Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with the Experts: James Prosek

Artist, naturalist, and best-selling author, James Prosek, discusses his art as it relates to conservation of trout, ocean fishes, and freshwater eels.

By Amy Nelson

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Artist, writer, and naturalist James Prosek made his authorial debut at the age of nineteen with Trout: an Illustrated History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996). The book featured seventy of his watercolor paintings of the trout of North America. Prosek continued to paint trout, and in 2003, produced Trout of the World, which featured original watercolors of species ranging from the Oxus trout of eastern Afghanistan to the small golden brown trout of British chalk streams. (An updated edition of this book was just published this year.)

An obvious connection between Prosek’s art and the field of conservation is the World Trout Initiative, which he launched with Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard in 2004. The initiative raises money for coldwater habitat conservation through the sale of t-shirts featuring Prosek’s trout paintings.

Prosek has written for The New York Times and National Geographic Magazine. He won a Peabody Award in 2003 for his documentary about traveling through England in the footsteps of Izaak Walton, the seventeenth-century author of The Compleat Angler.

Trout are not the only creatures to be painted in vivid detail and dazzling color by this impassioned artist. Prosek’s recent works include a collection of life size paintings of 35 Atlantic fishes. To create these paintings, Prosek traveled the Atlantic from Nova Scotia to the Cape Verde Islands to personally witness and capture the brilliant, dynamic colors of each fish just before they fade with death. This personal tribute to marine beauty and fragility, the subject of his 2012 book Ocean Fishes (Rizzoli, 2012), earned Prosek the Gold Medal for Distinction in Natural History Art from the Academy of Natural Science, an award recognizing a person or group of people whose artistic endeavors and life’s work have contributed to mankind’s better understanding and appreciation of living things.

Prosek has also applied his artistry to the freshwater eel.  His book Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish, published in September 2010 was a New York Times Book Review editor’s choice, and was the subject of a PBS documentary. He is currently working on a book about how we name and order the natural world.

How did the World Trout Initiative program come together?

My first book, Trout: An Illustrated History, received a good deal of attention. Part of the appeal, I think, was that I was a 19-year-old publishing a book on a personal passion, and that’s a good story. Because the trout is the favored fish of fly fishermen, and because there weren’t a lot of young fly-fishing voices at the time, I also was embraced as a kind of poster child for the industry. Although I loved fly-fishing, I was primarily an artist and writer focused on documenting the diversity of trout in watercolors. But through the exposure of that first book I also came to meet some people with financial means who loved fly-fishing, who were advocates for conservation of fresh and saltwater ecosystems, and on the boards of international conservation NGOs. Without even realizing it, I was developing a network of people who really influenced me in terms of ideas about conservation.

I was asked by people who were buying my work to donate work to help raise money for some of these conservation groups. Among them was the Yellowstone Park Foundation. A former director of the foundation brought me out to the park to join trips with potential donors, working to raise money for much-needed restoration work on streams and habitat. Through some of those trips, I met others who were helping the foundation, and developed a friendship with Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia clothing company. We cooked up an idea to raise money for trout conservation by selling t-shirts with my paintings on them. To date we have raised over $600,000 that has been given away to grassroots conservation groups around the world.

With the World Trout Initiative’s sale of t-shirts with your artwork on them, you’re also getting your artwork beyond the doors of galleries and museums…

Yeah! Some of the projects we’ve funded have turned into great things. One that I have been most excited about is the Balkan Trout Restoration Group. Eight years ago we gave $20,000 to Aleš Snoj at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. He built a web site, got people involved, and it grew into something bigger and bigger. A young American, John Zablocki, went over to work with the Balkan Trout Restoration Group. Today, John works with Trout Unlimited in the U.S., and now both organizations are working together. This started a global conversation–about saving trout diversity and clean water. Trout can only live in pristine, cold water environments.  We have continued to fund the Balkan Trout Restoration Group over the years, and have funded other efforts in Armenia, Turkey, Japan, Italy and around North America.

