Val Kropiwnicki


I love to fish and I love to make things, and having squandered much time trying to figure out which I like more has only left me with the notion that I am not whole unless I can do a bit of both. My bullet of choice lately has been small-scale sculpture rooted in the trappings of traditional Atlantic salmon flies.  We here on the forum call them flies, but I still insist they are all just sculpture. Although the artistic “flies” I make are non-functioning fishing tools, I am simply trying to make imagery that inspires people who fish.  I know full well that nothing compares to being on the water or knee deep in wilderness throwing something you’ve created at a fish, and if the event presents itself, maybe even entering into a game of give and take with said fish.  Still, in the end, when I get past why I made something a big part of my present art, I hope that things I build remind people of just such times around water. 

At the top of the pattern list for any fly I make is music. I never tie without music playing and I hope that the rhythm and grooves and punch and flow and power that I feel in the songs I choose to hear carries through in the work I create. Music is to me as the flow of water is to fish. Breath it, go with it, go against it, let it feed you and life is much better with it than without.

I am a romantic at heart and I blame my love for life on my parents due to the creativity and diverse things they helped me experience as a child. Stuff like day tripping to the Rhode Island shoreline to get fried chicken gizzards for a sunset picnic on the beach or a taking a two-hour family drive to Vermont to get cliff-side spring water and catch native brookies in a small stream waterfall stick out as favorite childhood memories. Hand lining for Tommy Cod under the Thames River Bridge and haunting images of bass chasing the frogs attached to our hooks with rubber bands in our local bluegill pond rise up in my memory now when I think about growing up with an outdoorsman for a father. I was raised to fish trout on a small stream and I still find much enjoyment trekking those same waters today. As a kid, I remember my dad running a Brittany Spaniel, and we raised quail and hunted goose, deer and pheasant. We fished for stripers and made stained glass windows and carved apples into dried apparitions of people; we hunted and collected butterflies and we listened to music.

But life for me, like most of us, hasn’t all been easy. After a happy first 18 years of living, life presented itself to me with a little more challenge. I was married at 18, had my first child at 19, lost my Dad to lung cancer when I was 23, lost my Brother to suicide at 30, divorced at 30, remarried at 32 and lost my mom at 46. I should be some kinda pissed off or wrecked but I am not.  Instead, these challenges in life served me and only gave me more reason to cherish each day, my wife and children, every idea and each artwork I build with more intent and appreciation than ever before. It may be cliché to say, but in all honesty, I’ve had enough bad crap happen early on in life for at least two of us, maybe even three. Making art, tying, is my therapy. I have no problem saying that I believe it saved my life on many an occasion.

There is also something to be said in being different too. My friend Ben calls me a non-conformist but it is more than that. Being original, and striving to design or build things that haven’t been done before, is how I acknowledge my mortality and my internal understanding of just how short our time here on earth actually is. I’m honest. I am in a hurry and I have a lot to say which is why my flies have to have a theme, or back-story. My flies are never about just tying.

It is important for me to include metals in the flies I create. The metal does vary and the answers to questions about metal in the fly can be found in the title of each fly. The first part of the title is the name, and the next number to the right is the month and then year it was made. Next comes the metal used (S=Silver, SS=Stainless Steel, B=Brass, N=Nickel, GF=Gold Filled) and the last letter is (P) for Prototype, (A) for as drawn in my sketchbook or (R) for revised. Sometimes I use a metal for its color alone and sometimes due to the way I can work it to achieve what I want it to do in the fly at hand. The addition of these metals connects me to my artistic roots and they are materials I feel comfortable working with. This comfort comes from 25 years of building sculpture and furniture as well as stints as a steel erector, Tig Welder, Architectural Aluminum Estimator and Plate Steel Sales/CAD Coordinator. It may just be the easy feel of familiarity or it may just be metal is in my blood-literally. For the last ten years I have been employed as a High School Art Teacher. I teach Art Foundations, Sculpture, and Jewelry Design and Fabrication courses. I still take commissions for one-of-a-kind pieces of functional art, and I paint, draw, and make sculpture as the need finds me. But, that need for the most part lately has been to work with feathers and fur, tinsel and hook.

I draw flies, hooks, furniture or lures every night. When I finish a fly I go back to these books to figure out which one will be next in the vice.  Once the concept is decided, I’ll weld up the hook.  All the hooks I make are one of a kind for the fly at hand. I love that I can make my own hook but I absolutely hate making them. I blame, and thank, Ben Bilello and Paul Rossman for inspiring me to make hooks.  Once the hook is finished the fly can progress and I strive for a relationship to the original sketches I made, but, more often than not, the flies are interpretations of the drawings as my tying skills are still trying to catch up to my ideas. I have always tried to ask questions and find new ways to make things when fabricating objects. My work is a never-ending self-centered essay on the way I view the world.  My self-imposed marching orders with my flies is to try to have at least 50% of each fly rooted in some form of the traditional craft. It is my complete intent to not build any fly twice.  I can rework, strip down and build again, or even revisit previous flies, but once it leaves my hands and ends up in the possession of another, I will not remake it.

To me, artist and tyer, building and tying and flies and sculpture are interchangeable words. To me, it is not about catching a fish-- it is about noticing how the water and fish change from season to season. For me, it is not about tying a pattern-- it is about building physical objects that represents emotions, events, people and places. This is why I tie flies.