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, and most recently, Ocean Fishes: Paintings of Saltwater Fish.
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.
“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.