Maja and Reuben Fowkes: In your wide-ranging creative practice, which in addition to contemporary art has involved both writing and illustrating books, you deal a lot with both fish and birds, what is it that draws you to them?
James Prosek: My father introduced me to nature through his love of birds. He fell in love with birds as a child growing up in a suburb of Sao Paolo, Brazil and when he moved to the New York area with his family at the age of 12 he brought that love of birds with him. He told me stories of how he and his brother would catch live birds in Brazil and put them in cages on the veranda of their home. Those stories were part of the romance of my own childhood. When a bird would occasionally fly into the window of our home and die, he wasn’t afraid to pick it up and put it in my hand. The first pictures I made were of birds. I don’t know exactly why birds captivated me. Probably for the same reasons they captivate others—their beautiful colours and forms and the fact that they can move in an element that we cannot (independent of technology). I think that’s also why I am drawn to fish—they live in a realm that we cannot, beneath the surface of the water.
MRF: Your collections of bird silhouettes are numbered, but why do you choose not to provide the viewer with a key to identify each species?
JP: In the endpapers to old field guides (in particular Roger Tory Perterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds of North America) there are silhouettes of birds and numbers alongside the birds—the numbers corresponding to a list of names. The viewer is meant to learn about the birds through learning their names, so they can be identified in the field. Learning the names of creatures can be valuable, even essential, though I have grown critical of the practice. There are other ways of coming to know nature than through identification, and I feel that sometimes people are all too eager to answer the question “what is that?” and move on. There is another kind of experience we can have in nature, an unnameable experience, where we observe without having to know what something is. This is the statement I’m making by painting the bird silhouettes and numbers, but leaving out the list of names. I want the viewer to feel frustrated that they cannot answer the question they want to answer, and just to look. What something is called is very different from what something is.
The field guide for all its idealized beauty, and for its successes in getting people excited about nature and ecotourism travel, creates a simplified and cyclical call and response between the viewer and the person who determines the name (the Adam) and does not encourage deviation. Somewhere there is an official list of birds of the world, and thousands of birders who create their own history of observation based on those lists. Names and language shape perception, there is no doubt about it. I am also saying that we should not be complacent how we use names because they are very powerful.
MRF: Is that fact that in this series you illustrate birds from a wide variety of natural habitats around the world related to the idea that we need to think in planetary terms about the threats posed to the natural environment by human activities? How would you compare the scientific and artistic approach to understanding birds?
JP: In my mind the process of scientific work and the process of drawing and making art have a lot in common. Both art and science are rooted in the human quest to make sense of around us through close observation and through documenting and recording experience. But we can make different kinds of statements through art-making than we can through the scientific method. With art we can try to capture the ineffable qualities of personal experience that would be irrelevant to science, as science only deals in what can be measured and tested. So when it comes to understanding birds I think both practices are very important and valuable.
MRF: Is there a sense in which the visualisation of birds and their precise depiction in art has the potential to bring us closer to them and narrow the interspecies divide?
I think that for the art-maker as well as for the observer, visualizations of birds (and/or making them) can help the viewer become a more acute observer. Looking at images of birds can enhance our experience of seeing them in nature. Drawing birds, I can say from personal experience, makes me feel closer to them, helps bring something of the spirit of the bird inside of me. By processing nature through art we make it our own, we ingest it, it becomes part of us.
Bird silhouettes, 2013
Artist, writer, naturalist, and Yale graduate James Prosek made his authorial debut at nineteen years of age with Trout: an Illustrated History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), which featured seventy of his watercolor paintings of the trout of North America. Prosek's work has been shown at the Gerald Peters Gallery, New York and Santa Fe; Meredith Long Gallery, Houston; as well as Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, NY, the d.u.m.b.o. arts center, Brooklyn, The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, VA, the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT, and the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC. Prosek has written for The New York Times and National Geographic Magazine and won a Peabody Award in 2003 for his documentary about traveling through England in the footsteps of Izaak Walton, the seventeenth-century author of The Compleat Angler. He co-founded a conservation initiative called World Trout in 2004 with Yvon Chouinard, the owner of Patagonia clothing company, which raises money for coldwater habitat conservation through the sale of T-shirts featuring trout paintings. His book Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World's Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish, published in September 2010 was a New York Times Book Review editor's choice, and is the subject of a documentary for PBS series "Nature" that aired in April 2013. He is currently working on a book, as well as an article for National Geographic, about how we name and order the natural world.
His latest book (Ocean Fishes, Rizzoli, 2012) is a collection of paintings of 35 Atlantic fishes, all of which were painted life size based on individual specimens he traveled to see. In autumn of 2012 Prosek was awarded the Gold Medal for Distinction in Natural History Art from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. He has upcoming shows at the Addison Gallery of American Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Prosek is a curatorial affiliate of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, and a member of the board of the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies.