James Prosek is arguably the foremost naturalist of the modern era. His work has inspired countless anglers, conservationists, and outdoorsmen & women. Many readers may be most familiar with Prosek from his organization, World Trout which was founded in 2003 in collaboration with Yvon Chouinard and his company, Patagonia. Prosek’s story starts many years prior, when he wrote & illustrated Trout: An Illustrated History while still an undergraduate at Yale University. His accolades and projects include a film produced in collaboration with ESPN called The Compleat Anglerwhich explores Sir Izaak Walton’s book of the same name, and the history of trout fishing in the UK, as well as countless awards for his paintings and sculptures. Ultimately, the man has been prolific in his production of art & prose based around our natural world.
I was lucky enough to be introduced to James by my mother (Thanks, Eliza!), and he agreed to answer a few questions for our readers. Enjoy!
JH: Can you pinpoint the time or experience when you discovered your love for the natural world as a whole? Did it start with fish?
JP: It started with birds actually and my father introducing me to birds … and also the works of John James Audubon and Louis Agassiz Fuertes and later, Winslow Homer. I came to a love of nature through art and drawing. Drawing helped me observe the world in a new way. I always liked colors and discovery. I’m still very much in awe of the beauty and diversity of nature.
JH: How and when did you start down your path as an artist?
JP: I have drawn pictures for as long as I can remember… I have a polaroid photo of me drawing at four years old. It’s always been a part of me. Drawing as a kid doesn’t make you an “artist” I suppose. It’s hard to define exactly what it means to be an artist, but most of all it’s simply the act of doing it, making things, beyond your childhood years. I became an artist professionally I guess when my first book Trout: An Illustrated History was published in 1996. The book did well enough that I thought, hey maybe I can make a living doing this… Making an income is part of it, but being an artist is more just a life commitment, keeping creative integrity, sticking to what is important to you, and holding on to your vision in the face of many challenges and self-doubt.
JH: You founded World Trout with Yvon Chouinard in 2003, what has been your favorite part of working on that cause?
JP: My favorite part of the World Trout initiative has been seeing how effective grassroots conservation groups can be with relatively small amounts of money. The grants given are typically between $10,000 and $20,000 per project. One of the first people we gave money to was a researcher in Slovenia named Ales Snoj, with whom I’d traveled documenting trout in the Balkans. Ales used the money to start the Balkan Trout Restoration Group which has identified and worked to protect native trout throughout Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia. They have been very effective and received grants for several years which they used for research, stream restoration, and public outreach. Check our their website, www.balkan-trout.com
JH: Other than World Trout, are there any conservation groups that you are actively involved with?
JP: I do some work with the Nature Conservancy in Connecticut, Riverkeeper, and my local land trust, the Aspetuck Land Trust. We are working now to save a parcel of land from development on the Mill River in my hometown, which has a healthy population of native brook trout.
JH: Your career has taken you on some great fishing trips, do you have a favorite trip or destination?
JP: Gosh, there are so many beautiful places to catch fish. I was recently in Swedish Lapland traveling in the footsteps of Carl Linnaeus’s 1732 expedition there. Linnaeus created the system of taxonomy that we use today and named many of the fishes we like to catch with his Latin binomial names, from brown trout (Salmo trutta) to Arctic char (Salvelinus alpinus). Northern Sweden is beautiful.
I loved fishing the Upper Tajo River in Spain, many small streams in southern Turkey, brooks on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido and throughout our great country! Some of my favorite streams are not far from my home, little brooks with native brook trout.
JH: I know this may be a difficult question, but if you had to chose just one of your works as your “favorite” which would it be?
JP: Wow… art works? That is very hard to say. Off the top of my head, a piece I made, a sculpture, titled The Myth of Order. It is made of separate curved pieces of birch branches to form a circle. This “tree branch” is not attached to the ground or anything. It’s just a circle of birch with some leaves coming out of it that I made of clay. It’s is a commentary on how humans like nature to conform to neat categories in our minds and simple geometries. I tend to see the world as much more messy and complex. But every work I’ve made has special meaning to me.
It is so grounding to know that a man who has traveled the world documenting and fishing for countless species shares the common, simple love of native brook trout that so many of us have. Interviewing James was a real honor, and if you’re not already familiar with his work, I highly recommend it.