Flylords got the chance to meet Rachel Lubarski, an Indiana native whose skill on the water shines through in her angling and her artistry. Her driftwood sculptures capture the movement of the fish species she loves, and are realistic enough to transport her viewers to their favorite rivers and lakes. Check out Rachel’s comments and creations below!
Tell us about your artistic background – how did you become interested in art?
How has fishing played a role in your life so far?
Fishing has also always been a part of my life in some way. My brothers and I grew up fishing with our dad during summer vacations in Michigan. Five years ago I found a love for fly fishing. At that time I met my boyfriend, Aaron, who was guiding for massive steelhead out of small Indiana creeks. I didn’t even know what a steelhead was at the time, or that Indiana had them within half an hour of me, but I fell in love with them fast. These fish are so tough, but it is so rewarding when you hook one. I fished for months before I caught my first one. Fly fishing Indiana creeks for steelhead during cold winter months is not for the faint of heart, but I stuck with it and it paid off.
A few years ago, the opportunity arose for us to spend a summer season up in Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula. It was tough because I had to leave two of my three pets behind with my family for six months, but I learned a lot that season—mostly about fishing. We did some steelhead fishing on our way out of Alaska, and I decided I wanted to challenge myself and catch one on a two-handed rod, swinging flies. I had never spey casted prior to this, but I was determined. I was either going to leave Alaska saying I caught one swinging or not at all. On the final day of fishing, we walked a little further up river, I made two casts, my line went tight and at the end of it was a dime-bright, wild Alaskan steelhead with my leech in her mouth. That was the moment I became hooked on spey casting.
The following year we headed back to Alaska with two dogs and a cat in tow. We rented a little cabin in Cooper Landing, bought a drift boat and spent the fall, winter, and following spring and summer fishing the Kenai River. The Kenai is an intimidating river to learn to row a drift boat on, but I did it. The next fishing goal I set for myself was catching an Alaskan King Salmon swinging flies and, boy, did I put my hours in. It wasn’t until early summer of 2019 when I achieved that goal and landed a King Salmon on the Kenai River. It was an incredible experience, and I am still on cloud nine when I think about that day. I can’t even imagine what my life would be like without these fishing opportunities. It has become a part of who I am and has led me on many great adventures. It has also connected me with the love of my life and it’s an activity that we can enjoy together for many years to come.
Have you always been interested in three-dimensional art?
Throughout childhood, most of my time was spent drawing and doodling, but I have always had interest in and appreciation for three-dimensional and sculptural art. I used to hand sew my own stuffed animals when I was younger because the ones in the stores did not look realistic enough for me. I also have made paper mâché and clay sculptures in the past for school projects. However, the use of driftwood as my medium started five years ago. There was a time in my life when my creativity waned, and driftwood was how I got back into the art world. Now that I make three-dimensional art I have put drawing on the back burner. I really feel like sculptural art is part of who I am these days.
What drew you to driftwood as your medium?
I was putzing around a small little craft shop in my hometown with my mom, and there was a small basket of unique pieces of driftwood found along the shores of Lake Michigan. One of those pieces caught my eye, and I envisioned an alligator’s eye when I saw it. I just started using those pieces of driftwood from the basket to build an alligator face right there in the store, snapped a quick photo so I could remember how I put it together, purchased the driftwood for a few dollars, went home, and built and painted an alligator head for myself. That was my first driftwood piece, and it still hangs in my home. I originally started building them for myself, just to keep myself busy and try something new that would keep my interest. I never anticipated selling them someday, but here I am several years later with over 100 of them under my artistic belt. I would love to keep them all and hang them throughout my house, but I always make sure to take good photographs of them before I send them off.
Do you have any favorite fish to construct? Why is it your favorite?
I love making all fish, but I would definitely have to say that my favorite species to recreate is the brown trout. It was the first fish sculpture I ever made, as a gift for Aaron in 2015. I just love everything about them—their colors, their aggressive takes, the places they live. After I caught my first steelhead, the next fish I wanted to catch was a brown trout. They are few and far between in Indiana, so we invested a lot of time driving up to Michigan and Wisconsin to target them. I have so many good memories of those trips and rivers, so I get super excited when I get a brown trout order.
The way you paint the driftwood brings the pieces to life—have you always been a painter as well?
I haven’t always been a painter. I dabbled in painting growing up, but never really got super into it because drawing was my forte. It wasn’t until I started painting my sculptures when I really developed a huge love and appreciation for painting. It took some growth as a person to influence that move. I wanted to reinvent my art style by creating lifelike pieces of art using pieces of driftwood, which is essentially an art form in itself. I paint with the groove of the driftwood’s organic shape and texture because the driftwood is part of the beauty behind my work.
Do you work from photos when you paint the fish’s features, or just let them take shape organically?
When building a new piece, I almost always use reference photographs. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and I like my proportions to be accurate from the start. If a customer sends me a photograph of a fish they caught that they want replicated, I will reference that photo throughout my painting process, making sure to capture the likeness of the fish to the best of my ability. I also use reference photographs when making a new fish species. If it is a fish that I have made several times and I have creative control of the piece, then I will just paint whatever feels good and let my imagination do the work.
Why is your work important to you?
My work is important to me because making art is my way of expressing myself without having to say much. I am definitely an introvert, and it can be difficult for me to be social or put myself out there sometimes. I struggle with mental health issues, and my artwork has helped me come out of my shell. It has helped me cope with difficult times or feelings because I can immerse myself in my artwork and it gives me purpose. Animals have always been the inspiration behind my art, and to be able to connect that passion with fishing has been life-changing for me. I like to think that my artwork speaks for itself but shows that I respect and care about the fish that I’m creating.
How do you hope those viewing your art react? Do you have a specific message you are trying to send to your viewers?
I would love for people to see my artwork and appreciate the time and energy that I have put into each sculpture, from collecting the wood, to building, to painting. Each one is unique and tells a story. I have made them in Indiana and Alaska, and I have been sent driftwood from Florida to make them as well. One of the last orders I was commissioned to do while we were still in Alaska was for a largemouth bass. I built it with driftwood off the Kenai water system and started painting it while I was up there. I traveled back to Indiana with it, working on it along the drive home, and finished it up when I got back to Indiana. That piece made a 4,200-mile journey through Canada and the states to get to its final destination in Indiana. These sculptures are very special to me, so I hope people can treasure them the way that I do. The fact that people want to purchase my art and hang it as decor in their homes speaks volumes to me as an artist.
Do you have a favorite fly to tie or fish with?
I got my own vise and tools to start tying flies a couple of years ago, but I don’t spend as much time tying flies as I would like to since I spend most of my free time making art. When I do make time to sit down at the vise, I typically tie streamers and intruder style flies. I have a dog, Edam, who is a Keeshond and very furry. I have tied flies with his fur before, but have yet to try them out myself. We did have friends come visit us in Alaska and one of the guys tied a fly with Edam’s fur and caught a steelhead with it! Most often I will borrow and use flies that Aaron ties because they seem to always catch me big fish.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about picking up a fly rod or starting a creative hobby for the first time?
I have learned over the years that it is super important to have hobbies or activities to keep busy and keep the mind right. I would encourage anyone who is just starting out in a hobby, such as fly fishing, or starting a creative venture to just find something you enjoy doing, stick with it, and keep working at it! Hard work and consistency pay off in the end. It is so worth the effort to be able to find something you are passionate about and can continue to excel in with enough time invested!
Is there anything else you would like for readers to know about?