From staff reports
The Glen Arbor Sun caught up recently with Clay Carlson, a fifth generation son of Leland fishermen whose paintings capture the legacy of historic Fishtown. We asked Clay about his family history in Leland and the importance of fishing for each generation, what Fishtown means to him, what inspires his paintings and what they tell us about the history of Leelanau.
Glen Arbor Sun: Tell us about your family history in Fishtown and Leland? How many generations have Carlsons been involved?
Clay Carlson: Nels Carlson family settled on North Manitou Island from Sweden in the late 1800’s and moved to the mainland in 1906. This is when Carlson’s fishery as we know it began. I believe there is both Swede and Norwegian ancestry in the family but the Carlson (Karlsson) name itself is Swedish. Nels’ son Will fished out of Leland (Fishtown) alongside his son Lester (Pete) Carlson (my grandfather). Pete took over the operation in 1941 when Will lost his life in a tragic accident that left the two of them afloat in Lake Michigan for 20+ hours after their boat had caught fire and sank. An incredible story that should be told in its entirety. The fishery continued on into the 1970s when my father Bill took over. I began working there in 1982 or maybe ‘83. 11 or 12 years old I believe. I did a few other things over the years but stayed locked into the fishery and fishtown until 2010. My cousin, Nels (named after our great, great grandfather) operates the fishery now. We are both fifth generation. There is so much history, it’s truly hard to sum it up in a single answer.
Glen Arbor Sun: Was fishing part of your childhood? Did you learn to walk while on a boat?
Clay Carlson: Without a doubt, fishing was in my blood at an early age. I was too young to remember when I went fishing for the first time or maybe I’m too old to remember as it seems so long ago. Working as a fisherman and on docks of fishtown was a way of life. I can remember in my early 20s anxiously awaiting the end of a days work so I could spend my free time fishing the many lakes of the area for fun. Work and then play was basically fish and then fish.
Glen Arbor Sun: What does Fishtown mean to you—either the traditional Fishtown, or its modern iteration?
Clay Carlson: To me, Fishtown is more than just a tourist destination or a picturesque spot on the map. It’s part of my being. It helped mold me into who I am. It holds some of my fondest memories. Memories that are burned into my brain and tattooed into my soul. When I look at it today, I don’t see it like most people. I see the characters that truly gave it its charm. The people that make hard work today seem like a stroll in the sun. I can smell the memories when I walk by the smokehouses and hear the memories as the docks creak under my feet. Memories of the waves hitting the break wall before daybreak and knowing whether we were going to be able to fish that day just by their sound. Right down to the memories of the nightly ritual, picking fish scales from my skin even after a hot shower that was so necessary for the sake of others. It is a truly special place for me.
Glen Arbor Sun: Tell us about your paintings featuring Fishtown and fishing scenes in and around Leland. What inspires each painting?
Clay Carlson: I have a difficult time painting things that I don’t connect with. For me, there has to be some sort of inspiration. Otherwise it just becomes an stagnant image produced in robot like fashion. It loses its flow and can be torture on the artist. I can tell in a painting when an artist enjoyed creating their work. It has a presence. I love painting water. It’s always a challenge and a challenge inspires me. Fishtown is a place in my heart so the inspiration comes easy. That’s not to say that painting scenes related to Fishtown are any easier than other subjects. I just feel more of an involvement with them. That’s also not to say that I’m always inspired when I paint them. It comes in waves. If there’s one thing I’ve learn about my work it’s to never push the brush. If I don’t feel it….I have to walk away. If I push it, I’ll be disappointed with the outcome. It’s better to let it rest than to find myself changing everything because I simply wanted it finished. Leaving it be is still a part of working on the painting and can be just as important to it as the brush strokes. The creative process does not stop evolving when I set the brush down. I know this to be true. I picked up the brush after a 15-year hiatus and I’m happier with my work now than ever before.
Glen Arbor Sun: What do these works of art tell us about the history of Leelanau? Are your paintings an homage to work and craft?
Clay Carlson: I try to be historically accurate with any Fishtown-related piece. It’s important to me and I struggle with some of the old black and white photos I use as my subjects. I’m pretty good at interpreting them most of the time because I lived the life and a lot of the boats, tools and gear haven’t changed much. But, I do have to call on my father to figure out what some of the colors would have been. His memory is impeccable and I use his knowledge of the old days often. Likely in every piece I’ve done. I love it when I do a painting and someone says “hey, I remember that” or “hey, that’s my uncle or that’s my cousin”. It happens a lot. I’m happy to be able to bring that memory back again in full color. The history of Fishtown is thread into the lives of more people than you can imagine. Whether it be a vacation memory for a young child or deep-seeded memory in someone that spent their life on those docks and boats. It is an important place to many.
Glen Arbor Sun: What are you working on next? And how can people buy your paintings?
Clay Carlson: As far as what’s next….well….. I’m currently rehabbing three older paintings that I’ve never considered finished. Then I will be starting the next painting in series that started in August with the two fishing boats “Joy” and “Janice Sue.” It will be of similar content and feel. Or at least thats my hope. You can find me on Facebook or on Instagram.