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Bartram in Cherokee Country
January 16 - June 16, 2013
UGA Press Office, UGA Main Library, 3rd Floor, Athens, GA

 

In 1773 William Bartram, native of Philadelphia and son of Royal Botanist John Bartram, began a four year journey to collect and document the flora and fauna of the southern colonies. His travels brought him into the southern Appalachians in 1775 as he explored the lower and middle towns of the Cherokees. In 1791, Bartram published a record of his journey known as the Travels, documenting his discoveries and observations on nature as well as the Native Americans he encountered across the South. Unlike other texts by explorers and scientists of the time, Bartram offers the reader deeply contemplative and highly inspiring views of nature as it appeared at that time. The Travels, still in print to this day, has long served as an invaluable source of information and inspiration to writers, artists, scientists, and all who love nature in the South.

In two exhibits in 2011, Georgia artist Philip Juras exhibited over 100 paintings that explored the landscapes that Bartram would have encountered in the 1770s. These three mountain scenes were a part of that effort and were exhibited at Wofford College in South Carolina. At the same time, Juras’s exhibition, The Southern Frontier, was on display at the Telfair Museums in Savannah. The Telfair Museums published a book about the exhibit which is distributed by the University of Georgia Press.

The three paintings in the exhibit:

Little Tennessee River Valley
Macon County, North Carolina, 2011
Oil on Canvas
30" x 42"

When William Bartram crossed into the Little Tennessee River Valley in 1775 he described it as “…a narrow vale and lawn, through which rolled on before me a delightful brook, water of the Tanase; I crossed it and continued a mile or two down the meadows, when the high mountains on each side suddenly receding, discover the opening of the extensive and fruitful vale of Cowe…”  In this scene, rather than depict the summer scene that Bartram saw, I chose to combine his description with my own observations of the “Tanase” near Franklin, North Carolina, on a snowy morning in February 2011. I also edited the view to better suggest the canebrakes and Cherokee-maintained meadows that Bartram encountered.

 

Fork Mountain Trail
Shining Rock Wilderness, North Carolina, 2011
Oil on Canvas
30" x 48"

There is much debate about the formation of mountain balds, but it is certain that balds have been disappearing in the last century. In fact, the wide open landscape that Bartram describes high on the crest of the Nantahala Mountains as “a grassy plain, scatteringly planted with large trees, and at a distance surrounded with high forests”, has since been overgrown by dense forest. In my quest to find a mountain bald experience more in keeping with Bartram’s eighteenth century description, I looked to the Shining Rock Wilderness in the nearby Pisgah National Forest. Ironically, recent events created the seemingly historic landscape shown in Fork Mountain Trail. The distant views and grassy open spaces I’ve depicted are a relic of the catastrophic fires that swept the area after its fir forests were clear cut in the early twentieth century.

 

Connelly Creek
Swain County, North Carolina, 2011
Oil on Canvas
30" x 40"

Bartram may or may not have crossed the headwaters of Connelly Creek as he explored the spring time environs of the Cowee mountains, but in my exploration of that area I found the leafy green banks and clear rushing water of this scene to be a perfect summation of the cool, inviting nature of an undisturbed mountain stream. In the decade before Bartram’s arrival, that impression would have been quite different. In 1761, having burned the Cherokee towns along the Little Tennessee River, British and Carolinian forces crossed Cowee Bald, then marched down Connelly Creek on their way to destroying the Cherokee towns on the Tuckasegee River. A column of Redcoats would have surely been a striking—if not terrifying—sight among the spring-time verdure of Connelly Creek.