The Balkan Restoration Group was initially trying to identify native populations of fish, some of which were thought to have been extinct. There was a fish in the Zeta River in Serbia-Montenegro. I traveled there with an Austrian friend to look for fish and we couldn’t find any. We heard they were extinct. [The Balkan Trout Restoration Group] went on subsequent trips with electroshocking equipment and they rediscovered this fish in a tributary of the river. They then began a restoration program. They try to catch individuals, spawn them out in hatcheries, raise juveniles, and reintroduce them to the rivers.

Yvon’s grassroots conservation philosophy – giving small amounts of money to a lot of people — has been very effective.

You can do pretty amazing things with relatively little money. On a recent trip to Micronesia, I spent time with a guy named Bill Raynor, who moved to the island of Pohnpei 35 years ago as a Jesuit volunteer. He intended to teach local people western ways of agriculture, but he got quickly converted to their ways of growing things: a farm that is seamless with the forest (agroforestry) and sympathetic to the ecosystem.  Bill ended up staying in Pohnpei and developed The Nature Conservancy’s Micronesia branch, which grew to become a regional office. Bill told me that his strategy, rather than raising money to buy large tracts of land, is to invest in the local people and help them become conservation leaders. He believes that it is the only way to save the planet.  He has mentored so many young people in Micronesia who have become powerful, international leaders, ministers and senators who are working to save forests and estuaries and create marine protected areas.

I always liked the Patagonia ethic, and Yvon is an amazing innovator. He has raised millions of dollars for land conservation. He recently funded a documentary about dams, DamNation, which should be released soon.  He’s a real advocate for dam removal—a very expensive but very effective way to restore the circulatory system of our land.

Have more conservation organizations sought your collaboration?

Yes. I’m working with Riverkeeper and their Canadian affiliate, Waterkeeper Alliance to put together a whole symposium on freshwater eel restoration in the St. Lawrence this fall. [Coral reef ecologist] Jeremy Jackson, who is putting together a campaign to raise awareness of coral reef restoration, just asked me if I might be able to paint some parrot fish as the campaign develops. Requests come in almost weekly now. I probably can’t execute all of them but it’s nice. I feel like there has been a really positive response to some of the stuff I’ve been doing and the messages I’ve been trying to put out there.  The fact that this group in Canada wants to do a whole symposium about eels is a really good sign! I never set out to become a conservationist, but because I love the resource so much and want to see diversity protected, I have inevitably become one.

What made you decide to paint and write a book about eels? Was it the knowledge that overfishing, dams, degraded habitat, and climate change are bringing eel populations to all time lows?

I was first exposed to eels while fishing as a kid. When I’d catch one, it would pull so hard I’d think it was a huge trout or bass. Then, when I’d see it, I’d think, “What the hell is that alien thing on my line?”  They were just so bizarre looking.  My next exposure came when I got caught fishing illegally in one of the local reservoirs [in Easton, CT] by a game warden named Joe Haines. Joe then became my mentor. His parents were of Italian and German descent, and his family ate eels. Through Joe, I started learning a little about eels and their life history. I learned that the eels in the streams around my home were born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and that was totally incomprehensible to me.

In the process of producing Trout: An Illustrated History and Trout of the World, I spent a lot of time in freshwater ecosystems. The eel was this “other” creature that lived in these ecosystems. When I started to express an interest in eels, many of my early supporters in the trout fishing community said, “Why are you so interested in eels? You’re going from painting the most beautiful fish in the river to embracing the ugliest fish in the river!” I almost wanted to write about eels to spite them.  They were a fascinating fish and totally ignored.

Eels are really beautiful, and the way they move is amazing. They really are the embodiment of the water itself. They are so fluid. There have been studies where people put adult eels in tubes with flowing water to see how much energy they expend as they swim from the rivers to their spawning grounds in the ocean. They use very little energy covering several thousand miles. They are so efficient, and that’s why they haven’t changed much in 200 million years.

