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Wild Creativity at the Intersection of Art and Fishing
A conversation with Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton of Salmon Sisters about their new book, the seasons of fishing and creativity, and the importance of place.
Welcome to Creative Fuel, a newsletter about the intersection of creativity and everyday life. Today’s newsletter is part of a series of ongoing interviews with different artists, creatives, and interesting humans.
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Fishing and art might not immediately seem like two worlds that go hand-in-hand, but sister duo Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton have built a business around the two. Over the last ten years,has grown from a small Etsy shop to a robust online business as well as two brick and mortar shops in Homer, Alaska.
Growing up on a remote homestead in the Aleutian Islands, they have always had a close connection to the land, and working in the fishing industry, their lives are driven by the seasons. With a commitment to environmental stewardship and inspired by the place they live and work, their new book The Salmon Sisters: Harvest & Heritage is out this month. It is a beautiful celebration of place, people, and community.
Ages ago, back when I was in the infancy of my own art business, I made a series of fishing-focused papercuts for them that were sold as cards in support of women in the fishing industry. While we’ve never met in person (yet!), I think that Emma and Claire are like-minded souls, and I was honored to get to write a little blurb for the back of their new book.
I believe strongly that creativity is driven by a sense of place, presence, and curiosity. It is also cyclical. Creativity is a seasonal endeavor—we have periods of creative inspiration, periods of production, and periods of rest. To be wildly creative is to embrace those seasons.
This interview with Claire and Emma is largely about that, highlighting the creativity required in a grueling but beautiful profession, and how an attention to seasonality can help connect us to the places and people around us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anna Brones: How did Salmon Sisters get started?
Emma: I was at an art school and I was making screen prints and everything I was making had fish on it because I just missed home. We were giving prints to our friends, and the people in our community were really responding to them—our peers who also grew up fishing and other women in our community.
Growing up on a fishing boat, it was a man’s world. We tried to fit into the gear we found at gear shops, but it was never really made for us. We would dream of the day that we could get off the boat and go walk up the dock to the gear shop and get a hoodie that had something on it that represented our pride in what we're doing, working as fishermen on the water.
We thought, “we could make something that really fit us and what we do.” At that point, we were graduating college and trying to figure out where we wanted to take our careers. It was hard to find a normal job that would let us keep fishing in the summer. We decided “okay, we’ll set out and try something on our own” and Salmon Sisters was a natural fit.
It has turned into a way for us to both give back to a community that supported us, and support other small businesses in town, and all across the state, and then share our pride for our work on the water and the amazing fish that we get to catch.
If you say “art and fishing” to someone, maybe that doesn’t immediately make sense to people, but when you talk about it, it seems to go together so well. Does it feel that way for you, or does it sometimes feel that you're having to mold the pieces so that they fit seamlessly together?
Emma: One part of it that does feel really natural is the seasonality of the work. In June, we're on the boat or at sea and we're in a completely different mindset for three or four months. It’s time to get off our computers and out of our normal work routine on land and just have a totally different brain space to get inspired by the community and the amazing places that we get to work and fish. I just can't get enough of the gratefulness I feel for the lifestyle fishing brings and the amazing abundance that we get to work around.
Then you come home at the end of the summer and you come away with all these ideas that brew and brew around in your head, or new visuals that are stuck in your mind and then have the winter to go back and dig into all of that life that you've lived.
In Alaska, the winters are so long and dark so you need projects. It’s a really natural rhythm. And trying to give back in some way, a reciprocity for what fish have given our family and our community—honoring fish in an art form or sharing other people's stories.
Claire: Yeah, there's so much pride in people's work in fishing. I see so many fishermen who find creative ways to express their connection to nature, their connection to their crew, their connection to being on the water.
You're using your hands to make a living. Mother Nature's still the boss and you are lucky to be here and survive. You are not in charge anymore, which is phenomenal and I think it takes a special breed of person to want to continue to do that in this modern age, and find constant inspiration from the daily grind of it.
I think most people probably have a sense that they have a seasonal cycle to their creativity, but yours is so distinct because of work. Maybe you don't even know of another kind of rhythm, but it sounds like that rhythm really works for you.
Emma: It’s definitely what we know, but Alaska’s extreme seasons are also at play. In summer it’s light all day and you're just taking it in. You're just out there living. Fall, winter, spring is this time of processing and really slowing down. Having more time to really put that life that you have lived into something, whether it's channeling it into art or writing or cooking or being with community.
Did you do a lot of art at home? I know you were fishing, but what was home life like? It sounds like it was some magical creative place on an island.
Claire: Our parents were the magic sauce. It was a very harsh, remote place and they created all the magic for us. Art lessons and just being part of the entire daily routine of keeping food on the table and being outside.
