Connecticut artist paints with the fishes

| Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012, 12:12 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — Compared to fish at the local seafood market, paintings of live fish at a new Academy of Natural Sciences exhibit may look downright surreal.

From the purple-blue striped swordfish to the black sea bass with rainbow sequin-like skin, these are fish of a different hue.

Connecticut artist and naturalist James Prosek captured his subjects showing their true colors — when they are still alive right after they are pulled from the ocean.

“It's beautiful when it comes right out of the water,” Prosek said of the humble Atlantic cod, a threatened species and one of his painted fish on view.

“Most people never get to see that. The light is reflecting off of it like a mirror, making beautiful dynamic colors ... and there's an internal fire, a light coming from within,” he said.

Fourteen of Prosek's life-size and highly detailed watercolors make up the exhibit, starting Saturday and ending Jan. 21. They include black sea bass caught off Dartmouth, Mass.; cobia from Cumberland Island, Ga.; sailfish from Stuart, Fla.; swordfish from Nova Scotia; grouper from the Bahamas; and mako shark from Long Island, N.Y.

Prosek first came up with a list of 35 saltwater fish he wanted as his subjects, then traveled from Nova Scotia to Cape Verde with commercial and recreational fishermen, who use traditional hand methods of catching fish, not industrialized techniques that kill all fish in their wake.

“If they're being taken sustainably, then I don't have a problem with that,” Prosek said.

Back at his Easton, Conn., studio, he paints his subjects on tea-stained paper with the help of photos, notes and his memory. He occasionally sees his own reflection in the eye or the mirror-like skin of the living fish and includes that in his rendering.

Each painting captures the fleeting moments after the fish is plucked from the ocean, before it dies on deck and its colors fade, before it becomes the diminished version of itself that consumers see in the supermarket and on their dinner plates.

Prosek's first project and accompanying book in 1996, “Trout: An Illustrated History,” is a compilation of 70 species of trout. His work has been likened to that of the famous 19th century naturalist and painter John James Audubon, whose “Birds of America” prints are still treasured for their beauty and accuracy.

Like Audubon's birds, his fish inspire the spirit of conservation by virtue of their beauty and their diverse species, many of which are gravely threatened from overfishing.

The detailed paintings also allow viewers to appreciate each creature as a singular being — with its own unique coloring, as well as the bumps and scrapes from its underwater life.

“We've lost our connection with nature but it's still in us, in our DNA,” Prosek said. “Spirituality in part probably came from that connection.”

Prosek also has a new book, “Ocean Fishes,” that includes many of the fish represented in the exhibit.

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