Photos by Kim Tyler
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.
Gallery: The Art of James Prosek
“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.
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.”