FALMOUTH – Tyson Weiss likes to make people flinch by pounding one of his beautiful but delicate-looking ceramic fish on a hard table surface.
The purpose is to show potential customers that even as his trout, salmon and koi swim gracefully through a bed of perennials, they are also a practical choice – sturdy enough to survive clumsy gardeners and harsh Maine winters.
Weiss is “the fish guy,” the artist you see at Maine crafts fairs and at the Portland Flower Show every year selling his “Fish In the Garden.” His booth is always swarming with people curious about the colorful ceramic and steel fish sculptures that he makes in his home studio in Falmouth.
Weiss’ fish can stand alone on their garden rods, but they really seem to come alive and take on an otherworldly quality when displayed in groups of three or more – or entire schools – some tails turning right while others turn left.
Three is the magic number.
“One is a fish on a stick,” Weiss said on a recent tour of his studio. “Two is cute and romantic. Three gives you the flow.”
“The flow” is what Weiss calls the fluid aesthetic created by the curves of the swimming fish as they “move” as one through a garden.
“With the multiples, we can create these curves, and with those curves, (the fish) can curve in response to an element of the landscape,” Weiss explained. “Around a rock, and then curve back this way around a tree, so it fits. No garden gnome or concrete bunny rabbit will ever have context like that.”
A lot of the fish are various shades of blue, Weiss’ favorite color. There are white fish splotched in red like Japanese koi, and a speckled brown trout.
The newest color, a chartreuse green with whimsical spots, is based on a color he saw women wearing at the Boston Flower Show.
The zinc crystals created by a new crystalline glaze gives some of the fish a special sparkle that makes them look as if they actually have scales.
The ceramic fish have become so wildly popular that Weiss estimates he’s made at least 10,000 of them since 2008 — enough to fill a healthy-sized aquarium, if not an entire ocean.
It all began when Weiss took a pottery class at Unity College back in 1998. His teacher required the class to keep a notebook of ideas. Weiss still has his notebook, filled with scribbles and photos and sketches, including some rough initial illustrations of his fish.
When the semester ended, Weiss started a landscaping business.
“I saw the junk that people would put in their gardens up in the Midcoast area,” he said.
There were cheap garden gnomes and reflective balls, and at the other extreme, custom sculptures that probably cost the homeowners thousands of dollars.
“Both had that same issue of context,” Weiss said. “It just didn’t make sense. You can landscape around it to make something fit, but still it just always looked so random to me.”
That’s when he began to develop his fish with the curving tails and to think about “the flow.”
It took about five years after Weiss drew his initial sketches before he could “see” the fish and the flow. It was, he said, like hearing a tune in your head and being unable to just sit down at the piano and play it.
“I had the vision, but I’d sit down and put my hands on the clay, and I’d be so discouraged,” he recalled. “It would be a disaster.”
Ten years after the notebook, things finally started to come together.
By 2008, Weiss had been landscaping for 10 years and was ready for something different. He made the decision that he would just keep making the fish until he got them to look the way he wanted. He still has an early version in his studio, a smaller, thinner fish that could be angled up or down but ended up spinning in the wind.
In January 2008, Weiss did his first show at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens. Interior designers, landscape architects and store owners went crazy for his creations, and by the next year, Weiss couldn’t keep up with orders. Still making each fish by hand, he was able to do 20 in a 50-hour week, but it wasn’t enough.
Weiss knew he not only needed more garden fish, he needed consistency. He switched to plaster molds, enabling him to triple his output and bring the price down. He settled into five or six popular colors, and began to work more efficiently and buy supplies in larger quantities.
It was hard to give up making them all by hand, but eventually Weiss started making a small percentage of them that way again. He just made a big custom set of codfish, for example, for someone who lives on Cape Cod. “It’s kind of like a Toyota and a Lexus,” Weiss said.
The fish made from molds cost $80 each; the handmade fish are $125.
The price of the stainless steel fish varies, but most for the garden cost around $75. The steel fish come in trout, mackerel, bluefin tuna, striped bass and tarpon.
Each kind of fish has its own market.
“The steel people are drawn right to the steel fish,” Weiss said. “They don’t see the clay fish, and they don’t ask about them. And vice versa. So by doing the steel, I hit on this whole other customer, which tends to be more men.”
The ceramic fish are made from sturdy stoneware clay and fired to around 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, a process that makes them able to withstand Maine’s below-zero winter temperatures.
It takes two weeks to make a fish, and Weiss’ studio, which is attached to his house, is filled with the tools he needs to bring them to life — along with packing materials for shipping the finished product.
He has hired a part-time assistant, and they sometimes run out of room in the small studio even when they’re just glazing a batch of fish.
Shelves in the studio are lined with dozens of finished fish in all kinds of colors. “During the summer, what you see there turns over about every week,” Weiss said.
The most fish ever sold to a single customer was 90. They were bought by a woman who gave them as gifts to members of her family.
Weiss’ long-term goal is to get production out of the house and have people handle it for him while he concentrates on new, one-of-a-kind designs. He’d like to have more time to talk with customers to find out what they like and don’t like.
“Creativity, for me, it’s not this constant state of mind,” Weiss said. “It’s something you sit down and kind of tap into.
“I think right now, I’m intentionally holding back a little bit because I have two really young kids, 2 and 4, and there’s just no extra time in the day. When I take on something that involves more responsibility, I’m neglecting something on the other end.”
Meanwhile, Weiss will keep on making his salmon, trout, koi and other “celebrity fish” that his customers fall in love with at first sight.
“Koi are kept as pets all over the world,” Weiss said. “Trout and salmon are on almost every continent and sought after by fishermen, and people eat them. I could do a lumpfish, but nobody really knows what a lumpfish looks like. So I stick with these really distinct, celebrity, popular fish.
“I’m kind of making the fish I want to catch,” he said, laughing.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: