Passersby of the marlin monument that fronts the Virgin Islands Game Fishing Club (VIGFC) in Red Hook, St. Thomas, might have wondered if a graffitist was at work one Sunday morning. Indeed, there was a T-shirted, ball cap-clad, sunglass-wearing man standing with paint and brush in hand in front of the iconic art. No worries. This was famous marine artist, Carey Chen, and he was re-enlivening the six-foot tall painting of a blue marlin skyrocketing from the sea that he was first commissioned to paint fifteen years before.
"It was 1995 and I was asked to come down and be the featured artist for the USVI Open/Atlantic Blue Marlin Tournament," says Chen, who lives in Jupiter, Florida.
The mid-90s were the era when it first became popular to feature artists and their artwork at tournaments.
"I was trying to make my mark in the industry back then, so it was perfect," says Chen. "Of course, the tournament was a lot of fun. It was really good times hanging out with all the right people."
Virgin Islands' waters are known for an incredible blue marlin bite, especially during the summer months, so it was natural to pick this species to represent the VIGFC.
"I looked at the space and thought if I drew the whole fish that it would be a smaller image and harder to see from the road," he says. "So, I decided to just paint the head of the fish so I could really blow it up in size."
It took Chen four to five days to complete the original design. This time, he needed only three days to do the re-touch. He didn't change the image, but he did alter his choice of paints to make the fish more vibrant.
"The first time I used latex paint because I didn't know regular acrylic would work for something that was outside and would be continually subjected to the elements. This time I used acrylic paints," he says. "I also corrected the fish and gave it more contrast with its background to really make it stand out."
Stand out the design does, both now and when it was first painted. In fact, just ask any of the sports fishermen who were around right after Hurricane Marilyn and they'll tell the tale about how the battery-operated light designed to illuminate the marlin monument at night was the only bright spot in the darkness in Red Hook in the storm's wake.
Chen, who was born in California to Jamaican parents, and raised in Jamaica until the age of 18 when he moved to Miami, has traveled the Caribbean as guest artist at a number of tournaments, including the San Juan International Billfish Tournament in Puerto Rico, and tournaments in St. Lucia, Martinique, St. Martin, Trinidad & Tobago and CuraÃ§ao.
"One year I did the whole circuit, some 30 to 40 tournaments," says Chen. "That was the year I released 95 blue marlin. Since then, I've released over 300 marlin. I've also won a few tournaments. For example, our USA team also won the San Juan tournament three years ago with four marlin releases and I released two
The chance to do some big game fishing is a side benefit of being an event's marine artist. That's because much of the work takes place before lines go in the water.
"I create a unique design that's used on the cover of the tournament booklet, on the T-shirts, on merchandise and for the art show where a piece is auctioned off to benefit a charitable fishing organization," Chen explains. "The organizers usually let me have free reign in creating the design, but they usually ask for a local landmark like El Morro in San Juan or the North Drop in St. Thomas to be a part."
These days, Chen is as busy as ever with his art, but he's not traveling as much since his pavement pounding years ago has made him a household name in the marine art world.
"I've slowed down a bit," he says, "but I'll never tire of fishing and St. Thomas will always be my second home."
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietician.