Angling Artist: Joel Stoehr

Stoehr's artwork captures the clash between urbanization and the natural world in the waters surrounding New York City.

Joel Stoehr’s introduction to fly fishing began in 1986 when a mail-order L.L. Bean catalog arrived in his mailbox. The Catskill Mountains were only a short distance from his childhood home in Oneonta, New York. There, meandering streams cut through the rugged, wooded terrain like arteries to the large reservoirs that supply New York City’s drinking water over 100 miles south and east. That catalog, along with the Catskill’s pristine and bountiful trout waters, inspired him to save up for his first fly-fishing outfit. He didn’t know it at the time, but that rod and reel would set the trajectory for his future as an artist, which would support his career as a teacher. 

The Catskills trout satiated Stoehr’s angling appetite from a young age. His father showed him the basics of fly casting before taking him on camping and fishing trips to the small town of Roscoe, New York, each summer—a town that boasts the self-given title of Trout Town, USA. Those immersive fishing trips instilled in Stoehr a desire to be on the water any chance he could and helped him realize his natural skill in visualizing and sketching outdoor scenes. 

For a few years, Stoehr quietly planned to pursue a professional career in art, although it took some time to convince his parents. He attended the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where he majored in oil painting as an undergraduate student before getting his master’s degree in sculpture from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. 

Like many young artists, Stoehr was attracted to the hustle and bustle of New York City for its liveliness and opportunity. He moved to Manhattan after college in 2002, then settled in Rockaway, Queens, on Long Island’s western south shore in 2010. The beach town’s inhabitants are primarily fishermen and surfers, and the neighborhood’s salty aura offers an escape from the fast-paced lifestyle of the Big Apple just a few miles away. “It’s still Queens, but it’s open space, and that’s what I craved after a few years in the city,” said Stoehr.  Today, he still commutes to Manhattan to teach art and design at Parsons School of Design.

Stoehr’s watercolor art places heavy emphasis on time, place and perspective.

Since moving to New York over 20 years ago, Stoehr’s oil and watercolor art have been heavily influenced by his environment and perspective, along with his lifelong love of fly fishing. His work captures a unique clash between urbanization and the natural world that occurs in and around Jamaica Bay, the largest open wetland space in New York City. Arriving flights roar overhead and screech to a halt within casting distance from where he releases his first springtime stripers. 

As an artist in the city that never sleeps, Stoehr prefers to paint lively, active scenes rather than portraits or individual subjects, although he has done grip-and-grin fishing shots for friends.  He favors painting blitzing bass and bluefish beneath flocks of dancing gulls and terns, with commuter subways traveling over trestles toward a backdrop of the unmistakable New York skyline in the background. 

“The city that never sleeps” has a different look from the waters of Jamaica Bay.

Stoehr’s art is not only influenced by his environment, though. His paintings stylistically resemble the works of renowned sporting artists such as Winslow Homer, Ogden Pleissner, and Arthur Shilstone. Much like the artwork of his influencers, Stoehr’s works are autobiographical. His art, whether focused on the fish, the angler, or the birds, shares the stories of his nautical life. He makes time to sit by the water’s edge, where he can sketch in real time, immersing himself in the elements of his subject matter. “I love finding the birds and locating the action, which might limit me in a sense,” he said, “but it’s an exciting approach to painting. My process just comes from time spent on the water.”

However, Stoehr does not feel limited by his subject matter, as life in the bay changes with the seasons. After several years of owning a skiff, he bought a Boston Whaler in 2019 so that he can venture further into the bay and beyond, thus expanding his creative boundaries to include the ocean and surf. Depicting the energy of the surf has been one of his newest, more difficult endeavors. “Finding a way to capture water is a real challenge in painting—whether it’s oil or watercolor— but it’s a welcome challenge,” said Stoehr.

Stoehr’s paintings are autobiographical; they share the stories and scenes of a life spent on the water. Here, surfcasters traverse the craggy rocks of the Breezy Point jetty at Rockaway Inlet.

While he continues to develop as an artist and push his limitations at the easel, Stoehr noted that he is content with his place in the world. “I wake up each day to paint and go fishing, so I feel like I’m retired, but in the best way,” he said. “I’m a transplant to Rockaway, but some people have spent their lives on the bay and seen it change so much over the years.  I really enjoy the local knowledge my community has provided me.” 

Of all his subjects, Stoehr finds it particularly challenging to capture moving water and its kinetic energy—whether it be a ripping current, or the splash and boil from a striper tail-slapping the surface.

Just as the Jamaica Bay community has accepted and supported Stoehr, he feels equally supported by the local fly-fishing community. Over the past decade, Stoehr has done commissioned work for friends and fellow anglers, and he plans to continue teaching art and design in New York for years to come. Even though he has spent over 10 years painting the bay in his own backyard, he admits there is always room for growth and improvement. Much like a fly skating across the top of a calm back bay, Stoehr feels he’s just barely scratching the surface of what’s possible with watercolor paint. 

Instagram @joelstoehr 

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