I had this amazing editor at Harper Collins, Larry Ashmead; he was one of the most inquisitive people I knew.  Larry had published my third book [The Complete Angler] and we had become good friends.  One day I he told me this idea he had for me to travel a latitude line around the world fishing and write a book about it. I was 22 years old; how could I say no? I decided it made most sense if I traveled the latitude line of my home: the 41st parallel. Larry and his partner had a house in Tuscany. Since I was passing through that part of the world around Christmas time on my 41st parallel travels, I spent Christmas Eve with them. While in Tuscany, we drove down to Lago Trasimeno and there were these stakes sticking out of the water. Larry asked me what I thought they were.  I said I thought they were eel traps and I said, “You know, the eels in this lake are born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.” Larry didn’t believe me.  But when he got home he sent me this essay he’d found of Rachel Carson’s from her book Under the Sea Wind about the journey of a female eel from a small east coast pond to the sea to spawn.  He added a note saying he thought that the subject of eels might make a good book. He had enough authors who actually made money from their books that he could push anything through the sales department.  One of the other editors at Harper Collins told me that Larry brought a rubber eel into the sales meeting when he was pitching the book.  “Okay Larry,” they said, “go ahead.”  He didn’t even have to say anything.  I’ve been very lucky over the years to have supporters like Larry.

I know from reading your book EELS: An Exploration, From New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Mysterious Fish and from watching the associated PBS documentary The Mystery of Eels, that you worked with scientists. That collaboration undoubtedly informed your work as an artist and writer. Do you think you informed their work, or the work of conservationists?

I hope so. I certainly interacted with the five or so eel biologists that exist in the world. Like me, they’ve become completely amazed by and obsessed with this fish. Because they study a fish that is so mysterious, they already have a built in way of talking about their subject that is open to other ways of seeing. Although they are scientists, and in doing their work they have to stick to recordable, tractable data, they all have a built-in appreciation for local mythology, eel lore, and the otherness that eels represent. In our discussions, and through the book, I may have helped them communicate stuff that they had been thinking but hadn’t articulated, or aren’t allowed to articulate because those thoughts don’t fit into the framework of being a scientist.

You just can’t quantify something like the migration of the freshwater eel. You’ll never be able to pick apart how they do it. I mean, how do the orphaned offspring, born as tiny larvae in the middle of the Atlantic know to leave the Gulf Stream and start heading towards the coast of North America? If they didn’t leave that predominant current, they’d continue up the highway to Murmansk. And then when the adults return to spawn in the sea after spending 15-30 years in freshwater, how do they find their way back to a place that isn’t even a place? It’s an amorphous blob in the ocean that’s different every year!

If there’s anything I’d like to have gotten across that I didn’t in the documentary it is that science really does, in its way of inquiry, expose new mysteries, and the mysteries will never stop coming.

In his review of Eels, the New York Times’ Paul Greenberg wrote of you, “both his art and writing draw their inspiration from a similar challenge: to express the ineffable, fading aspect of the natural world in the industrialized era, the feeling of bright colors slipping through your fingers.” Is this what you’re going for?

That’s true of my work in general. With eels, that’s a big part of it. Because my work comes out of a deep love of nature, and because we live in a time when we are losing species as fast as we are discovering them, as somebody who paints natural history and tries to make commentaries on the human relationship to nature, the effort is inevitably different than what Audubon was trying to do, which was to catalog diversity that was seemingly endless and could not be extinguished.

We are losing so much, and have potential to lose so much more. I am trying to document the fading aspect of living things on an individual level yes, but also on a global level, and reflect on what that means. Life is ephemeral in both senses, all living organisms die, but all species eventually seem to die off too—unfortunately we’re just accelerating that process.  As a fish dies, and its life is flickering out, its dynamic colors shift, and then they are gone. I’m trying to capture that moment in painting, but, again, I’m also trying to document certain aspects of the natural world as a whole that are fading and dying out.

