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Front Page - Friday, January 18, 2019

Capturing Appalachia on canvas

Chattanooga’s Shuptrine preps book of work featuring region

Hundreds of millions of years ago, the Central Pangean Mountains stretched unbroken across a landmass that would someday separate into North America and Great Britain, leading to the formation of the Appalachian Mountains and the Scottish Highlands. Laced throughout those lowly hills, painter Alan Shuptrine says, was a vast vein of serpentine, a dark-green mineral the ancient Celts believed had magic powers.

“They believed if you held it in your hands, you could feel the energy of the stone crawl up your arms like a serpent,” Shuptrine says.

Only a handful of years ago, Shuptrine stood at the foot of Springer Mountain in Georgia, where one end of the legendary Appalachian Trail begins, and hoped that same magic would guide him as he searched for the people and places that would reveal the spirit of the land.

A watercolor artist in the tradition of his late father, Hubert Shuptrine, he was embarking on a quest to capture the diverse vistas of the Appalachian Mountains on canvas. From their endless miles of rugged terrain and dense woodlands to the deep crevices that line the faces of the people who live there, Shuptrine wanted to celebrate not just the physical beauty of the mountains but also the descendants of the Celtic settlers.

Today, Shuptrine sits at a drawing desk in his Lookout Mountain home putting the final touches on painting number 92 in his collection of 100 works set in the Appalachian Mountains. He’s titled the series “The Serpentine Chain” to emphasize the irony of the Celtic settlers crossing the ocean to begin a new life, only to return to the same mountain range they had left.

“We are tied to our brethren across the sea by more than the traditions they brought here,” he explains. “The serpentine, which they cherished for hundreds of years, also connects us.”

The painting on the desk, “Circle Up,” depicts an open field peppered with large, round bales of hay. The tiny foothills that comprise the tail of the mountain range in North Alabama are visible in the distance.

Shuptrine is using a palette of soft colors to reproduce the scene on a canvas of pure white cotton rag. Since a watercolor artist cannot use white paint, he had to decide before starting where the highlights on the bales would be and avoid those areas.

To create a loose strand of hay on the edge of a bale, he dabs a thinly tipped brush across a plate containing smears of brown, yellow, and blue paint and then adds a touch of darkness to the back of a tiny white highlight.

“Now the patch of white is too bright in contrast to the shadow, so I’ll take some clear water and pick up the pigment beside it to dull it down a little,” he says.

Shuptrine has been working on “Circle Up” for several weeks, and a mistake could ruin many hours of hard work. If he accidentally places too much pigment on the canvas, he might not be able to lift it out, and there’s always the possibility of a pigment drying a different color than he intended. But despite the demanding nature of watercolor painting and its unforgiving qualities, Shuptrine has always gravitated to the medium.

“When I sat beside my father at his easel, that’s what I saw him do,” he recalls. “People say I make it look easy, but it’s all I know. It’s in my blood.”

Shuptrine has arranged his bales of hay in a way that will encourage the viewer to leap between them and make a full circle before being brought back into the painting. He says he hopes his composition will engage viewers and continually offer them something new to see.

After returning to the center of the painting, for example, the viewer might notice how a shadow falls across a curved hill and marvel at the attention to detail and the level of realism in Shuptrine’s work.

Like the primal forces that shaped the scenic Appalachians, Shuptrine has always been good with his hands, so in addition to creating the painting, he’s made the gilded frame that will house it.

Shuptrine has been making carved and gilded frames for artists, galleries, and museums around the country for 35 years, and has mastered the art of creating frames that complement the paintings.

In the case of “Circle Up” and the other paintings in “The Serpentine Chain” collection, he’s incorporated serpentine into the frames to reinforce the irony of the Celts settling in the Appalachian Mountains.

“Circle Up” and a smaller painting that accompanies it will be gifts to the Huntsville Museum of Art, which will display pieces from the collection beginning May 13. “The Serpentine Chain” has already graced the walls of the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, and Museum Center at 5ive Points in Cleveland, Tennessee, with each stop adding more works as Shuptrine continued to paint.

After Huntsville, Shuptrine wants the next stop for his tribute to the Appalachian Mountains to be the living rooms of art aficionados. To get there, he’s producing a coffee table book that will contain over 80 watercolors from “The Serpentine Chain” series. Titled “I Come From A Place,” the book will celebrate being bound to the land on which one lives.

