Val Kropiwnicki a.k.a @vksteelworks is one of the most creative art-fly creators and designers out there right now. Val currently works as a public high school art teacher in New England teaching drawing, jewelry design, an art foundation course, and sculpture. With his background in fine art and metalwork, Val brings an edge (no pun intended) to the vise, so we decided to sit down with him to discuss a few of his creations, his process, and what fly tying means to him.
Flylords: When you are sitting down to tie a new fly, which comes first, the hook or the feathers?
Val: It can happen either way. There are times when I will go into the studio and make a hook, or batch of hooks. The impetus to make those hooks might have been a single concept drawing in my sketchbook, or just the need to build a stockpile of things to tie on – hook first. Other times, the feather(s) can drive the piece. In this case, I’m lucky in that I can make the hook to fit the scale of the feather at hand.
Flylords: How long does it take you to tie one of the patterns?
Val: The average time it takes me to tie a fly would be around 6 hours over the course of 2-4 days. The hook usually 30 minutes to an hour to make. The first vise session will involve tying the lower half/body of the fly. The following session will then take me through the wing/sides/cheeks. The final session involves finishing off the head. Final coats of head paint happen over the next couple days but that is a 3-minute task with 12-24 hours of dry time between. The longest a fly has taken me to build was 13.5 hours.
Flylords: Taking a look at some particular patterns, I was taken by “The Morningside.611.GFP,” did that inspiration come to you while you were on the water?
Val: I’ve always been one to favor sunrise over sunset. So it was one spring morning, standing waist-deep in the Farmington River waiting for the morning sun to break the tree line and thaw my freezing ass when the inspiration for this fly hit me. We’ve all been there – shivering cold, too stubborn to leave the run, surface glare annoyingly increasing as you wait for the sun to hit your hands and face. If you’ve been there, you’ve been on the “morning side” side of the river.
Flylords: How do you select your materials?
Val: In a general sense, as far as materials go – “anything” is fair game for me to lash on a hook.
As I start a fly I will set the hook out, flat on my desk, with the feather, floss, tinsel, and wire combinations. I will keep moving things around and trying different combinations until materials start to light up and play off each other.
From a design point of view, texture, and color theory (both physical color scheme and psychological color implications) affect my choice for inclusion into a fly. If I’m trying to match fish skin or the flora found on a certain river – color, values, pattern, texture and form matter most. Sometimes, too, it is the physical space on a fly where scale will determine which materials will make it into the fly.
Flylords: Some of the feathers you use are so unique, is it a challenge sourcing them?
Val: If anything it just takes time. Beauty and “unique” are everywhere out there if you open up and learn to see the potential of what feathers (and other materials) can do for a fly. I source my feathers (and other materials) at fly fishing shows, from fly shops, online, at tag sales, at the dentist (orange plastic in the Nitro express fly) and the department store. I’ve used leather from my father’s wallet, dried weeds, antique silver earnings, polycarbonate from a police car light bar, and x-ray film on flies.
Flylords: What the process and the inspiration behind one of your latest pieces, the Redside Hatch.1019.GFP?
Val: Initially, I was contacted through Instagram by a guy out in Bend who wanted 2 flies tied to give as a gift. The idea was to honor the Redside and Steelhead trout, both as they relate to the Deschutes Fishery.
From the start of this project, the customer had asked that I consider building a pair of my “hatch flies,” that meaning starting with a large traditional style hook in the 8/0 to 10/0 range. Then various flies are tied on 20ga wires, and then the wires are tied into the fly from the rear forward to the head. In most of my previous hatch-type flies, I used feathers, fur, tinsel, and floss to mimic water flow and streamside flora, and used the flies in their natural relative position to the water (hook shank). Nymphs and emerges below or even with the shank, dry flies above filling the implied shape of a traditional wing.
But with these two hatch flies, it was the first time where I had negated that concept, and instead went on to try and just mimic the fish in an abstracted gestural way ( the Redside Hatch.1019.GFP) or focus on including just streamers used to target the fish (the Steelhead Hatch.1119.SSP).
In the end, the red side of the trout manifested with various tinsel, floss, and hackle along the shank. Pink feather wing streamers filled in the tail and pectoral fins, light olive deer hair and chartreuse CDC caddis type dries and nymphs made up the midsection of the (fish) and muddlesque streamers and implied flora made from peacock swords capped the back of the trout (wing).
In this fly you can see the wind blowing, watercress flowing in the current, there is a gentle madness that’s happening, with flow and determination. And of course, if your look, you can find the Redside in there too.
Flylords: What was the inspiration behind the buzzsaw in your CIF 111 fly? Which you captioned “a special fly to throw when someone low holes you in your favorite run.”
Val: It’s funny when you look at what we fishermen do. It’s an aggressive thing, it’s crazy. And I guess so much of what I try and do in my art is a metaphor for something else. So, how many times have you been there and a guy walks right into the run? And then how many times have you been there, and the guy walks up to you and thinks by starting a conversation with you, it okays them to go over, and then step on your cast, or your swing?
This fly is about a specific event that happened, where somebody kind of self-imploded, and said some stuff and stuck their foot in their mouth. So this fly is about when that happens. We won’t name names and all that stuff, but in the same way, this fly is self-destructive. It’s a fly that would destroy a fish, cut line, and is probably eventually getting in its own way.
Flylords: Tell us about this insane piece: The Brothers’ Patlens Dome of Wonders, Freaks, and Curiosities.
