A Young Artist Finds Solace In Creatures Of The Sea And Sky

  • Parrotfishe is one of James Prosek's "hybrid paintings." Created in 2005, the image is a "commentary on how we name nature. This creature, a parrotfish, became its name in protest of being named."
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    Parrotfishe is one of James Prosek's "hybrid paintings." Created in 2005, the image is a "commentary on how we name nature. This creature, a parrotfish, became its name in protest of being named."
    Courtesy James Prosek and Schwarz | Wajahat
  • Prosek painted Bluefin Tuna in 2004 from a specimen he harpooned in Cape Cod near Barnstable, Mass. The massive life-size image depicts a 750-pound fish more than 9 feet long.
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    Prosek painted Bluefin Tuna in 2004 from a specimen he harpooned in Cape Cod near Barnstable, Mass. The massive life-size image depicts a 750-pound fish more than 9 feet long.
    Courtesy James Prosek and Waqas Wajahat, New York
  • In an essay that accompanied Prosek's 2008 collection in which Peacock is featured, literary critic Harold Bloom cites "The Peacock" by W.B. Yeats: "What's riches to him/ That has made a great peacock/ With the pride of his eye?"
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    In an essay that accompanied Prosek's 2008 collection in which Peacock is featured, literary critic Harold Bloom cites "The Peacock" by W.B. Yeats: "What's riches to him/ That has made a great peacock/ With the pride of his eye?"
    James Prosek
  • Motmot is a watercolor Prosek painted in the field on a 2010 collecting trip to a previously unexplored region in Suriname with the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
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    Motmot is a watercolor Prosek painted in the field on a 2010 collecting trip to a previously unexplored region in Suriname with the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
    James Prosek
  • Toucanet is from the same 2010 collecting trip to Suriname. Prosek has traveled through the Balkans, southeast Turkey, New Zealand and Micronesia to document rare, threatened and fantastical species.
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    Toucanet is from the same 2010 collecting trip to Suriname. Prosek has traveled through the Balkans, southeast Turkey, New Zealand and Micronesia to document rare, threatened and fantastical species.
    James Prosek
  • Sailfishe, a monumental 10-foot painting of a hybrid creature, shows a glistening life-size Pacific sailfish that Prosek caught in Mexico — only instead of a dorsel fin, the fish has a colorful parrot wing. "With all that we know now, imagination is becoming extinct," says Prosek. "I am trying to forget. I am pretending to be a naturalist from a time past."
    Hide caption
    Sailfishe, a monumental 10-foot painting of a hybrid creature, shows a glistening life-size Pacific sailfish that Prosek caught in Mexico — only instead of a dorsel fin, the fish has a colorful parrot wing. "With all that we know now, imagination is becoming extinct," says Prosek. "I am trying to forget. I am pretending to be a naturalist from a time past."
    James Prosek

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Artist, writer and naturalist James Prosek published his first book, Trout: an Illustrated History, when he was just 19 years old. As a kid, he used art as a way to work through the ups and downs of childhood. i i

hide captionArtist, writer and naturalist James Prosek published his first book, Trout: an Illustrated History, when he was just 19 years old. As a kid, he used art as a way to work through the ups and downs of childhood.

Courtesy James Prosek
Artist, writer and naturalist James Prosek published his first book, Trout: an Illustrated History, when he was just 19 years old. As a kid, he used art as a way to work through the ups and downs of childhood.

Artist, writer and naturalist James Prosek published his first book, Trout: an Illustrated History, when he was just 19 years old. As a kid, he used art as a way to work through the ups and downs of childhood.

Courtesy James Prosek

In February, NPR's Backseat Book Club read a novel about a troubled kid who finds both strength and solace in the artwork of the renowned naturalist John James Audubon. The novel, Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt, takes place in 1968 in a little town in upstate New York where middle-schooler Doug Swietek is drowning in life's complications. Nothing is going right until Doug meets a kind man at the local library who introduces him to Audubon's artistic genius. The librarian's particular genius is that he encourages Doug to try his own hand at art. When Doug picks up the black drawing pencil, he says, "it felt ... spectacular."

Doug was able to use art to work through his feelings, tear down barriers and better understand the world around him. That story line reminded us of a real-life character whose work we've featured on All Things Considered. The artist and author James Prosek uses vivid and highly detailed watercolors to capture the natural world. He's compared often to Audubon, though unlike the 19th-century artist's focus on birds, Prosek's work most often focuses on animals with fins instead of feathers. His books include The Complete Angler, Trout: An Illustrated History, Ocean Fishes: Paintings of Saltwater Fish, and Trout of the World Updated and Revised.

