The Mystery of Eels
Web-Exclusive Video: Painting with Eels

Inspired by Gyotaku, a Japanese fish-printing art form popularized in the mid-1800s, artist and naturalist James Prosek creates a series of pieces employing the nature-print technique. But instead of using the traditional large-scaled carp to make his art, Prosek decided to use a rather unusual fish as his creative tool: the eel. To make these massive paintings, Prosek uses eels that died in the local bait shop near his art studio in Connecticut, as a way to pay homage to a too-often misunderstood creature.

  • Janet Weber

    As an artist, I watch this with aesthetic appreciation of Prosek’s technique. But I am stunned by his intellectualization and disconnect in dealing with the eel itself. Does he kill them so he can ‘use’ them for his own entertainment? This is not clear. Some eels are endangered–where & how does he get them? He talks about a community in Asia that say the eel is believed to be their ancestors. Prosek thought this was ‘amazing’—he seems to have no real feeling that this eel was once ALIVE and is now dead, so he can do his ‘project.’ As with the Asian community who do not take the eels out of the water because they believe the rivers will run dry—Prosek conveys no real eel reverence, only his own indulgent affinity for them. Indigenous people around the world hold that all creatures are sovereign, are sacred, have rights to exist. Prosek only displays his anthropocentric tendencies, using dead eels for his own need of expression. If he considered using a dog or cat or horse for his printmaking, animal rights activists would be up in arms. But industrial/Western ‘man’ ranks some animals more valuable than others. The pathetic eel is not on that list. Knowing how he made these paintings now only triggers nausea. NATURE should know better than to promote this animal abuse.

  • Elizabeth Salon

    Thanks to Ms. Weber I am spared the anguish of watching the video of this sadistic artist…thank you so much! I so appreciate that gratefully so I can sleep tonight! My child has studied eels, is now a wildlife biologist, and we honor the eels and hold them in high esteem, (probably higher than most!) and so watching this would have made me sick, sad and angry at Prosek… who I assume is an adult male, and not some grammar school aged kid who tortures and kills ants and such with impunity. People today are innurred because of the media violence they watch on TV and screens on a regular basis, and play it out in real life. We are now a few generations into this mind control by movies. We all need to avoid those movies and stories, like the Plague!

  • Barbara Bobo

    Artists have used sable brushes and rabbit skin glue in making art for centuries. Animals used for food, such as these eels are already harvested. Comparing them to pets is an exaggeration, and a slight to this artist. Humans who are making art do not always have an animal involved in the making of art, but plants are often used as dyes. and fibers. Plants are living things as well…. and plants are totally ignored by the animal rights community. …..extrapolating these beliefs to the full extent, means we would not make art, nor would we eat either. Being aware that we are in the circle of life and will pass away as well, should be the focus of art. Making art is the conduit between life and death for humans as well as animals. The eel, fish, or what ever animal, plant or part of either, used in the execution of art by an artist serves as vital a purpose as the flesh or fiber that we consume…it gives us food for our spirit. Ancient people knew this, we have forgotten this, much to our degradation.
    I see no reason the term animal abuse should be leveled at this young man’s work..

  • James Prosek

    I would like to say that I did not kill the eel to make the art. There should have been a disclaimer but I did not anticipate this response. Not far from my home in CT there is a bait store that sells live eels for bait for striped bass fishing. Every season dozens of eels die in the tank simply from being held captive. I ask the bait store owner to save these dead eels for me in the freezer. And these are the eels I use for making the pictures. If I didn’t use them he’d throw them out. I won’t make judgements about whether or not they should be used for bait as I know a lot of old timers who still use eels for bait who also fish sustainably and respect nature more than most in this world. I try to take these dead eels and use them to celebrate their movement and form.

  • George

    I would like to add if we’re discussing killing things … That if you use electricity-at all-there is a good chance that a portion of that power comes from hydropower generated by turbines in rivers that kill tens if not hundreds of thousands of eels on their downstream migrations every year. When you turn on your light switch consider that you have just become an accomplice in eel slaughter.

  • Susannah Carson

    James, I love your idea about breaking free from the taxonomies of the creative disciplines. As an artist, illustrator, essayist, journalist, book author, children’s book creator, museum curator, documentary filmmaker, anthropologist, old-fashioned naturalist explorer, and spokesperson for the rights of animals and the earth they inhabit, you’re an excellent role model; and the eel seems like the perfect totem animal. In this eel-print work, as well as in your paintings of fish and birds, you always manage to find the most intriguing balance between those two supposed extremes, art and nature.

  • Darby Hittle

    Thank you Ms. Weber for reminding me that I share the planet with people who primarily use ignorance and stupidity to complete full sentences. James Prosek is an exceptionally talented artist and writer, and he has chosen to share his God given gifts with others in an effort to conserve the dwindling fragile ecosystems where beautiful creatures such as eels and trout remain.

    James – Keep up the good work. We love what you do, and you are inspiration for our children.

  • Serval

    I think it’s highly important when we have this sort of “uhng” response, to examine where it comes from. Yes, a dead fish body is being used as a paintbrush. It seems ghoulish; I’ll give you that. The reason sable paintbrushes don’t draw the same kind of response is because we’re so removed from the animal. If you examine what’s actually being done, you see that the fish is being preserved forever; its death is being honoured in a way that’s not necessarily true of every artist whose art benefits from the sacrifice of a living creature. I don’t really have to think much about my sable brush, but Prosek has to think about the eel. There’s value in that.

    It’s also odd that Gyotaku is still practiced today, yet draws no criticism I can find (and I did search rather thoroughly!) from animal activists. I don’t see any Western disregard for the animal; if anything the opposite is evinced by the fact that Prosek goes to the trouble to get those eels from a bait shop, even if he didn’t at first believe people would care so much. In contrast, other artists around the world still kill fish for the Gyotaku, so where’s the hate? Prosek in fact has gone above and beyond the call of animal reverence. For some people, it’s just never enough.

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