Steven Fernandez: A walking contradiction

VENICE, Calif. — Oh to be a fly on the wall of Steven Fernandez's Venice home. A fishing fly, that is.

For it is in a picture frame you'll remain, far from line's end in the waters of a Sierra trout stream.

You see, the San Fernando Valley native and renowned fly-tier is an artist.

And while his background is anchored in commercial enterprise, having crafted hundreds of thousands of flies that were gobbled up by anglers and fish alike, many of his creations of fur and feather are fit for a gallery, transcending mere tackle and practicality.

"It is no longer a fishing hook when you put 20 hours into a fly," said Fernandez, 41, who makes his living as an architect and has been invited to places like Norway, England, Scotland to demonstrate his fly-tying skills.

"Enough people are tying flies to look like bugs. Why not do something different?"

As he constantly rediscovers his tying method, the dividing line between art and craft begins to blur. When a fly hits the water is it no longer art?

"That is something I haven't tackled yet," he said.

There are few clear-cut answers for Fernandez, a walking contradiction who is shy but passionate, who seems to want to be more eccentric than he is, who appears more complicated than he wants to be.

"You can talk about the use value of art," said Fernandez, who hasn't tied much over the past two years since pursuing and attaining a fine art degree from the Otis School of Art and Design in Los Angeles. "Does art have to stay in a museum? Does it have to stay in concept? Where does it cross the line?"

The struggle is one of many that makes Fernandez a fascinating character in a field of fly-tiers that is stretching the bounds of tradition.

Engage him in discussion and Fernandez inevitably turns to art and personal politics.

He looks like Tim Roth and talks like James Woods and seems perfectly suited for Venice, that hodgepodge of millionaires and homeless where the walls of his house are painted in, well, let's call it a funky gold patina.

He dismisses notions that fish aren't hurt by hook points and questions whether catch and release is a worthy endeavor when the act of fighting a trout is a form of torture for the quarry. He may wind up quitting the sport for fear of being a hypocrite.

He adores the materials used to dress today's most bejeweled flies, but promotes moving away from the "requirement" they include feathers of exotic and often endangered birds.

He has no problem with foreign labor cranking out inexpensive flies for American companies but abhors the possibility it could outcompete and ultimately shun the craft of the Montana tier who "requires a higher wage to live here and whose life and livelihood is intrinsically and inextricably connected to this."

"He's very sensitive," said Art Delano of Woodland Hills, who has been tying conventional flies for two decades and is joined by Fernandez as a member of the Valley-based Sierra Pacific Flyfishers.

"He gives pause for thought; he is much more than a fly-tier."

And Fernandez is far from alone grappling over art vs. craft.

"For the tier who's tying for fishing, as long as the fly is halfway decent and it's on hook, it doesn't matter," Delano said.

"Luckily the fish are dumb enough to hit the fly or none of us would be in business.

"But I would be reluctant to use even Steve's 'craft' fishing flies. They are just too pretty."

"In Steve's case," Delano said, "the design is everything because he is one of the most creative fly-tiers. He develops new methods to apply products to a hook to fascinate the viewer and overwhelm the knowledgeable fly-tier."

In the mid-1980s, Fernandez challenged his fly-dressing brethren by crudely straightening hooks so they were no longer fishing instruments and placed feathers and droplets of glue at spots where they are never adhered.

It was as if he was calling out, "OK, let's make art," to other fly-tiers who were not satisfied with age-old practices.

The bold "deconstruction" move largely backfired. "A few people liked them but most people hated them and thought I had flipped my lid," Fernandez said.

He persevered, however, and eventually reinvented the Atlantic salmon fly, the crown jewel of fishing flies, "the ultimate flights of fancy."

The gaudy design stems from the Victorian era, when explorers brought back to England the feathers of wild things like the bird of paradise and cock of the rock to adorn the hooks of dukes, earls and other nobles who targeted salmon.

Parts of the salmon fly that tradition dictates must be tied above the body of the hook were attached to the underside. Feathers were swept forward instead of back, hence the Pompadour fly was born. The hook's solid black was replaced with splatter paint or white. Its eye was removed, "because it's not for fishing anymore."

Then the hooks disappeared altogether. Feathers were dressed on piano wire; the crests of golden pheasant were fashioned to resemble hooks.

His work attracted the eye of art critic, author and editor Judith Dunham of Berkeley, who featured Fernandez's Pompadour and Easy Off designs in her 1991 coffee-table book "The Atlantic Salmon Fly: The Tyers and Their Art."

"I like the way that Steve both honored tradition and questioned it," Dunham said this week.

"He wasn't afraid to take the classic form of the fly and then do something entirely innovative with it."

"It was always as a form of personal inquiry," she said. "He was never saying, 'Everyone should tie like this.' He was saying, 'These are some things I wasn't thinking about and would like to share.' "

He has come a long way from his Reseda teen-age days of tying at 55 cents a fly for Fishermen's Spot in Van Nuys and Ned Grey's Sierra Tackle in Montrose, when his skills were first well publicized in a 1977 Field and Stream feature.

But in Fernandez's topsy-turvy world where everything new is old again, he may be closer to taking those flies out of their frames and casting them to trout than observers might think.

This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.