Nature, Imagination Itself
By Meredith E. Lewis
Watercolor magazine, an American Artist publication,
“But who can paint/Like Nature?” the 18th-century poet James Thomson queried. “Can imagination boast/Amid its gay creation, hues like hers?” An encounter with artist, author, and musician James Prosek yields a resounding Yes.
Across from a millpond in the woods of Easton, Connecticut, James Prosek has made a studio out of the 19th-century one-room schoolhouse he has known all his life. When he was a child, his teacher interrupted class to allow the children to watch the relocation of the 1850 Wilson Street School, as it is known; and when Prosek returned home later that afternoon, he was thrilled to find that it had ended up on his very own street. Two decades later, after graduating from Yale and publishing several books to critical acclaim, he purchased the schoolhouse, converting it into an artist’s studio, and moved into its adjoining farmhouse residence. “It’s been a good fit,” Prosek says of his working space. “It’s got a good vibe, being that it once was a schoolhouse and a place of learning.”
Prosek’s schoolhouse studio is reached by way of the main house. A few steps down from the kitchen, the space opens into a long, bright room framed by windows. Beyond them, a Colonial stone wall meanders—in varying degrees of repair—through the woods and across a meadow. Wide plank boards—the original floor—a potbellied stove and a wagon wheel, piles of books, and an unusual display of what appear to be agricultural tools serve as immediate reminders of the room’s past. But when Prosek offers that the elaborately arranged tools are actually a collection of antique eeling spears, the room’s identity immediately shifts from the past to the present, and to the persona and passions of its present occupant.
At 29, Prosek has already accomplished more than most people can hope to achieve in a lifetime. All seven of his illustrated books on fish and fishing have been well received, particularly the first, the bestselling Trout: An Illustrated History (Knopf, New York, New York), which he published when he was just 19. Hailed by The New York Times as “a fair bid to become the Audubon of the fishing world” and as a “national treasure” by former NBC Nightly News anchorman Tom Brokaw, Prosek is a young man of incredible talent—artistic, literary, and musical. His prose is graceful, engaging, and fresh, and provides an articulate and gently persuasive argument for living a contemplative life. The artistic component of his work, which exemplifies the return to realism practiced by many of his generation, is even more striking; Trout: An Illustrated History alone contains more than 70 exquisite watercolor paintings.
Prosek found fishing at the age of 9. It would become what his Brazilian father calls his loucura, his craziness (in Portugese), and a kind of religion. “Everything I ever do, whether it is fishing or not, is fishing,” Prosek has observed. And, indeed, that would appear to be so. Prosek spoke about fishing in his 1993 high-school valedictory speech and wrote about it in his admissions essay for Yale. The man who interviewed him at Yale was a fisherman, and Prosek joined the crew team so as to row on the same river—the Housatonic—where he had fished growing up. Prosek’s acoustic band, which has produced two recordings, was until very recently called “Troutband,” and it was fishing that not only took the artist abroad for the first time, but around the world—quite literally on the 41st parallel—and into the national spotlight.
But fearing stagnation—copying old work makes him irritable—Prosek has recently staged what would seem to be a somewhat radical departure from the meditative and symbiotic writing/illustrating genre that gave him his start. His recent works include Giant Bluefin Tuna, a life-size painting of a 750-pound fish harpooned by a commercial fishing expedition he accompanied last summer; Parrotfishe, another huge work (60" x 126"), which unites the tail of the beak-mouthed parrotfish with the head and body of a scarlet macaw; and Sailfishe, which conjures a magnificent sailfish with wings in white space. “I deliberately wanted to make a piece of art that would stand on its own and not be taken for illustration,” Prosek explains. “They don’t make books big enough for a 12-foot sailfish with parrot wings.”
Prosek’s recent works appear to subvert the emphasis the artist has always placed on direct observation—“I’d say my underlying purpose is one of an observer,” he has said—except for the fact that even his most lifelike and scientifically accurate renderings clearly bear the imprint of their maker, as well as a thread of the fantastic. Painting the colors of fish scales, for instance, can prove to be a unique challenge, as Prosek discovered when he set out—as Audubon so famously did with birds—to chronicle the trout of North America for Trout: An Illustrated History and later in the expanded text Trout of the World (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York, New York). A trout’s scales will reflect their surroundings, including the color of the shirt worn by the artist; hence, in some way, the artist’s presence is—quite literally—not only implied but also unequivocally captured in even the artist’s most “realistic” renderings.
Concurrently, trout are not particularly colorful under water, and they fade rather quickly when they die. But at the moment of transition from their world to ours, they are very much alive, and, in terms of their color, at their most vibrant state. It is this moment that Prosek captures, a moment so fleeting that it seems oddly appropriate that the predominant food or sustenance of trout, the mayfly—which lives out its entire adult life in the span of a day—should be called Ephemerella. Still, there exists the fact that Prosek paints the fish in what might be called an unnatural way. “I’m less interested in the animals themselves than I am in the way we see them,” he explains. “My paintings of trout are not depictions of actual fish; they are interpretations of those fish. There are many depictions of fish and birds that are completely dead and have no soul. The soul is more important to me than the object.”
