Fish have always been a big part of Frank Gabriel's life, whether he's catching them or carving them out of wood.
"I think when I die I'll probably come back as a fish," Gabriel said.
He first picked up a pole at age 7, fishing the shores of Long Island, N.Y., for sheepshead, flounder and weakfish. He eventually parlayed his skill into a small commercial fishing and clamming business. During the long New York winters, he'd keep money coming in by filleting fish. And while other fisherman were enjoying the off-season downtime, Gabriel was honing the skills that would lead to his second career.
"They'd all get drunk and I'd go down in the basement and carve since I didn't drink," Gabriel said.
His fish — startlingly lifelike and precisely hued and colored — come to life even though Gabriel never had formal art training. At age 13, an eccentric uncle, Evangelos Mantzaris, gave him a carving knife. Before long, he had a wooden totem pole with the faces of Presidents Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
It got a lot of attention when I finished it," he said.
He also drew inspiration from Uncle Evangelos, who was a Renaissance man, Gabriel calls him, and a bird lover. There were 15 canaries living in Uncle Evangelos' kitchen cabinets, so the cabinet doors came off and bird perches went up.
"He would carve at his kitchen table and make mandolins, violins and models of coastal trading ships. He was also a painter. I remember a 10-foot oil painting he did of the sinking of the Lusitania."
By age 27, Gabriel's carvings had caught the attention of fishermen and wealthy collectors. At a time when other artists carved ordinary duck decoys and freshwater fish, Gabriel opted to carve saltwater fish from illustrations in McLane's Standard Fishing Encyclopedia.
He got an early break when a hardware store owner in Amityville, N.Y., admired a bluefish carving and offered to sell his pieces on consignment.
"Then he started selling too many," Gabriel said.
Eventually, his art started overtaking his fishing. Yacht owners, impressed with the realism and beauty of his art, would stop him on his way out of the marina on a fishing trip. I want a Gabriel original, they'd say.
Each piece is born the same way — as an outline drawn onto an inch-thick piece of white pine or white spruce and then cut. Then other pieces are cut and glued. After some sanding and grinding, Gabriel adds his masterful carving touch, crafting fins, gills and lips. A deft hand with oil stains makes every detail lifelike.
"You have to make the fish have character. They tell me that my fish have more expression than others. My fish have even been attacked by cats. This guy's cat once attacked one of my tarpons," said Gabriel, who repaired the damaged fin for free.
In 1989, he moved to Apollo Beach and the hobby became his livelihood. His business, Simple Pleasures, sells hand-carved creations of fish, birds and other decorative objects for $35 to $1,100. He can start and finish a large piece — like a 28-inch snook — in a day, but usually does about 10 pieces a week.
"I'm a fisherman first because I've fished all my life, but I share my art with everyone to give a feel for what I am. I don't charge what people think I would charge for my artwork," said Gabriel, 62.
At last count, he says he has carved more than 7,000 pieces, with his most requested species being the hogfish. Among his accolades: first place at the Manatee Arts Festival and Best of Show at the Ybor City Art Festival. He has had buyers in Egypt, France, Germany and England, and his works of native Florida fish have been presented to the mayors of Hamburg, Germany, and Toronto.
George Gramling III, a Tampa environmental law lawyer, has bought more than 70 pieces of Gabriel's art.
"I admire his work because it is realistic yet exhibits the hand craftsmanship of a real artist," Gramling said. "Like all great art, you know it when you see it."