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Philip Juras: The Southern Frontier Landscapes Inspired by Bartram's Travels

May 28 - August 14, 2011

 

Philip Juras: The Southern Frontier Landscapes Inspired by Bartram's Travels opens at the Morris Museum of Art Saturday, May 28 and remains on display through August 14, 2011. The exhibition includes more than sixty works, nearly half of them studio paintings; smaller plein-air pieces, produced on-site, round out the show. (right: Philip Juras, Burks Mountain, Columbia County, Georgia. October, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.)

"Remarkably, Philip Juras, a wonderfully skilled painter in the service of a higher ideal, has here made us aware of all that we've lost -- the Edenic America that brave, curious, and somewhat foolhardy adventurers like William Bartram explored in hopes of capturing their own first visions of a continent they thought untouched by the hand of man. They were wrong, of course; the landscape had in fact been managed from time immemorial, but the simple awe felt by Bartram was both palpable and contagious," said Kevin Grogan, director of the Morris Museum of Art.

As Philip Juras has noted, "The paintings in this exhibition allow a viewer to experience something that I would argue is not easy to envision in the modern South: a glimpse of the presettlement Southern frontier. While there are written descriptions of that landscape, particularly by the eighteenth-century naturalist William Bartram, almost no visual images exist that document the Southern wilderness before European settlement." Juras himself -- a trained landscape architect, as well as a highly proficient artist -- can and has provided those images through his own paintings, bringing, perhaps for the very first time, the long lost Southern frontier to twenty-first-century eyes. Juras has enabled contemporary viewers to experience the South in much the same way that nineteenth-century American landscape painters saw the Western frontier, which they introduced to the residents of a rapidly industrializing nation.

The majority of the images in the exhibition depict remnant natural landscapes that are still to be seen across the Southeast. These landscapes exhibit many of the qualities that Bartram encountered and documented in his travels 230 years ago.

Juras came to know these places and their unique attributes through the research he undertook for his master's degree thesis on the pre-settlement South in 1997. His involvement with the Nature Conservancy and his love of nature and travel have also supported this body of work as it has evolved over the years. This background has allowed him to portray environments described by Bartram that no longer exist, such as the prairies of Alabama and the Keowee Valley of South Carolina. (left: Philip Juras, Pellicer Creek, Faver-Dykes SP, FL. May 29, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.)

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue that is published by the Telfair Museums and distributed by the University of Georgia Press. It is available for purchase in the Morris Museum Store. Philip Juras's commentary provides ecological and historical context for the paintings in the catalogue, which also features a special contribution from award-winning author Janisse Ray.

Juras, a resident of Athens, Georgia, earned an undergraduate degree in drawing and painting from the University of Georgia, where he also earned a master's degree in landscape architecture. His paintings have been the subject of solo exhibitions at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, Chapel Hill; the University of Georgia and the Aurum Studios, Athens; and the Carolina Galleries, Charleston.

 

(above: Philip Juras, Longleaf, Greenwood Plantation Thomasville, GA. December, 2005. Courtesy of the artist.)

 

(above: Philip Juras, Dewy Witchgrass, Apalachicola National Forest, Florida. July, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.)

 

(above: Philip Juras, Old Growth Cypress in the Rain, Altamaha River, Long County, Georgia. September, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.)

 

Wall text panels from the exhibition

 
As Philip Juras has noted, "The paintings in this exhibition allow a viewer to experience something that I would argue is not easy to envision in the modern South: a glimpse of the pre-settlement Southern frontier. While there are written descriptions of that landscape, particularly by the eighteenth-century naturalist William Bartram, almost no visual images exist that document the Southern wilderness before European settlement." Juras himself -- a trained landscape architect, as well as a highly proficient artist-can and has provided those images through his own paintings, bringing, perhaps for the very first time, the long lost Southern frontier to twenty-first-century eyes.
 
The majority of the images in the exhibition depict remnant natural landscapes that are still to be seen across the Southeast. These landscapes exhibit many of the qualities that Bartram encountered and documented in his travels nearly 230 years ago.
 
Juras came to know these places and their unique attributes through the research he conducted for his master's degree thesis on the pre-settlement South in 1997. His involvement with the Nature Conservancy and his love of nature and travel have also supported this body of work as it has evolved over the years. This background has allowed him to portray environments described by Bartram that no longer exist.
 
A resident of Athens, Georgia, he earned an undergraduate degree in drawing and painting from the University of Georgia, where he also earned a master's degree in landscape architecture. His paintings have been the subject of solo exhibitions at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, Chapel Hill; the University of Georgia and the Aurum Studios, Athens; and the Carolina Galleries, Charleston.
 
In his Introduction to the catalogue that accompanies the present exhibition, Juras mentions that he has chosen to organize this collection of landscapes in a way that complements Bartram's melding of the scientific and the romantic. The exhibition is divided into four sections -- Uplands, A Grassy Coastal Plain, Wetlands and Waterways, and The Coasts -- that reflect their physiographic location, ecological similarity, and visual continuity.
 