With that in mind, the exaggerated or heightened realism so evident in Prosek’s recent works seems more akin to progression than it is to departure—an attempt by the artist to bring himself closer to the spirit and the telos of his work. “I’ve always been exaggerating nature,” he says. “To me, it’s not that much of a stretch to have a fish with wings. I’m trying to get closer to that feeling of creation, to make what’s in my head come alive on a page. I’ve always taken what Dürer said about nature to heart: ‘Art is embedded in Nature; whoever can draw her out, has her.’”
The artist is particularly drawn to animals that live at nature’s limits—animals, such as the parrotfish or the seahorse, which occupy very specific and rarified evolutionary niches. The parrotfish, Prosek explains, uses its beaklike mouth to process coral; hermaphroditic, the fish will switch gender in order to copulate. The dual nature of the parrotfish is exposed in Parrotfishe, although through a very different physical mutation that plays upon the beaklike mouth of the actual species. “I’ve never tried to depict anything exactly,” Prosek says. “I never felt that was really the point. The point was more to paint my perception.”
Fascinated in turns by evolution, natural history, and the role of human imagination, Prosek has filled his studio with books and objects that encourage their union. A wire armature of a fish hangs from the ceiling in one corner of the room, half-covered by wax scales. The skins of a scarlet macaw and a woodpecker rest on the table, along with a mounted pair of tiny wings. There are, of course, innumerable art supplies: watercolors, oils, heavy cans of solvent, a baking pan filled with colored pencils, copper plates for engraving, and enormous sheets of heavy, white watercolor paper. There are boxes of photographs from the artist’s many expeditions. And there is a piano. There are also books, lots of books, including John James Audubon’s The Birds of America, from which Prosek learned to draw as a child; What Evolution Is (Basic Books, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), by Ernst Mayr; The Secret Life of Lobsters (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, New York), by Trevor Corson; an atlas; and a book of poetry.
Beneath a coffee mug, the last book stands open to “The Tyger.” A rhythmic and lyrical poem in six quatrains by the British poet, painter, and engraver William Blake, “The Tyger” explores the convention that nature, like art, must somehow reflect the goodness—or otherwise—of its creator. “Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright/In the forests of the night,/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” the poem begins. The tiger—both sensuous and destructive—poses a moral dilemma, for what kind of creator would design a being that is simultaneously beautiful and terrible? Furthermore, what does it mean to live in a world where beauty and violence can coexist?
The poem intrigues Prosek, particularly its ruminations on symmetry. He wonders if the “immortal hand or eye” could be mankind, whose eternal presence in the world is maintained by the cyclicality of generations—generations who by their continued presence on earth perpetually reframe and reinterpret the natural world. “Perhaps the poem is about man’s interpretation of nature—and his fear of what he doesn’t know,” Prosek muses. “It seems to project the poet’s astonishment that such a weird and wonderful creation could be possible.” The artist is less troubled (or intrigued) by the poem’s insistence that the “forging” of the destructive tiger suggests a very deliberate—and troubling—kind of creating than he is by the tiger’s “fearful symmetry.” “I think the creator should be emotional, but also coldly analytical,” he asserts, “much like an artist.”
In a new series of drawings, Prosek looks at how issues of symmetry can dictate an animal’s place in the world. Like most of his other works, these animals are depicted in white space. “It’s just an ambiguous place,” the artist says of his framing. “It’s about what’s happening in the white space, the negative space created by the figure.” In one drawing, a graphite rendering of a seahorse projects a series of arcs across that white space, splitting its unnatural habitat into multiple planes by waves of pointed, linear motion. “The geometry I’ve added to the space around the figure is not a landscape,” Prosek maintains, “but an artificial rendering of the subject’s motion through space—its symmetry.”
Drawn, in large part, from an animal Prosek obtained from a seahorse farm in Hawaii, this seahorse is the artist’s attempt to express in evolutionary terms the niches that different creatures occupy—shown here by way of lines emanating from every point on the fish’s body that resists water—and how in the spaces between those lines room is made for other creatures to live and evolve. “The seahorse is a fish, but a very strange fish,” he says. “Its scientific name is hippocampus after the mythological Greek underwater horse, which is also the name of the part of the brain that processes memory and emotion.” So named because upon its removal, the hippocampus of the brain curls up like a seahorse, the link between the fish and memory—perhaps vestigial, unconscious memory—provides a striking, if subtle, narrative thread to the work.
Almost entirely self-taught in watercolor, Prosek creates a detailed pencil drawing before piling on—and subtracting with paper towels—layers of color. He prefers Old Holland watercolors and, like his early mentor Audubon, will often work in multimedia, layering colored pencil and whatever else strikes his fancy over a dry or semidry watercolor painting. The artist’s pencil notes run, in a careful hand, along the bottom of many of his most recent compositions, and several of his paintings include a small colored illustration or two in the periphery of the work. A luna moth hovers below Giant Bluefin Tuna, for instance, while a stub of a graphite pencil is carefully sketched beneath Kingfisher.