Emma: Our house was across the bay from a little village. And so it was really just us, a family of four and a dog. Until elementary school, third and fourth grade, we were homeschooled out there. There was a little school in the village. If the weather was nice in the winter, which it really never was, we would get to go over to school with the other kids. We loved school, it was the best.
Claire: So special!
Emma: [Laughs] yeah, but most days we were just at home. Our parents taught from a homeschool curriculum mostly based on drawing, making, and documenting. They involved us a lot in what they were up to, which was mostly food prep. Growing it, or doing a lot of preserving. We pretty much made everything from scratch since we were so far from a grocery store, making bread every day and figuring out how to read a recipe.
My dad taught us how to use tools in his workshop. I don't know what we were building, but he was busy doing things like mending a net for a fishing boat. We got to learn alongside them.
They came to Alaska in their 20s and so Alaska was new to them too. They were learning a lot at that time too, really getting into this new life on the land and learning a lot from people who lived in the area. We spent a lot of time outside just hiking and picking berries and identifying plants and that sort of thing.
Claire: And then when we moved to Homer for school, there were a lot of young families with kids the same age who grew up in remote Alaska and had come to Homer to have a little bit more than home school. So there were a lot of the same sentiments of growing up in more remote places like Bristol Bay or McCarthy. Knowing how to work as a family and function as a family on the water was normal within our community.
You describe it as so magical and obviously, all of the work that you put out is so beautiful, but there's a hardship within all of that. I think we live in this moment culturally where we get really attracted by pretty things, but it’s easy to gloss over the hard stuff. Is that something that you think about in running your business or even in the book? How to find the balance between this very beautiful, magical existence, but that also requires a lot of work?
Emma: Yeah, I think that was a big part of what inspired this book. We started writing it after the pandemic and people were coming out of that, and we were really reminded of how Alaskans in general have had to go through a lot of hardship—weather, winter, or a season where there's no fish or just a low time. We're so dependent on our natural surroundings that you can never depend on a given outcome.
We took that to heart when writing this book because it was like, “what kind of tools can we give people that we've seen in our community, or that our family uses, that really help people feel like they can be independent and connected and at the same time live well?”
How do you celebrate what's beautiful? What's beautiful is having the sense of purpose and connection to your place and your community. Our family was always really self-reliant and sometimes it was super hard, especially for my mom when my dad was away fishing. She had two little kids and was in the middle of nowhere. Having bears wander through and not having a way to get us to a hospital if there was an emergency. Nothing ever really happened, luckily, but it was just that sense of not knowing.
It’s the hidden side of beauty: being able to live in such a wild place and just having to be really prepared for the worst.
Claire: Definitely commercial fishing attracts people who are able to handle a ton of risk. I think that is something that helped us definitely as a cornerstone of growing our business, to be able to navigate things on land that don't seem that challenging, but could be a lot harder on the water.
And we fail 50 times a day. That’s all we're doing is learning and we can only go forward and try to be in the present.
Emma: Yeah, I think fishing in general, the hard part is the risky parts and just the discomfort of it all. It’s such a cool job, but there are some really terrible days. Like when you’re seasick and the weather's terrible and you still have to go to work all day, 20 hours. You’d rather be anywhere else. Something's breaking in you.
People are not in their best moods and you have to just make the most of what you've got. Growing up having to go with the flow, knowing anything could happen at any time, has really given us a mentality with our business that's made us able to pivot, or adapt and change as needed.
We've seen that as sisters. We have the same brain I think, growing up that way, and it's really easy for us to think, “oh that's not working, let's try something else.”
One of the things I really appreciated in the book was the different voices of Alaskans. Many of us have a tendency to think of Alaska as, like you're talking about, a pioneer homesteading. But we're talking about a place that has thousands of years of culture and people living in this cyclical nature, in the extremes. Are there other lessons that you've learned from working with and being in community with Native Alaskans?
Claire: We are just a tiny blip in the entire story. Alaskan Native people have stewarded this land forever. They are who will connect everything and tell its story. If we can leave our tiny, tiny little business impact in some positive way, we just want to add to that story and support.
Emma: The village that we grew up in is a Native Alaskan village. A lot of what our parents ended up learning when they moved to Alaska was from Native families, which really set the tone for respect of the place, the wild foods and the salmon.
We grew up with a mentality of “we are so rich in this place.” We really have everything we need to survive and thrive – fish, berries, plants, abundance from the sea and land, and community.
So much of the knowledge and teachings that are included in our book and integral to life in Alaska have been passed down from Native culture. Learning from Indigenous tradition and stewarding that information is important to us
How can we help share respect for the land and water with new people visiting or moving to Alaska? For some, it’s the “last frontier,” but this is not an untouched place. It has been lived in for thousands and thousands of years. There's such a rich culture here. I hope that this book can pass that on to some of our readers and to the people who come to Salmon Sisters as the way into Alaska.
Do you feel like your sense of that shifted from the first book to the second book? The first book—it's beautiful as well—but it’s more of a classic cookbook. The second one feels so much deeper. Do you feel like you had a personal shift in terms of writing the two books?
Emma: I think so. With the first book we wanted to tell our family’s story and the story of the life that inspired our business. With the second book, after living in Alaska longer and learning more about where our traditions come from, we wanted to tell a larger story involving our community and pull in food traditions from around the state.
Personally, learning more about the special things that we were given and wisdom that was passed down to our family when we first moved to Alaska made me want to dig in and understand these traditions from people’s own voices and experiences.
Yeah, I think that as a kid, whatever, you know is what you know. As we get older we start to peel back those layers. Which is also maybe speaking to staying curious. Because you're in a profession that you basically grew up in, how do you stay curious to keep learning? When you're in a place that you know that well, how do you cultivate that curiosity?
Emma: I feel like there's just so much to learn. There's so much I don't know. There's no reason why you would ever run out of curiosity.
The more interesting stuff for me is understanding other people's relationship to fishing. The characters you meet on the boat are unique people who have found themselves there for different reasons. what do you think about all day when you're out on the back deck?” We all have our own totally own experience, but a shared one.
I get seasick, so for me, that can absorb a lot of my day and mental dialogue while I’m working. But for other people, what are they dealing with? What gets them down? What keeps them going?
Getting to know the place, like learning your fishing spots and your sets and the way the water moves and where you can safely travel and anchor… that constant, continual change of weather and tides—there's a lot going on in every moment so it really keeps you present.
Claire: It just changes constantly, from climate changes to the supply chain… everything within the fishery. It's a lifelong pursuit to know your own fishery, and to be involved and hopefully steward it to leave it in a better place than we found it. But like Emma said, to be a constant learner when you're present on the water… we're just so intrigued in all of the places we get to work. You could spend your entire life learning about the flora and fauna of the ocean.
We talked a little bit about being in the professional fishing industry and how that maybe helps to serve the creative process because of that cycle of creativity. But how does creativity—whether it’s art or just the creativity of running your business—inform your fishing profession?
Claire: Personally, the art of running a small business is so integral in the commercial fishing business. Every one of those boats is a tiny, incredibly small, family run business. Learning how to work with people, how to let your brain rest and let your brain engage. It’s a really special opportunity, to be involved with something that takes your whole capacity to be present and work in the moment.
Emma: I definitely feel like the work we've done with Salmon Sisters and having a team and building a kind of culture off the water has informed the way that I think about being on the boat and vice versa. Living with people in a really small space, working with them and living with them for months at a time—it can be an intense situation.
But there's something really beautiful that happens in those weeks or months, hopefully, if you all get along well enough. It’s like you're enduring something really challenging together. Close bonds form. How can you replicate that in your work team on land? How can you bring your professionalism or a higher level of thinking to group dynamics and communication? That's been really really helpful.
As far as creativity or creative work goes, I would say having the discipline to capture the moments where you're just living and don't really want to pull out a camera or a sketchbook. But then you are sad with yourself later for not doing it. You want to remember these moments and have them captured in a rudimentary way to be able to go back and access that again.
What about the process of creating this new book, can you talk a little bit about that?
Emma: Part of why we wrote the book was for ourselves in a way because every season is so distinct and beautiful and different. It’s really easy to love summer here, because it’s full of life and energy, but there's also some very beautiful, expansive time that you can come together with your community and work on things in the other colder months.
We’re really excited to have this book as a guide to live well through the seasons The wisdom Alaska women who contributed passed on through the pages has been really inspiring to us and I hope that it can be a useful tool to other readers.
I’m hoping people can use it to feel more connected to where they live in, the food that grows there and the community and traditions around them.
Claire: Yeah, living seasonally. I think that’s one thing we can share with the next generations. You can still do it, even in the modern age. That feels really good.
Okay, one final question: what does it mean to be creative?
Emma: For me, it's being able to be a conduit to what's beautiful around me. To share what's beautiful, through my hands and my eyes.
Claire: Yeah, mine is very similar to yours. Just being able to see the beauty in whatever opportunity, or whatever situation you are in and learning from it. And add a tiny touch to anything.
Find more about Salmon Sisters on their website, follow on Instagram, or sign up for their newsletter. Explore their books The Salmon Sisters: Feasting, Fishing, and Living in Alaska: A Cookbook with 50 Recipes and the latest, The Salmon Sisters: Harvest & Heritage.
RESOURCES + INSPIRATION
Some art and book recommendations from Emma and Claire.
Reading: Berry Song and other illustrated books by Michaela Goade, Working Boats by Tom Crestodina (who is also an amazing artist under the name The Scow), The Whale and the Cupcake by Julia O’Malley, Spirit Things by Laura Messersmith-Glavin, Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner.
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