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Aiken Standard
Updated: 6/10/2011 12:32
Artist creates visual record of Bartram's travels
By Dr. TOM MACK Columnist

In the most famous and most frequently anthologized passage from his "Travels," William Bartram describes what must have been a struggle for supremacy between two bull alligators during mating season. Immersed in the author's emotionally charged prose: "the [alligator's] enormous body swells, the waters like a cataract descend from his opening jaws, clouds of smoke rise from his dilating nostrils, the earth trembles with his thunder," many of the students in my sophomore survey of American literature have said how they could almost feel Bartram's awe and fear in response to the sights and sounds of reptilian combat.

Bartram combined a scientist's eye with a poet's heart. Because of this blend of careful observation and frequent hyperbole, his account of his historic expeditions through the American Southeast between 1773 and 1777 continues to resonate with readers.

That is certainly true of one particular nature-loving Southern artist, Philip Juras, who grew up in Augusta - a city that Bartram visited on his travels - and eventually graduated from the University of Georgia where he wrote a master's thesis on the pre-settlement South.

For years, Juras has studied Bartram's writings and his current one-artist show at the Morris Museum of Art tries to replicate in paint the landscapes that Bartram described in words. Some images are faithful depictions of sites that have somehow survived development over the centuries; other images are recreations of frontier settings made possible by historical research. The paintings of Juras are, in essence, 21st century observations of 18th century vistas.

The more than 60 pieces that make up the current show - half of them studio paintings and the other half works completed on site - are divided into four sections: uplands, grassy coastal plain, wetlands and waterways, and coasts.

Local residents may be most interested in works inspired by scenes in the first section since those are ones closest to Aiken geographically. Take, for example, a 48-inch-by-66 inch oil on canvas titled "Vernal Pools at Heggie's Rock."

I remember well a tour that I took some years ago of this particular flat rock outcrop in Columbia County, Ga. Our guide on that occasion pointed out the endangered plants like quillwort and red-leafed diamorpha, which grow in shallow pools formed by rainfall collected in rock cavities.

In "Travels," Bartram refers to these "very curious herbaceous plants" growing in shallow water gardens on top of "expansive clean flat or horizontal rock."

Further north, near Athens, Ga., are also sections of the free-flowing Savannah River that Bartram might recognize today. Of these spots that have been spared upriver damming, Juras is particularly attracted to a section of the Broad River Management Wildlife Area where the Broad runs into the Savannah.

One especially dramatic image of this stretch of river, a 2009 oil titled "Anthony Shoals," captures scores of white spider lilies, what Bartram identified as the "odiferous Pancratium fluitans." Placed in the foreground, the white flowers, which stretch in horizontal clusters across the width of the canvas, seem to glow in the dying light of day.

Both of these rare landscapes have varied little since Bartram's day, and Juras could paint each with relatively little manipulation of the scene. Other images in the show, however, required considerable re-imagining. Take, for example, the images of Wormsloe Plantation, the colonial home of Noble Jones, who laid out the original plans for the settlement of Augusta under orders from Georgia's founder, James Oglethorpe.

The oil titled "Jones Narrows, Isle of Hope" is a reconstructed view from the low bluff where the plantation house once stood. By using maps and photos from the Wormsloe Institute for Environmental History, Juras was able to restore the original vista now obscured by the construction of the Skidaway Island Causeway.

Thus, the long-lost Southern frontier first described by Bartram in the 18th century has been recaptured in pictorial form by Juras, who follows in the footsteps of other naturalist-artists intent upon sharing with a wider audience their appreciation for the richly textured landscapes of our native land.

"Philip Juras, The Southern Frontier: Landscapes Inspired by Bartram's Travels" is on view at the Morris Museum of Art until Aug. 14. For more information, call (706) 724-7501 or visit www.themorris.org.

A Carolina Trustee Professor, Dr. Mack holds the first G.L. Toole Chair at the USC Aiken. For more information on Bartram's links to our region, please refer to his book "Circling the Savannah: Cultural Landmarks of the Central Savannah River Area" published by The History Press (Charleston, SC).