Minnesota artist brings metal to life with Reelistic Replicas fish art

22 July 2023

GNESEN TOWNSHIP — Brian Luoma can’t fish any more like he used to. Muscular dystrophy has robbed him of that passion, but he still remembers what they look like.

Now the longtime avid angler has taken his interest in piscatorial pursuits and funneled it into art, creating incredibly lifelike images etched on steel that look like painted fish or fish photographs.

“I’ve always thought the true colors of fish are just incredible. But they’re really hard to reproduce,” Luoma said.

Artist Brian Luoma talks about some of his work that hangs on the walls in his Duluth home on Friday, July 7, 2023. Luoma creates the lifelike images on his computer that are etched on steel. (Jed Carlson / Forum News Service)

They aren’t decals or actual photos, Luoma, 56, is quick to point out, but images he created on his computer. Another artist finishes the details and the images are transferred to a company that infuses the image onto a steel plate that has been laser-cut into the lifelike shape of a fish.

The result is an uncanny piece of etched metal art that, from a few feet away, looks like a real, taxidermied fish, or maybe a painted fiberglass or graphite reproduction fish.

“That’s the goal, with the shadowing and the coloration so that it looks 3D,” Luoma said while showing off his artwork recently. “People go up and touch it and can’t believe it’s a flat piece of metal.”

Luoma said the idea came to him slowly but that he assumed at first that someone else would already be doing it. But the longer he looked around the internet, the more he realized he was on to something unique. It took him three years to fully develop the product, find the right manufacturer — Next Innovations in Walker, Minn. — and start up his own store on Etsy called Reelistic Replicas.

Luoma described it on his website: “Welcome to a world where flat metal transcends its limitations, blurring the line between reality and illusion.”

Arnold Volker, president and owner of Next Innovations, said the company’s process laser-cuts then powder-coats the steel “and the image is essentially infused onto the metal. Basically the image is baked into the powder coating. … That’s what makes it so vibrant. And so durable.”

Volker said he’s enjoyed working with Brian and his father, Gene Luoma, on other projects and products in addition to the fish.

“I love working with people as creative as Brian is because they keep us fresh. You never know what the next big thing is going to be with everything being so trendy these days,” Volker added.

From fishing boat to wheelchair

Brian Luoma used to be an avid angler, traveling across northern Minnesota and into Canada to fish for all sorts of species.

“One of my favorites was brook trout fishing up by Hovland. … We’d take the back roads and walk into some little lakes and catch a lot of nice fish,” Luoma noted.

A piece of artwork by Brian Luoma is displayed on the wall in his Duluth home on Friday, July 7, 2023. (Jed Carlson / Forum News Service)

But the genetic disease FSH muscular dystrophy caught up to Luoma. He’d known since fourth grade that he had it. But it took many more years for it to progress and slow him down. He started using a scooter nearly 25 years ago and has been mostly confined to a motorized wheelchair for the past decade.

“I just can’t get out like I used to, or would like to,” Luoma said of fishing trips.

But then he pointed to his artwork.

“This is the next best thing,” he said. “You have to roll with the punches.”

He can still drive his wheelchair to his work desk and his computer where his designs come to life.

FSH, facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy, is a genetic muscle disorder in which the muscles of the face, shoulder blades and upper arms are among the most affected. The Muscular Dystrophy Association notes that, in around 90% of FSH patients, symptoms usually begin before age 20, with weakness and atrophy of the muscles around the eyes and mouth, shoulders, abdominal muscles, upper arms and lower legs.

“It’s a gradual thing,” Luoma noted.

Selling well

Luoma started selling pieces this spring, and business has been pretty good so far.

His stock pieces are fish that are big, but not monsters — a 20-inch bass, a 29-inch walleye, a 42-inch northern pike. Luoma’s Reelistic Replicas prices range from $89.95 for a 20-inch smallmouth bass to $250 for a 52-inch muskie. The crappies with driftwood mounts sell for $149.95.

Bagged artwork by Brian Luoma rests on the ground in his Duluth home on Friday, July 7, 2023. (Jed Carlson / Forum News Service)

Compare that to the cost of real-fish taxidermy, or graphite/fiberglass reproductions, which can cost from $10 to $15 per inch, making that 52-inch muskie a $500 to $750 fish.

“I wanted people who maybe couldn’t afford to get a fish they caught mounted to still be able to enjoy one on their wall,” Luoma said.

Luoma has also done custom orders, including one 72-inch tiger muskie that is larger than anything ever produced by nature.

“They wanted it to go outside their lodge. … They have it sheltered in a little place above the entry,” Luoma said of the customer. “Usually I do pieces the size of fish that people actually catch.”

Brian Luoma has developed a way to infuse lifelike images onto metal to create replica fish art. His designs can be purchased on Etsy. (Courtesy of Brian Luoma)

Walleye and northern pike are big sellers up north, he noted. But his crappies and bluegills have been popular in southern states where panfish grow bigger in warmer waters.

“It’s one of those species that people catch all over, not just up here,” Lumoa noted of crappies.

The finished fish are essentially indestructible, waterproof and mostly weather-proof, although Luoma suspects they would eventually fade if left in direct sunlight.

Some customers have asked for special coloration of a certain species, with some fish varying greatly depending on where and when they are caught.

“There’s so much variation in colors in real fish, but that takes a lot more time for me,” he noted.

Luoma is trying to strike while the market is hot and before copycat sellers realize how his process works and start making their own versions. For now, though, he seems to have a lock on the realistic metal fish market. Custom signs, which can include the customer’s name for their home or cabin, are next.

“I’ll keep trying new things,” he said of his artwork. “It’s nice to see people appreciate it.”

Want to see more?

Go to etsy.com/shop/ReelisticReplicas. You can also check out some of Brian and his father, Gene Luoma’s, artistic and creative entrepreneurial talents at gizmoplans.com.

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