THE ART OF FISHING

PAINTER JAMES PROSEK FINDS IN­SPI­RA­TION ON THE STREAMS OF HIS CHILD­HOOD

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By KRISTA KARL­SON

He was known as “Trout Boy” around the Yale Univer­sity cam­pus as a stu­dent, so it’s no sur­prise that artist James Prosek has crafted a ca­reer from pur­su­ing, paint­ing and writ­ing about fish.

As the car winds down the leafy roads of Eas­ton, Con­necti­cut, James Prosek gazes out the win­dow at fa­mil­iar ground. He lives just two doors down from his child­hood home. The first stop is the lo­cal gen­eral store for cof­fee. Next, a gravel pull-off just big enough for a sin­gle car.

The caf­feine starts to kick in as he pulls on his waders and boots. He as­sem­bles his fly rod, and we duck into the woods by the Mill River.

Prosek is tall and lean, with a short laugh that punc­tu­ates his sen­tences. Once dubbed by The New York Times as a “fair bid to be­come the Audubon of the fishing world,” he’s been an artist since child­hood, when he started fishing this stream for trout.

“I fell deeply in love with trout,” he says. “I can’t tell you how con­sumed I was by this fish.” When he sat down to sketch trout as a young per­son, Prosek says he could still hear the rush of the stream and the sound of in­sects, so fresh was the ex­pe­ri­ence. “The act of draw­ing had sharp­ened my ob­ser­va­tion skills and made me a more ef­fi­cient fish­er­man,” he says.

He re­mem­bers be­ing 12 and search­ing for a book about the trout of North Amer­ica. When he couldn’t find one, he wrote to fish and game of­fices around the coun­try, but no

one could tell him ex­actly how many types of trout ex­isted. So at 19, as a stu­dent at Yale Univer­sity, he pub­lished a book, Trout: An Il­lus­trated History. From then on, Prosek was known as “Trout Boy” around cam­pus. The book launched a ca­reer that has taken him around the world to study, paint and fish. He has trav­eled as far as Mon­go­lia, Ja­pan and Tur­key doc­u­ment­ing 200 va­ri­eties of trout, but Eas­ton re­mains his true north.

“Every time I paint a fish, I’m a dif­fer­ent per­son,” says Prosek, who is 43 and has writ­ten 11 books, most of them about fish. “I’ve lived dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences. That all comes through in the work. I can’t paint a fish the way I did when I was 18.”

Just as his style has evolved, so has his re­la­tion­ship to fishing. As a kid, fishing felt like his whole life. He be­friended a game war­den at the reser­voir down the street from his home, who taught him much about fishing and life. That friend­ship is re­counted in his book Joe and Me: An Ed­u­ca­tion in Fishing and Friend­ship. But these days his busy sched­ule is less con­ducive to wet­ting a line, with gallery show­ings, com­mis­sioned work and book con­tracts. He still loves to fish, but he prefers to cap­ture his quarry’s nat­u­ral beauty on can­vas in­stead of on a fly.

Through his eyes, the nat­u­ral world is a se­ries of com­plex sys­tems to be closely ex­am­ined. His work chal­lenges con­ven­tional meth­ods of nam­ing species and cat­e­go­riz­ing them. He has painted imag­i­nary hy­brids such as the par­rot­fish, as well as num­bered sil­hou­ettes with­out a key. He once bought a freezer to house a dead fox that his neigh­bor found so he could paint it later. Provoca­tive, yet deeply rooted in ob­ser­va­tion, his work draws at­ten­tion to all the ways the nat­u­ral world is in­ter­con­nected. “Na­ture might be messier than we want it to be,” he says. “I’m try­ing to add an­other layer to that re­al­ity.”

The sun-speck­led stream smells of yes­ter­day’s rain. Wa­ter drips off the rem­nants of a dam that was de­mol­ished long ago. A fish rises up­stream, and Prosek’s eyes light up.

“Whoa!”

He crouches and waits, looks back over his shoul­der, smiles and shrugs. It’s like watch­ing some­one meet an old lover who now is a good friend. He doesn’t fish as hard as he once did, but he re­mains con­nected to his fishing past. “I’m grate­ful that I can go to places that I spent time as a kid,” Prosek says. “It gives me a strong sense of place.”

The stream is fed by a reser­voir less than a mile up­stream. When he was young, the wa­ter was too warm for brook trout, so he caught rain­bows and browns stocked by the state. When a wa­ter fil­tra­tion plant was built two decades ago, re­leas­ing cool wa­ter from the bot­tom of the reser­voir in­stead of warm wa­ter off the top, the stream be­came a home once again

for na­tive brook­ies. He enjoys the chal­lenge that trout pose to fish­er­men and says un­der­stand­ing the ecol­ogy of the stream is im­por­tant.

Prosek’s love for trout spawned an in­ter­est in cold-wa­ter con­ser­va­tion, and in 2005 he co-founded the World Trout Ini­tia­tive with fly fish­er­man and Patag­o­nia founder Yvon Chouinard. The or­ga­ni­za­tion funds ef­forts to pro­tect and re­store wild trout and other species. Prosek no longer is in­volved in the daily op­er­a­tions, but con­ser­va­tion re­mains cen­tral to his per­sonal and artis­tic ethics.

“What we do in our back­yard has con­se­quences around the world,” he says. “I want to live in a world that has trout in it, and war­blers, and beau­ti­ful crea­tures that need clean en­vi­ron­ments.”

The sun is high now, and it dap­ples the stream. I’m fix­ated on one spot where the rays pierce the rain-mud­died wa­ter and il­lu­mi­nate a few small trout. Prosek comes and stands next to me. He re­mem­bers watch­ing sec­tions like this one as a kid. We stand qui­etly for a moment, and then it’s time to leave. On the drive back to his stu­dio, we pass Prosek’s fa­ther sit­ting on the front porch of the artist’s child­hood home. He waves. “I’ve never been to an­other place that I felt fed me cre­atively more than here,” he says.

His stu­dio, a barn just steps from his home, pro­vides a quiet space to think and paint. The floor is cov­ered with dozens of piles of images, books, sketches and sticky notes. He says that the piles rep­re­sent his brain, and that when he re­turns to the stu­dio each morn­ing, they help him get reac­quainted with his thoughts from the day be­fore.

His work, Prosek says, drives al­most ev­ery­thing he does. “It’s what I am,” he says, adding that he thinks paint­ing is a lot like fishing. “As an artist, I cre­ate a prod­uct, and then I try to find some­body who’s will­ing to bite it.”

“I want to live in a world that has trout in it, and war­blers, and beau­ti­ful crea­tures that need clean en­vi­ron­ments.”

Much of Prosek’s work is com­mis­sioned. His stu­dio is lit­tered with projects.

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