Dinner guests at Ed Koch’s home probably have a difficult time looking anywhere but up.
The handmade aquarium hanging from the ceiling has a way of outshining everything else.
Vibrant yellow, blue and red fish swim above the dinner table, making it look as though there’s another world floating just a few feet away.
Each tropical fish has been carved and painted by Koch, a Niskayuna resident and General Electric retiree.
While he’s been carving since he was a child, he started making the detailed tropical fish decades ago as a way to connect with his youngest son, Bruce. He’d moved across the country and had started collecting tropical fish as a hobby.
“So what does a father do? He talks to his son about the weather and not much. So I asked him how his fish are doing,” Koch said.
When one of Bruce’s fish died, Koch decided to carve a replica of the pet.
“He was very disappointed, so I carved him a fish and I sent it to him. I said ‘This one isn’t going to die on ya,’” Koch said.
Not too long after that, Koch said his oldest son Mark saw the carving and began hinting that he wanted one. So Koch made one for him. Then other family members began to hint that they’d also like one. Soon, he’d made one for every member of his family, giving them away at birthdays and holidays.
With all of these gifts, Bruce has created a ceiling aquarium of his own in the dining room of his Texas home. It features more than 100 sea creatures, all carved by Koch.
“It’s an incredible aquarium on our ceiling and people of course notice that and I’m delighted to tell them about my dad who loves to carve. People are always amazed. He’s quite the artist,” Bruce said.
When Koch sets out to make a new fish for someone, he often carves two; one to hang on his ceiling and one to give away. He researches different types of tropical fish and other aquatic creatures, from masked butterflyfish to clownfish to octopus, carefully depicting their coloration through layers of paint.
“The detailed painting that he does on them is really something and some of those intricate designs are always fascinating to me,” Bruce said.
Over the years, as his ceiling aquarium has grown, Bruce has gained more respect for his father’s work and temperament.
“As I get older, I really appreciate that stuff more and more because you just don’t see anybody that’s done so much artwork as he has,” Bruce said, “My brother and I have been really fascinated over the years with his creativity.”
Carving has always been a passion for Koch, who grew up in Poughkeepsie and believes his aptitude for it came from his grandfather.
“My grandfather was a woodcarver in New York City. He worked in a factory before the [Great] Depression. I think all the buildings in New York all had fancy moldings. There [were] a lot of carvers who made those panels and moldings and such. He was one of them,” Koch said.
Throughout Koch’s career, he continued to carve, though it was challenging to find time to do it while working at the Research Center at GE, where he operated the electron microscope. Once he retired in 1990 and had more time on his hands, he began to delve into creating everything from tropical fish to clocks and mangle boards, a form of Northern European folk art.
Beyond carving, Koch makes jewelry and notecards, using photographs of flowers he grows around his home.
He used to sell his artwork, but lately, he’s focusing on enjoying the process and giving it to others.
“I try to give it to the family. I’ve got a big enough family that there’s always somebody. Then I make toys for the grandchildren and if somebody’s having a baby I might make a toy and send it. There’s always something,” Koch said.
It’s also a way to connect with friends and family. Bruce, who years after his father taught him the basics of carving has over the years tried his hand at the art form, can certainly attest to that.
“I like to make things but it takes a lot of patience to do what he does. When you think about you’re taking this piece of wood, you’re cutting it and having to paint it so precisely. It takes a steady hand,” Bruce said, “He’s a very disciplined and steady kind of person. It’s inspiring what he’s done with the wood carving and with his life.”