Creating a skin mount, in which the whole skin of a fish is carefully scraped and de-greased before being sewn onto a custom mold for sculpting, laminating and painting, is grueling work. It can take eight to 10 hours just to clean the fish. “It’s said to be a taxidermist you have to have a weak nose and a strong stomach,” says Messineo. Taxidermists used to use arsenic and formaldehyde, although now Messineo tans the skin with safer zinc sulfate, kosher salt, brown Lysol concentrate, glycerin, and borax.
Her taxidermy client list includes such notable names as Jim Belushi and Spike Lee, President Bill Clinton, and former Governor William Weld among others. A few years ago, Messineo began offering her creations, which she terms “wildlife art,” through The Scrimshaw Gallery in Edgartown and Louisa Gould Gallery in Vineyard Haven. “She’s a fishing legend,” says gallery owner Louisa Gould. “People will come in to see her work, or come in and say, ‘Oh, that’s Janet!’” A bluefish mounted on a box in Gould’s gallery bears the label reading “This fish is not a reproduction.” Messineo’s pieces sell for a few hundred dollars for tailfins, to more than $2,000 for whole skin mounts. Her decorative pins, made of real, freeze-dried and shellacked minnows, are unique items popular with sportsmen and women alike. “You can buy beautiful jewelry everywhere, but where can you buy this?” Gould asks.
Gould says Messineo’s art draws a wider audience than typical gallery goers: “It’s such a treat when you have a little boy bring his dad into the gallery. They’re looking at the fish.” Gould adds, “She’s quintessentially authentic. The art is reflective of the person, and you can’t get any more authentic than Janet.”
Three years ago, Messineo augmented her fishing career by starting Vineyard Surf Caster (www.vineyardsurfcaster.com), a personalized, step-by-step guide to shore surfcasting. Most of her clients are novices, but they always catch fish, which Messineo offers to filet. Being on the beach at night, when the stripers are feeding, is a memorable adventure for her clients, Messineo says. “They’ll say, ‘I haven’t seen a sky like this since I was a kid.’ For them to be out in nature—I think that’s what they really love.”
Sandwich couple Paul Koulouris and Susan Huettner went fishing with Messineo on their honeymoon two years ago. “She puts you on fish. She knows where they are,” Koulouris says. In addition to bluefish and stripers, Koulouris reeled in, after significant struggle, the severed head of a false albacore, complete with shark teeth marks. “It’s about hope: You never know what the next cast will be,” says Huettner, who appreciates the instruction Messineo provided to tune up her surfcasting skills.
Messineo’s passion for fishing has yielded rewards she never predicted. She says, “Just because I fish, I’ve gotten so many gifts in my life: the people I meet, I’ve got writing, I’m in the art galleries, I’m speaking at club meetings. Who would’ve ever thought?”
Susan Spencer is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Brewster and Whitinsville. She contributes frequently to Cape Cod Life Publications.
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