The effect of these notes, which cause the larger paintings to appear as if torn from a giant’s sketchbook, plant even Prosek’s latest and most imaginative work firmly in the realm of natural history—with Prosek playing the role of natural historian, albeit with a twist. Despite his exceptional knowledge and understanding of the creatures he draws and paints, it is not fact or detail, but rather a wonder of creation that he wishes to convey in his work. The artist often speaks of the “cabinets of curiosities” that made their first appearance in late-15th-century Italy, but that largely fell out of favor in the advent of rationalism and the rise of more “scientific” thinking. Featured in these “cabinets,” which could be as small as a decorative case or as large as an entire “room of wonder,” were rare and exotic objects, both natural and man-made, including fossils, stuffed animals and birds, wax effigies, unusual books, grotesque births, botanical and insect specimens, and automata that imitated living things. Many times a cabinet of curiosities would include the preserved or petrified parts of an exotic or extinct animal, rather than an animal in its entirety, and it would fall to the artist—and to his imagination—to render the complete creature. “Now that we have photos of everything, it’s kind of stifling to the imagination,” Prosek observes. “I’ve been thinking about the internet and the glut of information out there. Was the imagination more active when we knew less?
“The morphing [in my recent work] has led to a geometry, which may lead somewhere else,” he continues, “and that’s what’s exciting about making art—not knowing. Art is faith in not knowing. I’ve been wondering lately, in this age of available information, if the human imagination might be in danger of extinction, along with the diversity of animals on the planet. I feel that there may be a convergence there that could lead to a physical and imaginative desert. Or, it could be just the opposite, that the glut of information may fuel the imagination. I don’t know, it’s hard to tell, but in my own work I’ve been trying to pretend that I know less. When I make these morphed pieces I’m pretending I’m a child or mad scientist who’s been given pieces of animals and has been asked to put them together, like a toy.”
For Prosek, who grew up on the same dead-end street he lives on now, the real—and the imaginary—have always existed side by side. As a little boy, he harbored a love for secret places, gnomes, and Narnia, the fantastical realm of Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. When Prosek was 9, his mother left home and he turned to nature for comfort; the legacy of the solace he found there—and continues to discover as an adult—lends an emotive depth and intensity to his work today. “I’ve been lucky to find an audience for the things I do,” Prosek says. “I’ve found that the times when things work best for me are the times when I’m doing what my heart tells me to do. I’ve been trying to live more in my imagination and less in what’s really out there, because what’s really out there isn’t necessarily real either. What you create can become real.”
James Prosek is the author and illustrator of seven books on fish and fishing, including Fly-Fishing the 41st: Around the World on the 41st Parallel (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, New York); Early Love and Brook Trout (The Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut); Trout: An Illustrated History (Knopf, New York, New York); and the children’s picture book A Good Day’s Fishing (Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, New York, New York). His work has been favorably reviewed by The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, CNN, Sports Illustrated, and the Los Angeles Times, among other outlets; and the artist has received praise from Tom Brokaw, literary critic and scholar Harold Bloom, and Martha Stewart, who invited Prosek to appear on her show Martha Stewart Living in 2004. The artist exhibits his work widely; his latest show, “James Prosek: Symmetry and Myth,” at the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery, in Philadelphia, in May of 2005, featured new, imaginative works. Prosek has plans to release a book for young adults, The Day My Mother Left Me, with Simon & Schuster in 2006 and an illustrated book on eels in 2007. The artist is represented by Gerald Peters Gallery, in New York and Santa Fe, and by the curator and art dealer Waqas Wajahat. For more information about James Prosek, visit www.troutsite.com, www.waqaswajahat.com, or your local bookstore.
First published in Watercolor magazine, an American Artist publication, Summer 2005. All text copyright VNU Business Media, 770 Broadway, New York, NY 10003. Reproduced with permission.
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity ... and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.
— William Blake (1757-1827), August 23, 1799. The Letters of William Blake, edited by Geoffrey Keynes (1956).
Fish are both the object of human fantasy—the mermaid, half golden locks and breasts, half scales and tail—and the representation of the sublime and horrifying, the white leviathan of Ahab’s monomania. For far Eastern peoples, the fish is the symbol of peace and order, strength and perseverance. It inhabits Japanese Zen garden pools. It is the meal of good fortune on the Chinese New Year, the auspicious symbol of boys’ day in Japan, the representation of the eye for Tibetan Buddhists. The fish is holy for Jews on Passover, the early symbol of Christianity, the miracle of Jesus, the food that bestows immortal life, the Friday dinner. It is Pisces, the twelfth sign of the zodiac, which denotes the end of the astrological year and also the beginning
— James Prosek, Fly-Fishing the 41st: Around the World on the 41st Parallel (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, New York).