Self-Taught Easton Artist James Prosek Draws On His Passion For Fish

EASTON, Conn. — Easton's James Prosek, a world-renowned artist, author and naturalist who has been called a modern-day Audubon, began a quest to at age 10 to paint all the trout of North America. 

Easton writer and artist James Prosek outside of Cody, Wyo., holding up flowers, one of which is an elephant's head.
Easton writer and artist James Prosek outside of Cody, Wyo., holding up flowers, one of which is an elephant's head. Photo Credit: Jenny Nichols
James Prosek's book, "Ocean Fishes"
James Prosek's book, "Ocean Fishes" Photo Credit: James Prosek's website
James Prosek's book, "Trout: An Illustrated History"
James Prosek's book, "Trout: An Illustrated History" Photo Credit: James Prosek's website

"I became obsessed with these beautiful fish," said Prosek, 41, who was introduced to fishing by a friend at age 9. "I went to the library to do research on them. I couldn't find a book that had everything I was looking for so I decided I would make my own."

By the time he was 19, Prosek had published his first book, "Trout: An Illustrated History," while he was still a student at Yale University. 

A self-taught artist, Prosek is now the author of 11 richly illustrated books. He paints in watercolors, as well as oils and acrylics and also creates sculptures out of wood.

For his first book, Prosek "started doing research and writing letters to the Department of Wildlife in different parts of the country, asking what kind of trout live there," he said. "I developed a correspondence with people to study these fishes and began to try to create a list of all the trout of North America."

To gather information for his book, "Eels: An Exploration, From New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Mysterious Fish," (2010) Prosek spent 12 years traveling the world, including stops in New Zealand, Japan and Europe.

Prosek said he becomes obsessed with the topics he writes about — all of which center on fishing in some way.

"It will start with some kind of interest or agitation. With the eel book, it was their life history and how little we knew about them," he said. "No one had been able to find the spawning place for eels in the ocean. Their reproductive place was a mystery that fascinated me.

"Also, people dismissed eels for being ugly. They thought eels were repulsive, limbless creatures," Prosek said.

"I really like eels," he said. "When it's a wet and stormy night, they can crawl out of the water and move over land."

While writing the eel book, he learned the native people in New Zealand -- the Maori -- consider eels to be sacred. 

"They have a very big freshwater eel living in their rovers that migrates to the ocean to spawn, as our native eels do. Scientists were trying to put tags on them to identify them," he said. "But the native people said, 'Why don't you leave them alone?'"

From this experience, Prosek learned it's not necessary to know everything. "Sometimes, it's more enriching to have mystery," he said. "I'm in favor of scientific investigations of nature, but there are times where it's best to step back and at least ask, 'Why do we need to know?'" 

Prosek has traveled far for his books but loves calling Easton home. "It's a beautiful town," he said. "I live on 3 acres of property next to a farm. It's adjacent to the Easton reservoir. I like living next to open land. I enjoy the quiet."

He still revels in childhood pastime of fishing. "I fish in a pond across the street from my home," said Prosek, whose house — a Colonial built onto an 1850 one-room schoolhouse — was built in 1991.

He is now at work writing a book about how people name and order nature — a project he has essentially been working on since he was 12. 

"It sometimes takes a long time for a project to mature," he said.

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