Originally, what drew me to the eel wasn’t that it was declining; I hadn’t even known that until I was years into the project.  The real data on eel decline hadn’t started to come out until the mid-2000s. John Casselman was doing surveys of young eels coming up the St. Lawrence River and he realized that the populations had literally crashed. But once I fell in love with this creature, I certainly became interested in trying to get the word out that they are declining, and that they need more help than something like the Atlantic Salmon, because there are no millionaires fishing for eels and there is no Atlantic Eel Federation (like there is for salmon).

Your latest work (and book) is a collection of 35 life-size paintings of the most pursued ocean fish. I read in an article in Nature Conservancy magazine that this project began with your desire to see a live bluefin tuna. Tell me about that and how it led to this project?

While visiting my mom in Chatham, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, I was filling up at a gas station one day, and at the station, there was a beautiful red, 1954 Chevy pickup truck parked outside. I went into the little office to ask about the truck, and I got to talking with the owner of the station, Norman St. Pierre. In his office, there were aerial pictures of schools of bluefin tuna, and some pictures of a massive bluefin tuna on the deck of a boat. I had no idea that bluefin tuna could be much bigger than grown men. As it turns out, Norm also had a little Cesna airplane, and in the summertime, he was a tuna spotter for a commercial harpoon boat run by a father/son team. Harpooning is a very old way of hunting fish. I thought, “There’s a person on a platform off the bow of a boat throwing a spear at a giant tuna moving through the water? I’ve got to see this.”

At the same time, I was also interested in doing larger scale water colors. I wanted to make works that would not be mistaken for book illustrations. One way of doing that, I felt, was to just paint them really big. I thought it’d be so cool to paint one of these big fish life-size. I knew from painting trout that the colors fade so quickly, that I couldn’t just see this fish dead on the shore and paint it. I’d have to be on the boat so I could see the fish free swimming in the water, and then on the deck of the boat when it was still alive.

So in 2004, I went back to Cape Cod and was able to go up in the plane with Norman for a couple of days, and then in the boat for two days. On the last hour of the last day, Norman spotted a school of giant bluefin. (The size cutoff for giant bluefin is something like 350-400 pounds.) There’s a 42-foot platform (called the “pulpit” in New England) off the bow of the boat that is a long as the boat itself. The harpooner runs out to the end of the pulpit, and grabs the harpoon. From his plane, Norman directs the driver of the boat. He’ll say “They’re eight boat lengths ahead…five boat lengths…two…okay, you should see the fish now.” The boat is moving pretty fast, and the guy throws the harpoon at the fish, and they get one that is about 750 lbs. That was the first large fish I painted, and it kind of started the whole body of work.

A couple of years later, I decided to paint more Atlantic fish, life-sized. But I didn’t want to paint them to represent a species in a field guide. I wanted to paint individual fish that I had a personal experience with.

Your paintings are described as being absolutely scientifically accurate, yet they are so much more. As Christopher Riopelle writes in the book, with these paintings you “ask us to enter into a direct relationship with that subject, however big, however menacing it might seem…” When I interviewed eco-art pioneers Helen Mayer & Newton Harrison, the word ‘empathy’ came up quite a bit. To paint these fish, you become pretty intimate with them. Is empathy something you hope people experience when they see your paintings?

There is an intimacy I develop with each particular fish in the process of making these paintings. Seeing it die is amazing. I’m removed enough as a fisherman who eats fish that I’m not crying, but it is still emotional. Watching the life come out of something is very powerful—and not just the colors fade, but a kind of aura, a visible glow. Not long ago, I watched someone fairly close to me actually, physically die. I was shocked to realize that the same thing happens in humans.

Spending time with the fish in terms of sitting on the floor and painting it, is also a very intimate, emotional experience. I hope some of that is conveyed through the paintings when they are exhibited.  I want people to know how big these things fish are, and I want people to know the brilliance and beauty of their colors and patterns that you can only really witness if you’re on the boat when a living fish first comes out of the water.  Sure, someone could say that you can get that sense of scale and presence from a taxidermied specimen of a marlin on the wall, but to me, it’s not the same. I thought people would feel more invested in protecting these fish they ate as sushi if they knew what the fish actually looked like.

