Bright Waters, Shining Tides: > Reflections on a Lifetime of Fishing, paintings and essays by Kib Bramhall, Vineyard Stories, Edgartown, 2011. 96 pages. Hardcover, $29.95.
I know of three painters who are also enviably good writers, all of them Vineyard men by birth or choice.
The first was Thomas Hart Benton, a summer resident of Chilmark whose swirling, almost hallucinatory up-Island portraits and landscapes helped set in motion the American Regionalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s. The next is Allen Whiting, the well-known West Tisbury artist. And the third is Kib Bramhall, whose paintings I’ve known since boyhood, but whose essays about sportfishing amazed and transported me when I first encountered them as managing editor of Martha’s Vineyard Magazine eight years ago.
Now comes a new book — Bright Waters, Shining Tides: Reflections on a Lifetime of Fishing — that brings together some of Mr. Bramhall’s best work as an artist and writer in a beautifully designed, wonderfully balanced and evocative hardcover collection. One of the joys of spending time on Martha’s Vineyard — whether you know it well or hardly at all — is that it’s always possible to wake up in the morning and acquaint yourself with it in a new, thrilling and lasting way before you go back to bed.
That’s what Mr. Bramhall’s book will very likely do — reintroduce you to a place you may have known only in part, no matter how long you’ve been here, largely because you had forgotten (or never knew) where or how to look afresh. Where most of us know the Island only as far as the borders of its shoreline, Mr. Bramhall paints and describes the ocean beyond it, on the surface and below. Where our Vineyard is mostly a place of daylight, his is often wilderness of blackest night. Where ours is an increasingly smoothed-over, suburban place, his remains a hunting ground where intuition, patience and skill are the order of the day (or night).
Mr. Bramhall first came to the Vineyard in 1945, on V-J Day plus one, as he puts it, and he now lives up-Island, where with his wife Tess he shares his life with children, grandchildren, fellow fishermen, artists and other friends. He did every job there was except sweeping the floor at Salt Water Sportsman from 1956 to 1973, when he left to paint full-time. He has had shows in New York city and he exhibits, to great anticipation, every few years on the Vineyard.
That’s the professional and expressive side of his life.
In the world of sportfishing, Mr. Bramhall is just as well known up and down the coastline and it’s fair to guess in several other countries too. He’s fished for more than 70 years, not only here for stripers, bonito, bluefin tuna, sturgeon and weakfish, but also the Bahamas for tarpon and bonefish, the Yucatan for permit, as well as Central America, Iceland and Scotland. He has broken world fly rod records for stripers and bonito, won several divisions of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby in the past 30 years and in 1999 was inducted into the derby’s hall of fame.
So the credentials were all there as Mr. Bramhall went to work on this book. But the equilibrium of the whole — the beauty, warmth, and force of his work both on canvas and on the printed page — surprised me, perhaps more than it ought to have, given what I already knew of the inherent strength of each. Together they acquaint you with an Island many of us know is out there, but too seldom see and feel the way we ought to.
First the paintings, which take you all along the angler’s Island coastline: There is a softness to many of them, a dusty pinkish-yellow light washing over sand dunes, marshes, grasses, and beaches that could reflect no other place on earth. There are also the bursting red sunsets, the storm clouds that reach toward you from a seaward horizon and down deep in the night, a striped bass cruising just above the bottom with a lazy sort of menace.
This points up something I’ve always liked about Mr. Bramhall’s artwork — the sense that the tranquility of the landscape he’s working with is just at the point of change. You’re privileged to be standing with him the moment before a sunrise relights the whole of an Island beach, before a squall drives the sensible viewer to the shelter of a truck or cabin, before that lazy cruise of a bass snaps away to a death-dealing attack on baitfish foolishly massed in the distant murk.
As for the prose? Here are a few lines from Mr. Bramhall on fishing at night:
“. . . Many seasoned anglers also use their sense of smell to detect bass (the scent is sweet, almost chemical in nature and somewhat like thyme), but the striper-sensitive nose is employed similarly during daylight or dark. An angler who is a regular at the nighttime shift will as a rule possess a keenness of hearing usually developed only by the blind. He will be able to hear the slap of a striper’s tail a hundred yards down the beach and distinguish it from a similar noise made by an eel. He will be able to hear, when the surf is quiet, the slightest pitter-patter of baitfish nervously rustling the water’s surface, and he will be able to cast to the disturbance with sound as his only guide. He will be able to tell what size bass are breaking water, and by the sound he will know if they are feeding or simply rolling on the surface at play.”
The same attention to detail as in the paintings, the same knife’s edge sense of anticipation, the same revelry in the good fortune to be where he is, doing what he’s doing: I noted that Mr. Bramhall has fished in faraway places; he has painted there too, and Bright Waters, Shining Tides takes you to some of them as well. You also meet and in a sense befriend angling legends whom Mr. Bramhall knew (and knows), many of them devoted to fishing the Vineyard, such as the Mad Russian (Sergei de Somov), Roberto Germani, Lou Palma and Al Reinfelder (inventors of the storied Alou Bass Eel).
In your hand, the book feels light, the sort of thing you’d flip through in a few minutes. But it pulls you in and draws you along, and by the time you’re done you feel as though you’ve been on a great adventure with an expert guide who shows you just what to look and feel for — even if you embarked on the journey expecting the place to be familiar, the expedition predictable, and the experience one you’ve already had.
Finally, a disclosure: Vineyard Stories of Edgartown, which published this book, has published two of mine and will next year publish a third (all three with the photographer Alison Shaw). And a query: Outside of a city, can there be another 100 square miles anywhere whose story has been celebrated so precisely, so advantageously and so often as has this Island by this independent publishing company?
Mr. Bramhall’s work, the 17th produced by Vineyard Stories since its founding in 2005, suggests to me that insofar as book publishing is concerned, we are joyfully, deservedly, but also fortuitiously, alone.
Tom Dunlop lives in Edgartown and New York city. He is currently working on a book about the Chappaquiddick Ferry, due to be published in 2012.