Like the 18th century settlers who arrived on the eastern shores of this country and quickly moved inland, where the jagged, weathered landscape looked familiar, Shuptrine wants “I Come From A Place” to evoke the feeling of comfort that descends on one’s soul when one comes home.

Joining Shuptrine on this journey is hiker and author Jennifer Pharr-Davis, who’s providing the prose that will accompany Shuptrine’s images. An avid hiker, Pharr-Davis has covered over 14,000 miles of trails on six continents, and she holds the record for the fastest time on the Appalachian Trail for a woman, completing the 2,185-mile journey in just less than 47 days.

Pharr-Davis is also a prolific author, having written several guidebooks and hiking memoirs.

Shuptrine was already working on “The Serpentine Chain” when he heard Pharr-Davis speaking at Baylor School, his alma mater in Chattanooga. He quickly recruited her to not only provide the prose for his book but to be his muse on the Appalachian Trail.

Up until Shuptrine met Pharr-Davis, his time on the trail gathering inspiration had not yielded the results he wanted. “I thought I’d capture a few scenic panoramas, and then go into the towns and see an old barn or a child looking longingly into the mountains,” he acknowledges. “But I wasn’t seeing the scenery or the people I wanted to capture.”

When Shuptrine heard Pharr-Davis speaking at Baylor, he thought, “Here’s someone who knows how to get on and off the trail.”

With Pharr-Davis serving as his remote guide, Shuptrine began taking a more deliberate approach.

As he drove his Suburban into towns so small, they barely required a name or recognition on a map, he’d find an elderly man or woman sitting in a chair at the edge of the community and befriend them. After learning Shuptrine was working on a collection of paintings and a book, the person would point him toward the next step in his journey, whether it was a woman who had been quilting for 60 years, or an abandoned church that had weathered the elements.

“I didn’t set out with a checklist of images I wanted to capture,” Shuptrine says. “I simply hit the trail hoping the magic would happen.”

Shuptrine speaks often about the magic of the Appalachian Mountains, as if he’s merely a privileged witness to its power. In so doing, he humbly diminishes his innate talent for identifying a scene or individual that captures the heart and soul of a place. Despite his modesty, there’s no denying his inherited ability to find places and people with what his father called “the X factor.”

“There are subjects that simply have it. It’s hard to describe, but if it’s a person, they can tell a story with just the expression on their face,” he says. “Maybe it’s that they’ve lived through a lot of pain, or that they’re proud of subsisting off the land and not living off the dull of society.”

In creating a coffee table book, Shuptrine is following a second set of footprints his father left behind. The elder Shuptrine was already an artist with national acclaim when he and novelist James Dickey (“Deliverance”) produced a coffee classic titled “Jericho: The South Beheld” in the early 1970’s.

Sales of the book exploded when President Jimmy Carter presented a copy to Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, and “Jericho” went on to win numerous awards and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Remarkably, Shuptrine’s father and Dickey worked separately and never spoke to each other while producing the content for “Jericho.” The magic of the book happened in the editing room, Shuptrine recounts, where the paintings and text were paired in ways that made it seem as if the two men had toured the vanishing South together.

“They were two sentient souls, working alone but connected by the underlying theme,” Shuptrine says.

Shuptrine suggested he and Pharr-Davis take the same approach. Pharr-Davis agreed. “Artists in general don’t like to be micromanaged, or micromanage each other. We wanted there to be a lot of creative expression in the book, and felt confident that our art forms and our love for Appalachia would be complementary, even if we weren’t comparing notes,” she says.

Shuptrine adds the results are close to what his father and Dickey accomplished in terms of the unity of image and text. Pharr-Davis says Shuptrine’s paintings and her prose fit together hand-in-glove.

“It’s almost eerie. Alan painted some of the things I visualized,” she points out. “We took very different approaches and experiences, and then tried to express what a deeply important place the Appalachian Mountains are, so there was a lot of overlap, even though we used different mediums to express those sentiments.”

The Appalachian Mountains have fascinated Shuptrine since he was a child. Although born in Chattanooga, he spent many of his early years in Highlands, North Carolina, nestled deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As he climbed 30-foot rhododendron trees on the sides of mountains, chased fireflies in the dying embers of a summer day and spent hours watching his father paint, his love for Appalachia and its people took root in his heart.

“My father said the Appalachian people were the salt of the Earth; they would never steal from you or tell you a lie,” Shuptrine remembers. “But if you insulted their pig, they could kill you.”