Val: Back in January of 2016 I bought a large antique display dome from Teddy Patlen and his brother at the Somerset, NJ Fly Fishing show. It was then that I came up with the idea to build “The Brothers Patlens’ Dome of Wonders, Freaks, and Curiosities”. I imagined each of the flies in the dome would have some kind of circus/freak show backstory and in the end, all the flies would all be displayed under this single glass dome. A year later I was done and the show was ready to hit the road
The Augustly Acicular Pigeon Twins.216.SSP – the Pigeon twins finally have come of age and have now joined the dome full time. Although their father, Mad Pigeon, would have had them working the dome at a much earlier age, even freak shows have rules. You see, shortly after birth, the girls began to show the development of needle-like appendages on the sides of their necks and without the financial means to take advantage of modern surgical grafting procedures, well, the girls just had to grow up living with it. Beauty is most definitely in the eye of the beholder and for a slim $65 you can catch 20 minutes of the girls, plus a lot more than just their aciculations. 7 PM nightly.
The Mad Nelson.216.SSP – Mad (Nelson) Pigeon has been with the Dome since he left home at age14. Having worked his way up through the ranks, and with aspirations of one day being Ringmaster, it is ultimately ironic that Mad was the one to have discovered Frildo, the Dome’s present Ringmaster, at a hotel bar in Somerset, NJ. back in January of 2010. Resentment runs thick in the Dome these days but it is the Brothers’ remarkable acumen in business matters of this such type of thing that keep Mad and his “oh so pointy” offspring as the Domes number 1 attraction. (Mad Nelson left the dome in 2016. He now resides full time in White Plains, NY.)
Frildo the Clown.316.SSNP – Frildo, real name Dan B. Steelius, started his illustrious career as an outside salesman for the California Wire Company. Nickel was his game. Driving a red Lotus and wearing a gold Rolex Dan basked gloriously in his 14-year run as the companies top salesman from 1986 through 2000. But in 2001 his luck ran out. Or did it? That was the year that Dan met a guy named “Mad” at the DoubleTree Somerset, NJ hotel bar. Some sort of fishing show in one room and some kind of Metals consortium in another and as the story goes it was one too many scotches, and a bet involving distance fly casting that led Dan to his new name, Frildo, and new career working for the Brothers. The Dome has never been the same. A showman, true and through, eccentric and honest, loyal to his metal roots, always smiling.
El Change-O.716.SSGFPP – “El Change-O” – a.k.a. third party Joe joined the Dome back in 2013 after a long and storied political career. It was also then that old Joe fully developed his ability to change his skin tone from orange to red, or blue, depending on his mood and whimsy. Doctors have no explanation as to Joe’s tonal flip floppiness, but Joe’s mom says she noticed this bizarre trait in her son as early as age 9 while at a Cub Scout pack meeting. The Brothers paid for the paperwork to have his name officially changed to “el Change-O” shortly after he joined the show. These days el Change-O’s act involves free dancing and color-changing to accompaniment of the world-famous Italian Jazz trio – Big Ben and the Bandidos.
Miss Maudy Wags.716.SSP – “Maudy Wags” – real name Mabel Perillo is the great-great-great-great-great-grand daughter of the legendary tattoo artist Maud Wagner(1877-1961). Like her eccentric ancestor Maudy has a love for tattoos, and like many modern kids has taken a shining to body mutilation, too. Her no surface left unscarred, no appendage left untouched attitude is what caught the Brothers’ attention and her induction into the Dome is now locked in hot contract negotiations. What do you get when you cross a stonefly with a Klinkhammer and a Marbury bass fly? Visit the dome and see!
The Fire Girl (aka: Sleep Now In The Fire.117.BP) – real name Ellaime LaChaleur (Elle Aime la Chaleur – she loves heat) was living with a Polish blacksmith named Duda in the Franche Comte region of France when the Brothers first met her while on a fishing trip to the Dessoubre River back in 2008. The couple were caretakers of the property at which the Brothers stayed while on their fishing adventure. As they witnessed one day while watching the couple go about their Daily work, Elaine had the ability to hold red hot metal in her bare hands without any adverse effect on her well being. It was then that they also learned that she preferred to sleep at night with her bareback only mere inches from the roaring fireplace hearth. The girl loved heat. These days, Elaine hosts a nightly act in which she builds custom motorcycles while barely clad in not much more than a welding helmet. She is a dome favorite and her bikes when completed, fetch 6 figures plus.
Step right up ladies and Gentlemen – The Brothers’ Patlens Dome of Wonders, Freaks, and Curiosities. Coming soon to a town near you.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental… although, Teddy did sell me the dome.
Flylords: We noticed you’ve designed a few of your own reels, which are works of art in their own right, tell us a bit about those.
Val: The reel project started 7 years ago when I had just turned 49. As the story goes, I was up in my room working in my sketchbook. It may sound cliché, but in my sketchbook, I wrote “49 sucks.” Knowing that my old man died at 52 played heavy on me. For me, it was kind of like my mid-life thing. The next minute, the phone rings and my wife Delia yells upstairs to me, “Hey, there’s a guy on the phone for you.” I pick up, and on the other end of the line is John Lindeman, a danish Ari Hart reel collector. He had this idea to gather fly fishing artists to design a line of fly reels and wondered if I was interested.
I thought, “Holy smokes. Of course, I want to do this.” For the next year, I designed nonstop and to date, I have not felt more self-imposed pressure when creating a work of art than I did while designing the VK-S5.RF reel. Next, John had a prototype built, but as the project progressed and finding a machine shop capable and willing to produce the reels became increasingly difficult, John and I eventually split paths. But I owe him for kick-starting the journey, and everything he contributed along the way, and especially for believing in me to design.
Fast forward a few years. I continued refining my design and funded a new set of prototypes on my own. Currently, I have 5 working reels, one of which I fish with and am now working on a limited production run of 25 reels.
For more insanely creative and innovative art flies, go follow @vksteelworks on Instagram!