Catch and Release
and the Art of Steve Thurston
It is Wednesday, April 14th, twelve hours, eleven minutes and 46 seconds until the season opens. A group of colleagues are gathered in the employee cafeteria at the Museum of Natural History to discuss the weeks work over lunch. The cafeteria is in a dimly lit basement of one of the oldest buildings in New York City and Steve Thurston, sitting among them, has that far-away look in his Neptunian blue eyes. I often see that expression in the mirror, so I have to smile; it has been a long, cold winter and his mind is elsewhere.
His distinguished career spans a lifetime of creative achievement in both art and science. Whether it is with a piece of charcoal or the scanning electron microscope, Steve is a master of technique and rendition. But his keen interest in botany and zoology intertwine with a deep rooted passion; Steve loves to fish.
As a young child, in the 1960s, Steve angled for large mouth bass on the freshwater ponds near his home, in Lincoln, Rhode Island. He scouted every creek for rainbow trout, pickerel, bluegill and catfish. He found tautog grazing for fiddler crab in stony fissures and teased out hickory shad at the breakwaters in Charleston. Where this rugged, rocky coastline eases down from high cliffs to the outwash plain and sand beaches along Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Steve jigged for fluke and flounder in a small skiff, alongside his paternal grandfather.
There, he sketched fern in a freshwater seep behind pitch pine and dune, the shift of verdant shadows in a tangle of catbrier. High above the nest of a wren, woven waist high in the flowering cordgrass, the silvery clouds unfurled like a sail, and unbridled, broke free. A charm of swallows banked in over the rosehips and heather. He painted in concert, the nimble birds, the play of light, the spectrum still searching. Each brush stroke and feather, each turn of a wing, shook loose the lantern, the luster in flight. Each sepia plume, dusky but fleeting, fell muted to sunbeam, and seized hold of its colors. First apricot and violet, then aquamarine. They gathered around him, drenched in pigment and mirth. They swept past his shoulders and up into the wind, like bright, falling leaves. When a fish hawk called out, a sentry and wary, the sharp burst of sound flooded into his heart like a high pitched bell. Down on his belly in the igneous sand, he could feel the faltering waves, unclasp. He traced a fluted facet of stone, silt and clay, and held it up to the sunlight. Steve learned to read the water, to study the fish and their movement. His restless palette came to life; the ocean began to take hold of him.
Ben Thurston spent many decades surfcasting on Cape Cod, Massachusetts; he was an enigmatic man, who was seldom seen off the sand. While his family enjoyed their weekend visits to the coast each summer, Ben often took up residence there. He would camp out for months and fish along the outer beaches. He lived and travelled in a self-styled beach buggy converted from a U.S. army truck; this adaptation was a rugged precursor to the modern recreational vehicle, and he was not alone in this endeavor. By the late 1950s an entire sub-culture of mobile surfcasters had developed along the eastern seaboard. Cape locals called them the “fishing gypsies.” Anglers traveled for hundreds of miles to fish along Cape Cod. Nauset and Chatham Inlets were legendary fishing grounds and the current at Race Point is famous for holding tremendous numbers of cow bass. Fisherman simply call it, The Race.
To read more and view the artwork, click here:
Cover design is by Steve R. Black
An excerpt of this piece was first published in the October 2009 edition of Natural History Magazine
Margaret Hart is an biologist living on Long Island. Steve Thurston is a scientific illustrator at the American Museum of Natural History. If you would like to learn more about ocean and fisheries conservation, please visit the following websites: