In 2017, Michi Meko received a text message from a friend encouraging him to apply to an artist residency called Cabin Time. That year, the residency—which brought together creatives from a variety of fields in different remote locations each year—would be taking place in the eastern Sierra near Lone Pine, CA. Meko knew nothing about Lone Pine, but, he says, “If you’re up in the mountains and you’re on the left coast, you should be flyfishing.” So that’s what he proposed in his application: He’d come to the Sierra, tie flies with found materials (e.g., his dreadlocks, lint from people’s sweaters, other detritus found in or around the river and desert) and try to catch a fish in the nearby Bishop River. The tricky part—he’d never flyfished or tied flies before.
It wasn’t only a fishing trip. For Meko, flyfishing was a vehicle by which to arrive at answers to a larger question: What does it mean to be a Black man in the wilderness? He has said his work focuses on “the contemporary experience of Black life and survival.” These are big questions with universal implications, but they are also distinctly personal for Meko.
Meko, whose parents were educators (mom taught elementary, dad taught high school chemistry), grew up in Florence, AL, receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting from the University of North Alabama in 1999. Since then, he’s garnered national attention and won numerous grants and awards. In 2017, over the course of three consecutive days, he was awarded grants from Artadia, the Joan Mitchell Foundation and MOCA GA, one after the other, an experience he called “surreal.” Though much of his work deals in straight abstraction, the past few years have brought a different sense of perspective. The field of view is lengthened or shortened, as necessary; the natural world creeps in, in the form of stars, mountains or plants. You might call them abstract landscapes—or even landscaped abstractions; in any case they reflect Meko’s own internal wilderness, his attempt to map, make sense of, and appreciate the vistas within.
I interviewed Meko this past summer, near the end of a two-month exhibition, “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground” (a reference to Blind Willie Johnson’s 1927 song of the same name) at Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago. In an introduction to the show, Phillip Barcio wrote the exhibit features a “visually stunning and conceptually commanding body of work depicting both the geographical and psychological wilderness through which [Meko] travelled” over the course of the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through both of those wildernesses—the geographical and the psychological—he brought along a fly rod and tying kit. It was during those uncertain early months of 2020 that Meko returned to flyfishing for the first time since the Cabin Time residency.
JR: Tell me about @MekoFly.
MM: When 2020 happened, I decided I’m going to close my studio. I don’t want to paint anymore. I’m tired. They closed down Atlanta, and when they did that, I got my fishing gear, my camp gear, filled my car up and just went fishing.
I was still fishing my conventional gear at that time, but I needed something to keep my brain focused, to sort of deal with the anxiety so my thoughts weren’t wandering way out here and I wouldn’t have to call the therapist to be like, “Hey, I’m cracking up.” So I set a goal to tie 400 flies and I started posting them on Instagram. At some point I took my fly rod out and decided I’m only going to fish 2020 with a fly rod.
It took a pandemic to make me hyperfocus and start asking these big questions, like why it only seems certain types of dudes flyfish? No one flyfishing looks like me. But then one day I was tying flies in my studio and I ran across some Alvin Dedeaux videos. So here’s this Black dude tying flies and I watched some of his videos and I just liked the speed and nonchalant-ness of his tying.
When you took that break from making art, how much did flyfishing and tying fill that creative space in your life?
I started to see the flies as these little sculptures. I wanted people to see the inner workings of a fly, or just how beautiful the feathers were, or wonder: Is he really tying with chip bags or Peppermint Pattie packages or, one of my favorites, a fly with the ingredients chart on it wrapped around the hook. Before I knew it, I had a problem.
It did something to my brain. It helped with my anxiety. It helped with my panic attacks and things I was experiencing in late 2019. And then 2020 comes. The flyfishing and tying were like therapy.
Did that time spent focused on flyfishing change your
I think it changed it in a way. There’s an effort to get where trout are, and that change in environment took the abstractions that I was doing and turned them into landscapes, or these works that could operate as maps—as landscapes, as flat—they now operated with depth. And I think that it gave me an opportunity to really consider the work that I was making, and then to think about the smaller details, like trying to tie a size 16 whatever. It gave my brain a chance to rest and then fill up with this other thing that was just as creative.
Flyfishing forced me up into the mountains and with that environment change—because I live in the city of Atlanta, I live in it—you go from buildings being mountains to where the mountains are. It forced me to look at my work internally and think about my studio practice as internal, turning the gaze—how we look out onto rivers or how we look out onto mountaintops or down into valleys—and seeing myself as a wilderness and trying to find the beautiful spaces within myself. Where are my valleys and where are my peaks? Where are my great vistas?
Trying to figure this fish out, trying to figure this fly out, everything that was going on in the world at the time, I thought, “This is a time to be more reflective,” and so I took that time to try to dive inside. “Why am I having these panic attacks and why am I having anxiety and why am I feeling this way?” There were these dark clouds just hovering above me. As soon as I could focus in on these tiny, tiny things, or try to get that perfect loop, it did something to my brain.
I began to ask myself, “Well, what does the wilderness, when it’s personified, sound like from a Black dude in the South?” When I was a kid there was this image of Matthew Henson, the explorer who discovered the North Pole, and there’s a beautiful photo of him in a fur coat, and I thought, “Now is the time for me to be my own Matthew Henson and to go explore all the mountains up in Georgia and beyond, to try and catch this fish.” Maybe it’s all bullshit and it’s just an excuse to go fish.
An argument could be made that the bullshit and the higher meaning aren’t mutually exclusive.
You can boil it all down to that process, right? That’s what I think I began to appreciate about flyfishing—there was a different process versus conventional fishing. I felt like I’m gonna add another thing to my arsenal. I’m gonna catch the trout, I’m gonna catch the bass, I’m gonna catch the freshwater species, then I’m going to go for the saltwater ones. When I really thought about it, it all came down to process. I like the process of painting. I like the process of what it means to make a painting—the thinking, the note-taking, the reading, the thinking about historical narratives, all that stuff.
That was the same thing I was doing with flyfishing. I started to think about all those things and then try to find myself somewhere in the narrative of flyfishing. When I didn’t see it, I decided my thing will be, “I’ll match the inspiration and not match the hatch and I’ll just tie these flies for myself and have fun with it.”
I think one can see that same approach in some of the work shown at Kavi Gupta Gallery. For example, the works that incorporate fish scales in the paint, or monofilament. Would you have jumped so heavily into fly-tying if you didn’t already have this practice of making art out of found objects?
I don’t know if I would have approached fly-tying without the art practice—I wouldn’t have approached it like that. The thing is, my family fishes and there’s a certain amount of bragging rights amongst the men and boys. My mom likes to take credit for my fishing because she says when she was pregnant with me she went fishing a bunch. So, the fishing would always be there, but without the art and without the big questions that I have about art and expression, human expression, and what I’m trying to do in that part of my career, I don’t think I would have approached fly-tying without that.
Another thing that’s happened: I’ve learned to say no to art, to think about my studio practice so that I’m not overwhelmed and spreading myself thin and overworking myself. I’ve learned to say no because of flyfishing.
You feel like flyfishing has taught you to carve time out for yourself?
That’s it. I’ve learned to slow it down. With conventional bass fishing I could run and gun, you know, boom boom boom. With flyfishing, you can still go fast, but there’s a moment where you have to…
Sometimes you gotta take a breath.
Yes, you have to engage with it a different way, it’s a different thing, a different feel—and I just want to look cool on the water, man [he laughs]. If the loops aren’t happening then I’m not looking cool, but at least I got on a good hat and a great shirt. I don’t even know why I cared. I guess because I’m an artist. I saw those Howler Brothers dudes and thought, “That’s what I’m talking about.” They’ve got some good stuff. Have some fun with your fishing aesthetic. We have more personality than blue and brown.
I started to think about aesthetics on the water as well as the aesthetic of the fly. I got out the color wheel to match my backing and my fly line in the perfect tones so it would look cool.
I suppose it’s much easier for a white guy to go into a fly shop and find gear that is more than likely going to be sort of an extension of his personality, whereas if you’re a Black man or a Black woman, the gear you find in the shop may not speak to you in the same way.
