n 2001, artist, writer and naturalist James Prosek
“Whose old Chevy truck is that out front?” he asked the station’s owner. “It’s amazing.”
The station’s owner, Norman St. Pierre, explained that the ’54 Chevy belonged to a friend and invited Prosek into his office. There the artist saw another, even more fascinating object, one that would launch him on a 10-year journey.
It was just an old photograph of a commercial fishing vessel. But the fish on its deck—bluefin tuna—were massive, bigger than men. And Prosek, who, as the author and artist of Trout: An Illustrated History and Trout of the World, has perhaps painted more fish than just about any other person alive, was stunned. Then and there, he knew that he wanted to see a bluefin for himself and paint it as he saw it the moment it came out of the water, lit by both the light of the sun and its own internal fire.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand how monumental some of these creatures are,” Prosek says 11 years later as he sits on the floor of his studio in Easton, Connecticut, contemplating the life-size watercolor of a bluefin tuna on his wall.
For Prosek, rendering a nine-and-a-half-foot-long, 750-pound bluefin to scale was an inherently preservational act. Bluefin populations—along with those of numerous other Atlantic game species—are perilously low. Western Atlantic bluefin, in fact, are estimated to be at less than 3 percent of their 1960 levels. The once-ubiquitous fish are now so rare that a single giant bluefin can fetch thousands of dollars in a Japanese market.
Prosek finally got to see his live bluefin with the help of St. Pierre. The station owner also happened to be a Cesna pilot who spotted tuna for a harpoon boat. Through the brotherhood of fishermen, he eventually snagged Prosek a privileged spot on a boat.
The bluefin was just the beginning. Prosek eventually set out to paint an entire collection of life-size Atlantic game fish—the same species that we want to both save and savor.
“I wanted to paint fish that are important to humans. Mostly food and game fish—a lot of them are being exploited. But also some of the larger or more colorful or hard-fighting or magnificent fish in the Atlantic,” says Prosek.
This deeply personal endeavor would take the artist to the far corners of the Atlantic, including the Cape Verde Islands, the Bahamas, Florida, Rhode Island and Montauk, Long Island. He would see and paint 35 fish in all—giants like swordfish and big blue marlin, and dinner-table staples like Nassau grouper and tautog.
For Prosek, painting and preserving nature are inseparable. “Without these sources of awe and inspiration, we would have no faith, we would have no spirituality, we’d have no art,” he says. “They’re the sources of everything that we are. Without [nature], it would be a very pale and depressing existence.”
No two paintings (or fish) are alike. But each image clearly captures the animal’s beauty in a fleeting moment when the fish—still vibrant, still emanating colors that will drain away only with death—is pulled from its world and enters ours.