Meet the Artist: James Prosek
I mean, you could draw sort of a line in terms of bird people from Audubon in the early 1800s through Fuertes in late 19th century, early 20th century, to Roger Tory Peterson, who by creating the first real consolidated field guide really revolutionized the way people interact with the natural world. So, the source material for this particular piece, more than anything else, are the end papers to the 3rd edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide. He had a page called roadside silhouettes and there were a bunch of silhouettes of birds with numbers, and the numbers match up to a list of names to help people identify birds in the field. Because oftentimes when you're driving around or walking, birds are most active in the morning and evening, so all you get a lot of times is just a silhouette against the sky, so it is a really great way to learn about the birds.
On this this particular wall, whereas Peterson had the numbers and the list of names, I leave the numbers on the wall, but I don't have a key of names. The idea is that I don't want people to be able to satisfy their urge to know what the name of the creature is, because we're so eager as humans to label things and I like embracing not knowing. That's partly also why I like not having the names. It's like we can have an appreciation of the world without knowing things. Nature is much more complex than the labels that we put on it. The hope is that once people get over their wanting to know what the things are, they'll just be able to look at the wall and appreciate the diversity of forms.
The wall depicts a flock of passenger pigeons going through a forest of American chestnuts. I've always sort of loved the idea of this tree. I was not alive when they were in their glory. A disease from Asia killed them all. I wanted to put the American chestnut in the piece because it's kind of about what we've lost being on the 100th anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon. The pigeon went first and then the chestnut tree.
The kind of forest in a room is something that's captivated me since I grew up looking at children's books like “Where the Wild Things Are,” where the forest grows up in the kid's bedroom. It never sort of stops fascinating me. I was glad that the wall was tall enough to kind of get that effect.
As you move across the wall from left to right, there's also a seasonal change from spring into summer and then autumn. Once you pass the last chestnut trunk there are numbers, but no birds. That kind of signifies the loss of diversity.
I worked on the design off and on for about a year before actually painting. I designed the piece in a program called Adobe Illustrator on my laptop. The piece was printed out life-size on large pieces of paper. Then we put graphite transfer paper on the back of the paper tracing on the wall and paint it.
I really like the idea of this, that the piece was designed on a computer, but now is handmade. Instead of going from analog to digital, it's digital back to analog. It kind of blows my mind that painting is still relevant in this world and drawing. I really feel like drawing helps you internalize experience and makes you a better, more acute observer of the natural world.
James Prosek is an artist, writer, and naturalist whose work pays homage to the history of natural science while simultaneously addressing contemporary environmental concerns. His diverse body of work is the result of extensive travel and field observation. From these explorations, Prosek creates paintings, drawings, and sculptures that evoke the immense biodiversity of our planet and its imaginative potential.