 
Uplands
 
...a pleasant territory, presenting varying scenes of gentle swelling hills and levels, affording sublime forests, contrasted by expansive illumined green fields, native meadows and Cane brakes...
 
...this space may with propriety be called the hilly country, every where fertile and delightful, continually replenished by innumerable rivulets, either coursing about the fragrant hills, or springing from the rocky precipices, and forming many cascades; the coolness and purity of which waters invigorate the air of this otherwise hot and sultry climate.

-- William Bartram

Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws, published 1791
 
In today's Piedmont region, and to some extent in the mountains of Georgia and the Carolinas, it is difficult to find landscapes reminiscent of the eighteenth century. After centuries of agriculture, settlement, and waves of abandonment, the Piedmont in particular has become a patchwork of pine plantations, sprawling development, agriculture, and largely fire-intolerant, old-field successional forests. Long forgotten is the "pleasant territory" of open, old-growth grassy woodlands and vast canebrakes witnessed by Bartram in the lower Piedmont. Indeed, many of the extraordinary upland landscapes he described are lost: clear running rocky streams of the Piedmont are now filled with silt, balds of the Nantahala Mountains are now forested, and even the beautiful Keowee River which so charmed Bartram as it ran among the extensive old-fields of the Cherokees is now submerged beneath a reservoir. But where other Piedmont rivers still run free over rocky shoals, where mountain streams spill down forested slopes, or where hazy ridges recede into the distance, the upland wilderness of Bartram's Travels can still be glimpsed.
 
Philip Juras, 2011
 
 
A Grassy Coastal Plain
 
This plain is mostly a forest of the great long-leaved pine (P. palustris Linn.) the earth covered with grass, interspersed with an infinite variety of herbacious plants, and embellished with extensive savannas, always green, sparkling with ponds of water, and ornamented with clumps of evergreen, and other trees and shrubs . . .

-- William Bartram

Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws, published 1791
 
When Europeans arrived on the continent, a vast fire-dependent ecosystem of longleaf pine woods and grassy savannas covered ninety million acres of the Coastal Plain from Virginia to Texas. In 1773, traveling between Savannah and Augusta, Bartram succinctly described what was then a seemingly endless landscape. By the late twentieth century, however, those grassy pinelands had all but disappeared. Roads, railways, and farm fields had become barriers to wide-ranging lightning fires, while timber barons cleared the slow-to-reproduce longleaf pine from the region. With fire suppression, cleared lands that were not turned to agriculture quickly grew into dense forests, blocking the longleaf from regenerating and shading out the diverse grassy ground layer. Now only a tiny fraction of these grassy coastal plain environments remain. Conserving them, which is to say burning them, is essential for the survival of this ecosystem.
 
Philip Juras, 2011
 
 
 
The Coasts
 
...I at length reached the strand, which was level, firm, and paved with shells, and afforded me a grand view of the boundless ocean.
O thou Creator supreme, almighty! how infinite and incomprehensible thy works! most perfect, and every way astonishing!

-- William Bartram

Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws, published 1791
 
As recorded by Bartram at Saint Simons Island in 1774, some of the most compelling scenes in nature are to be found in the dynamic environment where the ocean transitions to dry land. Along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts today, where populations are low or where coastal lands and estuaries have been protected, salt marshes, tidal creeks, and wide sandy beaches still offer the traveler timeless and awe-inspiring settings. Perhaps because they are more of ocean than of land, these places have changed less in appearance than other southern environments Bartram described. That is not to say they are not changing. Bartram himself noted evidence that coastal marshes were migrating into what were "formerly high swamps of firm land." As marshes and barrier islands continue their shift landward in this century and as ever-spreading development brings new houses, bridges, and concrete embankments to the coast, views of the coastal environment as Bartram saw it may become increasingly elusive.
 
Philip Juras, 2011
 
 
 
Wetlands and Waterways
 
I resigned my bark to the friendly current, reserving to myself the controul of the helm. My progress was rendered delightful by the sylvan elegance of the groves, chearful meadows, and high distant forests, which in grand order presented themselves to view. The winding banks of the river, and the high projecting promontories, unfolded fresh scenes of grandeur and sublimity.

-- William Bartram

Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws, published 1791
 
The interconnected wetlands and waterways of the Coastal Plain were still very much an unaltered and primeval landscape in the late 1700s, but Bartram's "scenes of grandeur and sublimity" would be seen in more commercial terms in the following centuries. Across the region, wetlands would be drained for agriculture while the vast floodplain forest would be cut for timber. Rivers would be channeled for shipping and levees would be built for flood control. Even the mighty Mississippi would be walled off from its bayous and swamps, no longer free to replenish its vast floodplain with silt. But wild nature still abounds on southern rivers and in its remaining wetlands. The undeveloped floodplain and ancient trees of Georgia's Altamaha River and the wetland wilderness of Florida's upper St. Johns River still present landscapes like those Bartram saw. To visit these rivers, to see Florida's first-order springs and its wet prairies, to see Bartram's Alachua Savanna being restored to its eighteenth-century condition, is to begin to appreciate the intrinsic value of nature as Bartram saw it.
 
Philip Juras, 2011

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