, queens and animals in tombs underground.
“It doesn’t get old,” Messineo said. “The water is constantly changing, the weather is constantly changing, the type of lure and how to retrieve it is changing. It’s always a surprise catching a fish. And the more I fish, the more I don’t know. How you can throw this little thing out into this vast ocean, and a fish comes by and eats it....” Messineo knows it may be more about casting the line than catching the fish.