Are you able to watch people reacting to your work? Are you getting a sense of whether or not that is happening?

We’ve exhibited the paintings in art museums and natural history spaces like the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. The tuna and swordfish paintings were in a show in Monaco, and the Prince of Monaco and his sister came. That is significant only because the Prince is a big advocate for bluefin tuna preservation, and Monaco is the only place in the world where it is illegal to eat bluefin tuna.  In the coming months we’ll be exhibiting some of the large ocean fishes paintings at the Addison Gallery of American Art, The New Britain Museum of American Art, the North Carolina Museum of Art, The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History and some other places.

I have had the chance to see people’s reactions, and they have reinforced my hopes. Some people have told me that the paintings provoked some kind of dialogue about the fish, and about the effort I went through to be on the deck of the boat and see the fish. I think when you put a lot of work into a piece, people can feel that accumulated time and space.

Speaking of you being on the deck of the boat…your book Ocean Fishes features a detail of the eye from your 12-foot, 8-inch blue martin painting. In the eye, the reflection of you taking the fish’s picture can be seen. Why did you include that detail in the painting?

To me, the paintings were not just about the fish, but about me being there, looking at the fish. I didn’t want to erase my participation in that experience. The paintings are my personal interpretations of the fish. I wasn’t trying to paint some conglomerated fish to represent the ideal of a swordfish. I didn’t want my experience to be erased because it’s me there on that particular day. If I was wearing a particular shirt or jacket and its colors were reflected in the fish, I’d put that into the painting. If the fish had a scar on it, I’d paint that. When you see a blue marlin or tuna coming up out of the water, and it is first hit by the sun, it’s really amazing. They colors are so dynamic, shifting and changing. Once the fish is out of the water, it reflects our world back to us. Some of them are so silvery that they’re like mirrors. I was captivated by that idea in itself. So I consider the paintings to be, in a way, self-portraits of a personal experience in a place.

When I’d paint trout as a kid, I’d always start painting the head and then work back toward the tail, but I always left the eye as the last thing to paint. It was sort of the treat, the cherry on top. The last thing I’d do was put a little, white dot on the eyeball. That little dot made the whole painting become more dimensional and alive. It never occurred to me what that dot was until I was staring into the eye of a swordfish.  A swordfish eye is so large that I could literally see my face and shoulders and the rigging of the boat above me and the clouds in the sky behind me in the reflection.  And it occurred to me for the first time—and it was so obvious but something that had just never occurred to me—that that little white dot I painted on the eyeball is the sun. To our eye as humans, that sun is what gives us perspective in the world, it’s our position in the universe, our place on the planet. I was absolutely blown away. If you painted a swordfish 1000 feet underwater in its habitat, you wouldn’t put a highlight on the eyeball. The highlight on the eyeball is about that fish being out of its element and in our element.

To do this project, you depended on those who were pursuing these fish. What was it like to be a part of the killing of something you’re trying to save? How were you influenced by the fishermen, and them by you?

I grew to have a real respect for some of the fishermen, especially the swordfish guys. They’re just so skilled, and if you’re going to harvest swordfish, harpooning is the best, most sustainable way to do it other than rod and line. It’s the large-scale, industrial ways of fishing—long lining and purse seining, and bottom trauling—that are destroying our oceans. On a basic level, I don’t have a problem with people harvesting fish to eat. I had more of a problem being partly responsible for a 700-lb blue marlin being killed, because there aren’t that many out there anymore that get that big. That’s part of the reason why I didn’t go on a marlin fishing boat in the Caribbean. I went instead off the coast of West Africa around the Cape Verde islands, because I was told that the people eat them there. I went with that marlin to the market, where it was given to [a local merchant], dismembered, and sold to people for food.

There is definitely some conflict in the process of making the works, but my hope would be that fish populations would be healthy enough that individuals who wanted to catch a fish and eat it could do so. If people could only eat fish that they caught themselves, the oceans would be in much better shape.

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