Being Koi
by Kathryn Gabinet-Kroo

Cyprinus Carpio. Nishikigoi, if you happen to be Japanese. Glorified carp or to the uninitiated, big fat goldfish. Koi. So what's the attraction? Why have these fish been the stuff of legend for thousands of years? Why would someone invest a handsome sum just to keep a few koi in his pond while another tattoos its likeness onto her body, embedding it in her skin for a lifetime? And why, after painting so many different subjects over the past thirty years, do I always return to the koi?

History is fact, but legend is magical. According to Chinese mythology, the strongest koi swims upstream to the great waterfall where it leaps into the mist and is reborn as a water dragon. Thus the fish became the symbol for strength of purpose and perseverance in the face of adversity. To the Japanese, the koi epitomizes courage; many simply say they bring good luck.

The koi have a long and distinguished history, so this is not an aberrant artistic obsession that I share with some devoted whackos or fish groupies. The word ‘koi' was first used in China well over 2,000 years ago. It is on record that Confucius' son received one as a gift in 533 B.C. The Japanese began to cultivate them for their beauty in the early 1800s, even keeping them as pets, since they can be tame enough to accept human caresses and hand-feeding. Interest skyrocketed in Japan when in 1914, the Emperor Hirohito received a gift of koi and kept them in the palace moat. Koi clubs and societies throughout the world sponsor competitions, judging each piscine entrant according to its colour, pattern and scale quality.

There is artistic tradition connected to the koi as well. Gyotaku is the art of fish-printing, a method developed by nineteenth-century fishermen to immortalize a prize catch. The fish was cleaned and inked, head to tail. Then fine paper was laid over the fish and smoothed down by hand. When the paper was lifted, the image of the fish remained. The date, name of the fisherman, and measurements were often recorded on the paper along with a poem of praise. Although this art form is still practiced by artists today, I personally prefer to find my inspiration alive and well, off the baited hook and out of the frying pan.

My mother, always my staunchest supporter, understood my fascination. I think my fish paintings appealed to her, even more than my other work, because she understood what I see in the koi's streamlined shape, translucent fins, and brilliantly coloured spots. She was a talented artist in her own right: a weaver known for her gift of linking pattern and colour, she too found the natural world an abundant source of ideas. The two of us could often be found lingering over visual delights, an array of brightly coloured peppers or the saturated violet of a Siberian iris, while friends and family members impatiently tapped their toes.

One of the first of my paintings to sell was a large watercolour of koi. A young colleague of my mother's bought it, her first investment in art. But I left the koi and spent years painting still lifes and portraits. I returned to them as a subject first after a visit to Miami's Parrot Jungle, where they were part of the habitat created for the birds, and again after several visits to the Japanese Garden in Montreal's Jardin Botanique. I have taken dozens of photographs of koi navigating their watery domain, moving silently under water lilies in bloom, and I have used these images as reference for my oil paintings, large and small. Sometimes my two-dimensional koi swim in groups near the water's surface; sometimes they are little more than splashes of jewel-toned colour moving across the dark bottom of a pond. Or a single coral koi floats on a field of aquamarine and cobalt and indigo.

I was working on yet another koi painting when I received a long-distance call from my mother in April of 2004: after months of inconclusive testing, she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I flew to Cleveland as soon as I could, taking with me a painting my mother had admired the last time she'd been in Montreal. In Eleven Koi, small pumpkin-coloured fish swim in an emerald green pond bordered by tall rushes. My mother immediately hung it in the kitchen, over the table where she struggled daily to eat her meals. In spite of her rapidly declining health, she began a weaving project based on this painting. As long as she could weave, she could live. I went home to Montreal but could not bring myself to paint.

I know it was a terrible strain for my mother to prepare this last weaving; still she carefully selected and rejected yarns from the hundreds of spools that lined the wall of her "loom room". On my next visit, I brought her huge blow-ups of my most recent koi photographs as further encouragement. I saw that she was fading, disappearing before our eyes, slipping between our fingers as she lost more and more weight and developed jaundice, but during sleepless nights, she could still be found straining to lift her arms to wind and measure yarn.

I made another trip to Cleveland in late June. By that time, my mother was bird-like, fragile and weak and sunflower yellow. She rarely went out, and then only for a few minutes to sit in the garden, absorbing the warmth of the sun. She was troubled by memory loss but knew I had never seen the indoor koi pond at the Chinese Pagoda restaurant. Go there we must; she had to show me the koi. My father was beside himself, and my sister and I desperately hoped to dissuade her. We were terrified that this excursion en famille would be too much for her. I didn't want her to sacrifice her waning strength for me, but she was adamant. It was Sunday afternoon; the restaurant opened at three, so we bundled my mother in her coat, because she was always cold now in spite of the summer heat.

My mother and I went in first, while my father and sister parked the car. We stood for a few minutes looking at the koi before my father and sister joined us and a waiter beckoned us all into the empty restaurant. None of us was really hungry—there's nothing like grief to cure you of your appetite—but we ordered anyway because that's what my mother wanted. We made a feeble attempt at cheerful conversation in the empty restaurant and pretended we didn't see that my mother hadn't the strength to cut the soft wonton in her soup.

"What time's your flight back tomorrow?" my sister asked, although she already knew the answer.

"I guess I have to be at the airport around 4," I answered half-heartedly. I didn't know what else to say and had to bite my tongue in order not to offer to cut my mother's food.

After the meal, my mother and I went back to the pond. We stood silently together, side by side. I don't know if she really saw the koi, she seemed so far away and lost to me. Finally raised her eyes and was ready to go. I didn't know it then, though perhaps I suspected as much, but this would be our last outing together. Less than two weeks later, my mother went into a hospice on the shores of Lake Erie and died four days after that.

When I finally returned to my studio, the unfinished koi painting was still waiting. Paralyzed by my sense of loss, I could not lift a brush. I realized that all the paintings I'd ever done had been for my mother, and she was gone. Almost a month passed before I tried again. Life seemed vastly unfair, but my mother would have been the first to say you must try to make your own good luck, even when it seems the most elusive. When I decided to call the piece One Last Koi for my Mother, I found I was able to finish painting that lone koi swimming eternally, floating in a sea of blue. Once I had completed this for her, I was able to go on painting. That fall, I exhibited the koi series and dedicated the show to my mother.

So I honour her every time I paint these fish. My mother was like the koi of legend. She persevered in the face of adversity. She showed incredible strength of purpose, even when the odds were most heavily stacked against her. Courageous to the end when she had to make that final trip upstream and leap into the mist.

Kathryn Gabinet-Kroo was born and raised in Oregon. She graduated from Cornell University and then studied at Boston's Museum School before moving to Montreal in 1977. Her first solo show as a painter coincided with the birth of the first of her two children. Over the past 30 years she has continued to exhibit her work in Canada and the U.S. and for the past ten years has taught painting and drawing at the Saidye Bronfman Centre. In 2001, Gabinet-Kroo earned her MA in Translation Studies, specializing in literary translation. She began writing "in her own voice" last fall in Joel Yanofsky's QWF workshop.