Looking back to childhood days, Philip Juras has always been drawn to natural landscapes in their most pristine form. Whether from backyard adventures or examining the pre-settlement savannas that once flourished across the southeastern Piedmont, Juras finds his artistic inspiration in nature and, oftentimes, uses it to shine a light on its importance in our lives.
For the past five years, the Augusta native has focused his attention on the unpeopled landscapes of Little St. Simons Island, adding to an exhibition of works aimed at largely untouched areas of southern wilderness.
“I had an exhibit at the Telfair Academy in Savannah that looked at the Southeast through how William Bartram experienced it in the 1770s. I recreated many of the places as he would’ve seen them,” Juras explained.
The exhibit is in Augusta’s Morris Museum of Art until the end of the month and will move to metro Atlanta’s Cobb/Marietta Museum of Art in July.
“One day, Wendy Paulson, who owns Little St. Simons (with her husband Hank), visited (Telfair Academy) on a field trip, saw my exhibit and extended an invitation to me to come out to Little St. Simons and talk about my paintings,” Juras said. “When I got there, she asked if I wanted to do any paintings of the island and I gladly accepted. One main reason was because it was an extension of what I was already doing before in another exhibit that looked at the Southeast before Europeans, Asians and Africans came and changed the face of the landscape.”
What his undertaking led to was a 128-page book that explores the privately owned, 10,000-acre barrier island. Titled “The Wild Treasury of Nature: A Portrait of Little St. Simons Island,” the book’s compilation of miles of mostly undisturbed natural landscapes sprawl across the pages in 52 paintings.
“I started painting them in spring 2011. A couple of years into it I realized that this was an opportunity to make a portrait of an island. Since Little St. Simons isn’t as widely known outside (of this area), we wanted this book to present a picture of the island that wasn’t just my painting,” Juras said of the book created with the help of contributors.
It also lays out the cultural history of the island, the natural processes Juras took that underlie the paintings themselves, and offers a glimpse into 19th-century American landscape painting.
“Many of the paintings are either done from field studies or studio work,” Juras said, adding that the they were created with oil paints on paper and canvas. “This has been a five-year project but there’s nothing I could think of better to do.”
From the “old growth, maritime live oak forests” to the southern edge of the Altamaha Sound, Juras considers this book to be a “celebration of nature ... but (also) a way to cast images (of the island) in new light of how it has always been and how it’s (hopefully) going to be.”
“It’s great to be out there. Maritime live oak forests are very abundant in barrier islands but the characteristics of the trees and species that live in them were some of my favorite,” Juras said.
“It’s sort of being as remote as you possibly can. It’s like five miles from Sapelo, five miles from Darien and five miles from St. Simons. It’s far from everything and standing on the southern edge of the Altamaha Sound.”
Through a joint effort by the St. Simons Island Land Trust, the Literary Guild of St. Simons Island and the St. Simons Island Library, Juras will discuss his book in a meet and greet session at 5:30 p.m. today at Neptune Park on St. Simons.
“I’m going to present this book as a portrait, an aesthetic and ecological tour of the wonderful natural barrier island that it is,” he said.
“My hope is that (attendees) leave with a little bit of heightened awareness of the intrinsic beauty of nature around them and an additional love of natural landscapes so that it will improve their lives and help them make the types of decisions to allow that nature to last on into the future.”