Long before Prosek became a world-famous artist, he was a kid who used art as a way to work through the ups and downs of a challenging childhood, much like the lead character in the novel Okay for Now. As a boy, Prosek found comfort in art and in nature. His own children's book, The Day My Mother Left, is based on his own experience of using the marriage of art and nature to navigate his parents' sudden divorce. Though he now mainly paints fish, as a kid Prosek had an obsession with Audubon's work, much like Doug. He, too, would lose himself in the pages of Audubon's Birds of America. And he, too, would pick up pencils, brushes and crayons to see if he could capture the beauty of birds on paper.

In this childhood photo, Prosek holds a dead magnolia warbler that flew into the window of his family's living room. "We heard it hit the window and my dad picked it up and showed it to me," Prosek recalls. "He wasn't afraid to show me things like that. He introduced me to nature through birds. Death was part of life. I was captivated to hold the actual specimen in my hand." i i

hide captionIn this childhood photo, Prosek holds a dead magnolia warbler that flew into the window of his family's living room. "We heard it hit the window and my dad picked it up and showed it to me," Prosek recalls. "He wasn't afraid to show me things like that. He introduced me to nature through birds. Death was part of life. I was captivated to hold the actual specimen in my hand."

Courtesy James Prosek
In this childhood photo, Prosek holds a dead magnolia warbler that flew into the window of his family's living room. "We heard it hit the window and my dad picked it up and showed it to me," Prosek recalls. "He wasn't afraid to show me things like that. He introduced me to nature through birds. Death was part of life. I was captivated to hold the actual specimen in my hand."

In this childhood photo, Prosek holds a dead magnolia warbler that flew into the window of his family's living room. "We heard it hit the window and my dad picked it up and showed it to me," Prosek recalls. "He wasn't afraid to show me things like that. He introduced me to nature through birds. Death was part of life. I was captivated to hold the actual specimen in my hand."

Courtesy James Prosek

"My mother was a great mother. We were very, very close, almost too close," Prosek told me in 2007. "And so it was very jolting ... when she left. But when I went into the woods, it was the first time that I felt like something was mine. It's almost like this hand came down from above and, you know, tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'It's going to be OK.' "

I've had a chance to visit Prosek at his studio on a quiet country lane in Easton, Conn. He still lives in his old neighborhood, two doors down from his boyhood home. His studio is in a converted one-room schoolhouse located just a stone's throw from his house. There, he often paints on the floor in canvases that stretch to 9 feet and beyond. His drawings are amazingly detailed and seemingly multidimensional. The specimens caught on canvas look like they might come alive and flop right out of the frame.

Prosek has always had an intimate relationship with nature. Beginning at around age 9, he relied on his love of fishing, exploring and drawing to make sense of the world. Prosek reached into his personal scrapbook to share some of his earliest drawings and paintings, which you can see in the gallery below.

  • As a boy, James Prosek was inspired by Audubon's Birds of America, just like the protagonist Doug in Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now. "I was 9 when I painted this snowy owl," Prosek says. "I had started using my grandfather's typewriter ... writing poems and stories over the birds."
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    As a boy, James Prosek was inspired by Audubon's Birds of America, just like the protagonist Doug in Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now. "I was 9 when I painted this snowy owl," Prosek says. "I had started using my grandfather's typewriter ... writing poems and stories over the birds."
    James Prosek
  • Prosek's practice of rendering birds from live — or recently dead — specimens began at an early age. "My father went hunting," he says of this image, "and I painted this pheasant from a bird that he or my uncle had shot."
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    Prosek's practice of rendering birds from live — or recently dead — specimens began at an early age. "My father went hunting," he says of this image, "and I painted this pheasant from a bird that he or my uncle had shot."
    James Prosek
  • For this fanciful colored pencil drawing of a bird of paradise, Prosek traced over letters that his mother had written for him.
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    For this fanciful colored pencil drawing of a bird of paradise, Prosek traced over letters that his mother had written for him.
    James Prosek
  • Prosek guesses that he was 5 years old when he made this colored pencil drawing of a Blackburnian warbler.
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    Prosek guesses that he was 5 years old when he made this colored pencil drawing of a Blackburnian warbler.
    James Prosek
  • Prosek was inspired by the ornithologist and artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes when he made this watercolor of a black stilt chick at age 8.
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    Prosek was inspired by the ornithologist and artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes when he made this watercolor of a black stilt chick at age 8.
    James Prosek
  • A peek inside one of Prosek's childhood notebooks.
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    A peek inside one of Prosek's childhood notebooks.
    James Prosek

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