Shuptrine’s memories of those days are deeply sensory, and contain the kind of detail evident in his paintings. “I can remember how rough and scaly the lichen was on the trees I climbed,” he says. “To be able to communicate an idea as an artist, you need to be a good observer.”

His memories of his early lessons at the elbow of his father are just as vivid. “Dad would take his brush, dip it in water, and then hit the ... [side of] the glass. As the ringing held in the air, he would quickly mix the paint on his pallet and place it on the paper,” Shuptrine recalls. “Everything was so quiet, I could hear the friction of his brush running across the rough texture of the paper.”

Before the ringing subsided, Shuptrine’s father would dip his brush in the water again and hit the side of the glass again. “The ringing would never stop. It was mesmerizing,” he says, his voice softening at the memory.

As Shuptrine was growing up, his father went from selling paintings at art shows for five dollars apiece to being a painter with nation acclaim. However, realizing success as an artist involves as much luck as talent, he encouraged his son to pursue other means of making a living.

“You can be a phenomenal painter, dancer, singer or poet, but it takes two ingredients to be a successful artist. I had a good drawing hand, but I knew I would also need to be discovered, or to happen upon a great idea, for my career to take off,” Shuptrine explains.

With this in mind, Shuptrine studied pre-med at Sewanee: The University of the South. Eventually, something “clicked,” and he decided to change direction. He wasn’t sure where to turn, though, and he changed his major several times before he wound up studying anthropology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

After Shuptrine graduated and returned to Chattanooga, he needed work. Fortunately, his father, Hubert, and artist Andrew Wyeth needed a framer. Carving wood came naturally to his capable hands, although Shuptrine had to learn how to gild.

In time, Shuptrine knew enough about the business side of the art world to launch his own company, Shuptrine’s Gold Leaf Designs, which not only created handmade picture frames but also did restoration work.

His wife, Bonny, joined the business in 1997, and aided its growth. At one point, the couple employed over 20 people and were working for more than 50 museums and hundreds of artists and galleries around the country. They also opened a gallery of their own that specializes in American art.

Through it all, Shuptrine nursed a desire to become a painter, like this father, who had passed away in 2006. The only things he lacked was the grand idea he would need to succeed and the luck that would lead to his discovery.

About ten years ago, Shuptrine started to wonder if his big break would ever happen. Then came the day he decided to stop waiting and make it happen. “I began to really think about what I wanted to do,” he recalls.

Although it took millions of years for plate collisions to form the Appalachian Mountains, it took Shuptrine only four years to come up with his grand idea. He remembers waking up 3 a.m., looking at the ceiling fan, and being struck with inspiration: He would paint the people and places along the Appalachian Mountains.

“It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It’s no wonder the Celts moved into those mountains and called them home,” he says. “I felt like that would be my calling because the genre is broad enough that I would never feel limited.”

Shuptrine was right. Six years later, he’s nearing completion of “The Serpentine Chain,” having created a collection comprised of many different subjects, all rooted in the mountain range that captured his childhood heart. Following several rounds of fundraising, he’s also on the verge of publishing his first book, with “I Come From A Place” poised to be released in September.

Despite the advanced stages of both projects, his hiking and painting days are far from over. Once “I Come From A Place” has found a home on the coffee tables of his fans, he plans to visit a new, but strangely familiar, mountain range.

“My next project will take me to Great Britain to hike some of their version of the Appalachian Mountains and trace the origins of the traditions that came here,” he says. “I want to see a fifth-generation scotch maker who’s carrying on the tradition of his ancestors, and I want to meet a quilt maker who’s been making quilts for 40 years in a quaint little village.”

Shuptrine says this journey of discovery will lead to a sequel to “I Come From A Place.” After that, he hopes to do a series of paintings of the trees he climbed as a child. Some of those trees, which in his mind’s eye are as clearly formed as the day he climbed them, have already found their way into his paintings.

As Shuptrine sits at his drawing desk, dabbing at “Circle Up,” he pauses and looks out the window of his studio, which provides him with a westward view of Nickajack Lake. His hiking companion, a four-year-old German shepherd named Captain, is resting at his feet, and upstairs, his wife is overseeing renovations of their home.

Even though Shuptrine is far from the Appalachian Trail, he can sense what the people who have lived there for generations feel as they look up at the mountains that surround them, because he is in the place that stirs a similar feeling of comfort in his soul.

With his brush, paints, and canvas on the desk before him and his loved ones around him, he is home, or, as he will someday tell the people of an even more distant mountain range, he is in the place from which he comes.