Femininity and fish: Artist Kitty Sopow spotlights women in commercial fishing
Kitty Sopow is an Alaska-based artist and social scientist. Her drawings showcase artistry, humor, and a connection to fishing, while also reclaiming femininity and pushing back against sexism.
Kitty Sopow has a wry smile for everyone who approaches her designs. She’s ready for the reactions, whether it be laughter, shyness, loud recognition, or an ooh la la.
“I think I do stuff that's like inside jokes for people who live in Alaska," she said. "Nothing I make says 'Alaska' on it. But looking at it, it's so iconic, you can't imagine it existing anywhere else. Like a five gallon bucket.”
That image is all too recognizable for people who fish. Or a single orange glove worn by deckhands, a fish tote, anchor or bouy which she sells as stickers. The five gallon bucket sticker is one of her most popular.
“To create an illustration of that, everyone sees it and remembers the time that they've used it or had to show someone how to use it for their first time, for example," she said.
She recently had an art show in Naknek as part of Fishtival, a weekend of events celebrating the Bristol Bay summer fishing season and way of life. There she showcased new work - pin-up style feminine figures, with a fish theme.
“What I decided to showcase this year was a little bit more true to my roots," she said. "I kind of started as an erotic artist. And so I was able to combine my love for the female bodies with salmon themselves.”
Sopow says it's about rejecting the male gaze and irrelevant standards for women.
“One thing that I kind of really find obnoxious is this idea of like, to be feminine is to also be weak. But give any one of us females a cute outfit, and we can still do the same amount of work," she said with a laugh. "We can do both.”
Sopow says growing up with two brothers and her dad, drawing was a way to explore her femininity that otherwise wasn’t encouraged.
“So I never really got to experiment with my own idea of what women were, because they think it was just like, through my dad's eyes, I should be a tomboy, because that's what made him feel comfortable."
She says it’s about pushing back against patriarchal notions of female sexuality as negative or wrong.
"As I got older, I really started experimenting with drawing women, because that's how I was able to be feminine without being talked into in a certain way by my male family members," she said. "I mean, we all have that creepy uncle that says really inappropriate things to us. But like with my pen, I can draw a female, any shape, any size, any color. And I have safety in that.”
Sopow says her work celebrates female expression and sexuality, especially in a male-dominated industry like commercial fishing. She says the response from women at her shows has been overwhelmingly positive.
“It's the women that get the biggest smile on their faces," she said. "And men are shy to purchase or to interact with them. Women are, ‘oh my gosh, I need every single one of these.’ ‘Oh, this is me, no, this is you.’ You know, they're like seeing themselves in the image. They're seeing their friends in the image, or even they're seeing their moms or their aunties in the image and, we can all have like a big moment where we are fishing, and we are being sexy together. And it's really fun to have that moment with my clients, and strangers that turned into friends.”
Sopow is also a trained anthropologist and currently a social scientist with the National Weather Service, a role that takes her to communities around the state.
She points out that historically, women have always been fishing in Bristol Bay, and in Alaska. Although commercial fishing is seen as a male-dominated industry, women are an essential part of the fishery today.
“It was women fishing originally," Sopow said. "And once the drift boats became efficient, power boats were being used, and men were coming from all over the world to enter the fishery, that's when things changed. It has always been for the women and by the women. Now I think women are starting to have access to telling their own stories, and defending themselves to be able to continue to do this type of labor in a safe way. Where in the past it hasn't always been safe.”
Sopow’s art speaks to empowerment, and she’s also focused on sales to help support medical expenses for her mother, who was recently paralyzed.
“I wish I could say I'm just gonna have fun and explore and draw, but really, the bottom line is sex sells. And I'm happy to sell it if it means giving my Catholic mother a more comfortable life."
Whether to make a statement, or to entertain, Sopow’s artwork is unique and certain to get a reaction.
You can check out Kitty Sopow’s artwork for sale, and upcoming shows on her website at sopowart.com