ENCINITAS — During the week, Mickey Strider produces award-winning television and web campaigns for clients that include Asics running shoes, Newcastle Brown Ale, Wild Turkey bourbon and PF Chang’s.When he comes home, he retreats to what he calls is his “fish factory” where he unwinds by breathing new life into tilapia, found in various stages of decomposition along the shore of the Salton Sea.
“Tilapia is the only thing that lives there,” he explained. “They’ve adapted to salt levels which are about 30 percent more than the Pacific Ocean, but have experienced major die-offs because of algae bloom which sucks oxygen from the water.”
Strider explained that algae were inadvertently transferred from the Pacific Ocean to the Salton Sea aboard naval equipment during World War II when the sea was used for aviation exercises. At least 24 navy planes and more than three dozen crew members are thought to have been lost during that time.
“I always look for tilapia that have already dried out so they don’t smell as much,” Strider explained. He cleans the cavity of the fish with alcohol and allows it to dry for at least two weeks, sometimes a month. Next, he adds a clear coat of varnish.
Without eyes, the fish faces were expressionless until Strider began using electronics equipment salvaged from the Salton Sea to enhance their personality and charm.
“They tell me what they want,” he says with a grin, referring to their accessories and their names.
There is Phinneas whose tail overflows with electrical components from an adding machine Strider found on the shore. Robert’s eye is a plumbing part. Fiona is a pet fish with a jeweled collar purchased from Muttropolis and a matching leash made of ribbon.
Patty Strider, Mickey’s wife, helped to create Phoebe by knitting a scarf according to her husband’s specifications.
“I didn’t think twice about doing it because Mickey is so talented,” she said. “He’s very passionate about the Salton Sea and used to bring trinkets home before he brought the fish.”
She added: “The fish are all over our house and have gotten more intricate as they go on. All of them had trauma and washed up on the shore. One fish already had the wires coming out of its back when Mickey found it.”
A native of Baltimore, Md., Strider said his affection for the region began about five years ago when he flew over the Salton Sea preparing to land in San Diego where he accepted a job.
“I had never heard of the Salton Sea before, and wondered what it was,” he recalled.
Strider read everything he could find, and made one trip with his family. He also went on Facebook to meet likeminded people.
In 2011, “Gus” made his debut in the category “3D Mixed Media” at the San Diego County Fair. That’s the first and last time Strider’s fish were seen publicly until his Salton Riviera exhibit currently at Encinitas City Hall.
“The Visual Art Selection Panel was taken by the subject matter, the fact that he uses dead fish, and the skillful execution of each piece of artwork,” said Jim Gilliam, arts administrator, city of Encinitas. “Mickey’s work is whimsical in that he makes each ‘eyeball’ from a found object. The fish are more accessible and not alarming. You enjoy figuring out what he used. It’s the ultimate recycled exhibit, including the fish!”
The Salton Riviera got its name in the 1950s when developer M. Penn Philips and the Holly Corporation laid 250 miles of paved roads with plans of developing a luxury resort community. Early visitors included President Dwight Eisenhower, Frank Sinatra and Desi Arnaz. Most people purchased lots for investment but, in the end, few houses were built. By the late 1970s, with the catastrophic die-off of millions of tilapia, plans for a Salton Riviera were abandoned.
A documentary narrated by John Waters titled, “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” chronicles the historical, economic, political and environmental issues that face the sea today.
Mickey Strider’s Salton Riviera exhibit will be at The Civic Center Gallery through Aug. 27.
For more information, visit mickeystrider.com, facebook.com/saltonriviera, saltonseamuseum.org or saltonseadoc.com.