Fun with Fish

The sun is about to set in the Snake River Canyon south of Jackson, Wyoming and artist AD Maddox is racing to beat darkness back to town. She’s spent the last few hours chasing various hatches up and down the river. Now she can’t wait to get back to her studio and see exactly what bugs she caught on the 11-by-14 inch canvas strung onto the front of her impossible-to-ignore red Ducati Monster S2R 1000 motorcycle (which she bought a few months prior despite having never driven any kind of motorcycle before).

An artist since she was old enough to pick up a crayon, a fly fisherwoman since relocating to the West from Nashville, and, now, a motorcycle fanatic, Maddox, in her usual style of cramming as much fun into life as possible, figured out a way to combine these three passions. Her Splat the Hatch show included 26 mixed media pieces — sassily named things like Squished Skeeters, Midge Madness, Black Gnat Splat, among others — featuring her trademark trout paintings dotted with whatever bugs Mother Nature sent her way while out on the bike. “If the bugs are pissed off with me they can come and bite me in their next life,” she says.
Okay. So “bug gut art,” as Maddox calls these pieces, might seem like anything from a sorry excuse for art to a stroke of genius depending on one’s disposition. To Maddox, who’s often seen around town in jeans with orange and yellow rhinestone-flecked flames painted (by her) down the side, the important thing is that she had fun creating them. And, when it comes to her art, and her life, fun and creativity are what it’s all about.
“My motivation to create is that it makes me happy,” Maddox says. “Growing up I was always encouraged to create, whether making my own cards or drawing a pattern in the dirt with sticks. I was not only creating, but also creating my own fun.”
It was in the late 1990s that Maddox began creating fun for others with her uncluttered, Technicolor trout canvases and painted furniture. She hadn’t yet discovered bug guts. “Sometimes you can look at art and see that the artist was suffering,” says Michele Burkett, founder of Jackson’s Paradigm Design, one of the first galleries to represent Maddox. “Lots of artists paint through pain. AD paints through happiness. Her work makes people smile and feel good.”

Drawn by the open space she remembered from childhood visits to the area, Maddox landed in Jackson in 1996 as determined to create as she had been as a child. None of the town’s many galleries were interested in her paintings though. An entrepreneur and businesswoman as much as an artist, Maddox came up with the idea that perhaps painted furniture would be an easier way to get started. And then, once established, she could return to canvases. Center Street Gallery, Jackson’s only contemporary gallery at the time, said yes to Maddox’s painted furniture. Her first piece, a cabinet with painted fish, sold in an hour.

While it would make a nice addition to her story if Maddox fell for fish and only fish from the beginning, that’s not the case. In her painted furniture days Maddox did all sorts of Western themes — cowboys, Indians, buffalo, elk, moose — in addition to trout … and hadn’t really seen any of these animals close up.

She wasn’t yet the fly fisherwoman she is today. She hadn’t been fly-fishing at all, in fact.

“Anyone who looks at my early trout will cackle,” she says. “I’m embarrassed at how off some of the anatomy is.” It wasn’t just for an anatomy lesson that Maddox finally headed to the Yellowstone River however. “I had a feeling about fishing,” she says. “I knew it would be something special for me.” That first attempt, with her father at her side, was special, although not in any way Maddox could have foreseen. “Instead of hooking fish, I hooked myself. The line was everywhere,” she says. “It was such a game … but I love games, especially challenging ones.”

The more Maddox fished, the more she was drawn to painting the “slimy critters.” She jumped at an invitation to do a show of trout-only canvases at a Sun Valley gallery. That was a 2001. “It was while I was preparing for that show that I knew I had found my niche: trout,” she says. That was also around the time her canvases started to outnumber her painted furniture pieces.

Finding your niche doesn’t mean art suddenly becomes easy however. “There is great challenge in the simplicity of having one subject as my main focus,” Maddox says. “I can’t let things get stale or boring.” Her first few years dedicated to trout produced mostly cartoonish — in the best sense of the word — fish portraits set against barely-there backgrounds. These were so popular, Jackson’s Wyoming Gallery couldn’t keep any on the wall. After a few years, boredom threatened to set in, however, and Maddox looked at how she might experiment within her niche. Enter 2005’s trout skins.

Maddox’s trout skins, usually painted in oils, focus on various species’ unique colorings and markings and still pay homage to the fish but aren’t immediately recognizable as fishy. “Don’t tell people these paintings are based on trout and they’re just cool abstract art,” says Celeste Dennis, the former director of Wyoming Gallery. “She not only reinvented herself within her niche, but also figured out how to share it with a larger audience.” And then of course there are the aforementioned bug guts. Every piece in that first show, which was held in the fall of 2006, sold. Her fish portraits are still around too, although today’s are less cartoony still lifes, more alive and dreamy. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez were to trade pen for paint, his canvases might look just like these.

Nowadays, Maddox says she’s so busy painting  — she had a one-woman show at Utah’s Sundance Resort from September through November — she doesn’t spend as much time with the real, or reel, thing as she’d like. When she does get out on the river though, she really gets out. “I appreciate more intense fishing these days,” she says. “I like taking fishing vacations where fishing is the focus for several days, or a week, or even several weeks.” Her last big angling trip was five weeks in New Zealand. “Like anything I do, I like to go big or go home.”

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