Yeah. I’m Gen X too. I don’t know what it is about that that makes me think, “OK, everything has to be sort of rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop.” I also skated really hard and was into action sports and, whatever those attitudes are, I still have them as an adult. My love for hip-hop and punk music and skating and snowboarding and all those aesthetics make me think, why hasn’t somebody said, “We’re going to change this. We want to catch a fish but we want to look cool while we’re doing it.”
It’s a matter expressing yourself, right? A matter of trying to say, “This is me.”
I don’t want to look like Grumpy Old Men.
Sure. There are plenty of people who like to say, “This is how flyfishing should be done. This is what you have to wear. This is the fly you have to use, and this is how you fish it.”
That was the big question. “It has to be this way. You have to do it this way. There’s a whole history of it being done this way.” Why?
Walton wrote The Compleat Angler and no one thought to change it along the way. It’s gotten more technical and the gear’s gotten way better, but with some of those fly patterns I think, “Wow, this is really old.”
But what if there was a fly named the Georgia Dry Rub, you know? I found my own little world in this world that exists and started to think about it.
In reference to the Kavi Gupta show this summer you wrote, “What does a Black man sound like in a wilderness versus the voice of John Muir or Ernest Hemingway?” Do you think you’re bumping up against that question in flyfishing just as much as you’re bumping up against it in your art?
Yeah, it’s kind of that same thing. That’s how my art starts, that’s how the flyfishing started—with this great question. There is always a great question before you go and try to explore an idea.
I won’t say, “Oh, I’m having issues at fly shops,” or this and that. That’s not it. It’s me trying to figure out where I belong in flyfishing. I belong in the river, of course, that’s where I have to be. But can I define flyfishing on my own sort of aesthetics and terms? Can I one day make something as cool as a Royal Wulff? Can I contribute to the history of flyfishing? So one day people say, “There was this dude in Georgia who tied a fly called the Georgia Dry Rub.”
I suppose that’s one answer to your question. This is what your voice sounds like in flyfishing: the Georgia Dry Rub or wearing your wading boots out to a party because they look good.
It’s a weird thing I’ve become obsessed with, and I can’t believe I’ve become the thing that I used to make fun of. I’ve made fun of landscape painters and I’ve made fun of flyfishermen for a long time.
You’ve shown some flies in a few different exhibits. How did it feel to let that take the place of your art on the gallery walls?
When I shut my studio down in 2020, a curator called to ask what I was working on. I said, “tying flies” and she said, “You’re not painting? I figured you’d be taking this time to be in your studio.” I said, “Well, I’m in my studio, but I’m not painting.”
She asked me to be a part of the Atlanta Biennial and I said, “I’ll do it if I can display flies.”
She loved it because her dad was a fisherman, an Iranian man, I think. She understood these great questions I had about being different, and aesthetics on the water, and looking different on the water.
I went and installed these flies and thought, “Oh God, what have I done to my art career.” But then I said, “No, you’re sticking to your guns. You said you were going to do this. You’re tying flies, and it’s going to work. Don’t worry about it. And if it fails and you ruin your career, just go fishing.”
Are there fish you want to catch that you haven’t caught yet? Or a trip you want to do?
All of them. Every year I go down to Miami for Art Basel. But I’ve never gone with a rod. For some reason, I’ve traveled everywhere else with a rod. I think this year I’m going to take a rod to Miami and see if I can get a peacock bass on the fly.
Of course, everyone wants to go on the big trips to the Seychelles and all the exotic places and do the bonefish and all that stuff. But my flyfishing mentor friend Robert, he said, “You’re not ready for that yet.” He told me to start small, go out to Bermuda or something.
But anything that will bite the fly. I don’t care what it is. I have so much fun catching bluegill. Bluegill on a 3-weight is a hilariously fun time.
Otherwise, your local river, my local river, anybody’s local river, whoever invites me. For me, it’s, “Can you do all this shit DIY,” you know? Can you be punk as fuck, go fishing, catch the thing and have fun? That’s it. That’s all I’m doing. To keep myself happy and laugh. That’s it. There’s something definitely happened, and it’s because of flyfishing.