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Duneland artist captures fish in their element

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By LILY REX

In Duneland, Northwest Indiana, and the Chicago area as a whole, things are manufactured all around us--from food starch to Ford Explorers to steel--with a backdrop of dunes, rolling prairies, reclaimed wetlands, and what many would call the greatest of the Great Lakes.

It only makes sense that so many Region natives cannot separate these two parts of their existence: nature and the urgent need to create.

Some people make art based on nature. Others see art in nature. Rachel Lubarski does both.

Lubarski recently returned to Indiana and settled down in Burns Harbor after spending two seasons living and working in Alaska. She recently talked to the Chesterton Tribune about her life as an artist and her process for making driftwood sculptures.

Lubarski said she takes a lot of inspiration from other artists and art galleries in Northwest Indiana, in fact, her interest in driftwood began at Tinker’s Attic in Highland.

Lubarski said inspiration struck when she saw they had Lake Michigan driftwood for sale, and she arranged the pieces into what would become her first driftwood sculpture, an alligator head, in the shop. “One of the pieces looked like an alligator’s eye, the socket, so I kind of just started building it right there,” she said. “I had stopped doing art for a while, so just to break back into it, I wanted to try something new. I like to explore new things.”

Driftwood fish soon become her specialty after she made a brown trout as a gift for her boyfriend Aaron, who works as a fly fishing guide both in the Region and in Alaska. Lubarski had fished as a kid and learned to fly fish after the two got together.

“I feel so connected to fish. I do like making other animals too, but they’re a lot more time consuming. It’s a more stressful process,” Lubarski said. “Fish I could pretty much do with my eyes closed I’ve done so many of them.”

Lubarski said she has bins and bins of supplies, but she can often be seen looking for new pieces on the beach with her two dogs, clearing garbage as she goes. “I’ll make a day out of it, collect what I can carry, then go home and try it out.”

After a day of scavenging, Lubarski washes the driftwood with soap and hot water and lets it dry out in front of a fan. She hot glues individual pieces together to form the basic shape, sands it, then covers it with wood glue for durability. Her paint jobs start with a base coat of black spray paint, then she paints details with acrylic and seals the finished product with a gloss finish.

In Cooper Landing, Alaska, a touristy Town about two hours south of Anchorage, Lubarski said she encountered a lot of people who came with money to spend. Since moving to Duneland, she’s continued to have commissions come though her website, but she’s also experimenting with smaller, more affordable items like magnets. “I’m trying to put stuff in there for everyone’s price point because not everyone can afford a commission piece that’s going to take me 50 hours.”

Often Lubarski’s sculptures start with commissions from customers who want renderings of their pets or special fish they’ve caught. Though Lubarski isn’t against taxidermy, she said sculptures are a unique alternative to keeping and mounting a fish.

Lubarski said her process is intuitive and spontaneous, much like fishing. “For the most part, I just dump out bins of driftwood I’ve collected and build a puzzle in front of me. I don’t have a lot of direction. It’s just kind of in the moment for me.”

Her largest work is a horse that measured five feet by four feet and took over 100 hours to make. An average driftwood fish takes 10 to 15 hours, she said, and the fish come more naturally. “To make fish out of something that was weathered and shaped and formed by the water is just a cool concept,” she said. “The wood is natural to a fish. I’ll pick up a piece that looks just like a dorsal fin.”

Lubarski said she and her boyfriend found a house in Burns Harbor to be closer to family, and it worked out perfectly, since there’s a public access site on the Little Calumet River nearby where Lubarski can go in search of her favorite fish: the acrobatic steelhead trout.

Lubarski said she would sometimes cast in-line spinners for Coho salmon in Alaska, and remembered when she was younger her father was partial to throwing Yamamoto Senkos for bass. These days, she almost exclusively fly fishes, though she’s also been chatting with fisherman at the Portage Lakefront about their gear. It all goes back to creating and learning--she said knowing how traditional tackle works in the water can help one tie better flies. “I like to challenge myself. Fly fishing can be very challenging, and I like to work for the fish I’m catching,” she added.

And work for it she will when she takes her current dream fishing trip--a trek to Argentina to catch an even more elusive, acrobatic, and aggressive freshwater species, the Golden Dorado.

Lubarski was her Dad’s fishing buddy as a kid--always more interested than her two brothers--and said she’s glad to be back into it. “I understand why some girls don’t like doing it, but for me, it’s just so zen,” she said. “It’s really therapeutic. I’m a much happier person since I started fishing again.”

Lubarski said she’s almost entirely self-taught as a painter, but she learned a lot about painting textures from a neighbor in Alaska who liked to paint birds. She’s also had the luck of being from an artsy family. Her brothers are a tattoo artist and photographer, respectively, and both are musicians. Her parents and her brother David also founded and run the Promise You Art House in Highland. “Family is important to me,” Lubarski said. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at without my family. They’re all very supportive of my art.”

Lubarski’s chosen family is also supportive of her art and her travels--her Pitbull mix Kairi, Keeshond Edam, and adventure cat Sora loved Alaska, and they never leave her side. Lubarski said Sora is partial to walks and climbing trees, and Edam loves being on a boat.

“Basically my whole inspiration for being a working artist is so that I can be at home with them and spend time with them and give them the best possible life that I can. They deserve it,” Lubarski said.

Edam has been Lubarski’s buddy for 13 years, and she rescued Kairi and Sora while working at an animal hospital. “They’re just my life,” she said. “I saved them, but they also saved me. I’ve always been drawn to animals, which is probably why I’m so good with making them.”

 

Posted 3/3/2020

 
 
 
 

 

 

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