…as told by as told by Alan Shuptrine and Sharyn McCrumb
Many artists dream of pursuing an epic creative project. For Alan Shuptrine, the idea for his latest—and largest artistic accomplishment to date—literally came to him in a dream. Late in 2012, Alan remembers waking his wife, Bonny, at 3:00 am to tell her he wanted to publish a book of paintings, and the subject would be the Appalachian Mountains.
Alan always knew he wanted to follow in his father, Hubert Shuptrine’s, footsteps. In 1974, the acclaimed watercolorist published a coffee table art book in collaboration with famed author James Dickey, titled “Jericho: The South Behind.” Alan yearned to publish his own art book. He knew what he wanted to paint, but he needed to find his “James Dickey.”
“I wanted to find someone who knows about Appalachia like James Dickey knew about the Old South,” said Alan. So, like any good 21st century researcher, Alan started with Google. After sifting through dozens of potential writers, he struck Appalachian literary gold with Sharyn McCrumb.
A New York Times best-selling author, McCrumb is best known for her “Ballad” novels, which are set in the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains.
After exchanging several emails, Alan and Sharyn met in 2013 and decided to undertake this extensive collaboration. The two will work simultaneously, Alan on his paintings that depict scenes from the Appalachian Mountains and Sharyn on the “connections between Appalachian customs and folklore.”
These mysterious connections are what initially inspired Alan to focus on the Appalachian Mountains and the people who call this land their home. The unexpected dot that connects these paintings and the folklore is a mineral called serpentine.
“Serpentine is a vein of green mineral that lies underneath the Appalachian Mountains and snakes its way through the entire mountain chain from Talladega, Alabama to New Brunswick, Canada,” says Alan.
McCrumb has written about serpentine in several of her novels. She explains the unique intersection between Celtic folklore and Appalachia lies in this geological phenomenon. “I’ve always been interested in the connections between the culture of the mountain South and that of Britain, where most of the earliest settlers came from,” says McCrumb.
She explains that millions of years ago the mountains in Great Britain and the Appalachian Mountains were part of the same geological area—they were quite literally connected. Over the millennia, the continents broke apart and became what is now North America and Europe. However, the same chain of serpentine mineral remains in each mountainous region. Only now, the two are separated by the Atlantic Ocean.
When Alan and Sharyn initially met, the artist was only vaguely familiar with the Appalachian-Celtic serpentine connection. After brainstorming the idea about developing the collection and book around this theme, Alan was hooked.
He was intrigued with the idea that early settlers from Great Britain could have lived anywhere in America, but they inherently chose the Appalachian Mountain region because of its physical similarities to their homeland. “They were essentially moving back to the same mountains and the same serpentine they had left an ocean away,” says Alan.
The theme of the book, titled “The Serpentine Chain Collection,” is about coming home, Alan says. Where Jericho focused on the Old South, the paintings in Alan’s book will depict the Living South— the people, their heritage, and the land that comprise Appalachia from Georgia to Maine.
“The Serpentine Chain Collection” will contain 90 images of Alan’s paintings, all of which he is creating specifically for the book and upcoming exhibit tour. The exhibition will kick off at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville on May 19, 2017 and will travel for two years to four museums across the South.
In 2014, Alan and Bonny were visiting the Tennessee State Museum when the Museum’s Executive Director, Lois Riggins-Ezell, inquired about his latest project. After hearing Alan’s inspiration behind the serpentine paintings and book, Riggins-Ezell said she not only wanted to host the exhibit at the State Museum, but she wanted it to begin its tour there. This will be the last exhibit at the Tennessee State Museum before it moves to its new location in North Nashville.
Following its run in Nashville, the collection will move to the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia from January – May 2018, then to the Huntsville Museum of Art from May – October 2018. The final leg of the tour will take it back home to the Museum Center at 5ive Points in Cleveland, Tennessee, one of seven Smithsonian-affiliated museums in the state.
The exhibit will open with 55-60 original paintings—no small feat for an artist. Almost immediately after his initial “ah-ha” moment in late 2012, Alan began to paint. He set off for the Appalachian Trail with a 55-pound pack and his 100-pound German shepherd, Captain. The pair hiked to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Tennessee at 6,644 feet, near Gatlinburg. It was there that Alan found the inspiration for the first work in the collection, “Into the Clearing.”
The painting shows a tree-lined path at the top of the mountain, just as the light begins to open and reveal the mist rising off the trail. “It was at that moment that I felt like I was ‘delivered’ and everything felt like it was finally coming together,” says Alan.
These days, instead of carrying a heavy overnight pack, Alan and Captain hit the trail with a modest 20-pound backpack with his camera, a Go-Pro, and a collapsible easel. The pair will hike around an area until there is nothing else to see. Then it’s back to Alan’s Suburban to head north to the next trail.
Next to the actual painting, these three to four day excursions into the mountains are Alan’s favorite part of the process.
When he returns to his studios—Alan has two, one downtown and one in his Lookout Mountain home—he tries to get to work on the paintings as soon as possible. On the trail, Alan will create a light pencil drawing or even a loose watercolor study en plein air. In his studio, Alan uses a 10-inch dinner plate as a palette and works on up to 8-10 paintings at a time. There are times when he may finish three works in the same week; however, each piece takes months to complete.
The images in the collection originate from all 14 states of the Appalachian Trail, plus Alabama, but the subjects vary widely from people he meets, to interesting roadside scenes, to classic landscapes. “It’s a broad-based collection,” said Alan. “But they were all inspired from the Appalachian Mountains. There are all kinds of little subtleties that tie them back to the subject.”
As much as Alan enjoys his time on the trails, he has found the “real magic” in the small towns and in the people he has met during his travels throughout Appalachia. Ted Greene, a fifth-generation maple syrup maker from Sebago, Maine whose family has produced maple syrup since the 1800s, inspired “Maple Man.” The subjects for “Deep Creek” and “Falling” came from the abandoned town Greenbriar, Tennessee. Its crumbled houses and moss covered tombstones come to life through Alan’s watercolors.
Alan admits the process can feel like a balancing act at times, between road trips to find material for his work and returning to the studio to actually create the pieces. And selling the artwork is also part of the process, since Alan is a working artist. There can be pressure to finish and sell the work before returning to the trail. But he wouldn’t trade his “Serpentine Chain” project for anything.
“My Dad always said it takes two components to be a successful artist,” said Alan. “You have to be good at drawing and you have to have a little luck.” Alan said he has been waiting for his big break for a long time and finally decided to be proactive. “I came up with this idea, put blinders on, and have just been working towards that idea.”
Alan’s paintings prove he possesses the skills, and now, with “The Serpentine Chain Collection,” he may have just found his luck.
Photography Courtesy of Shuptrine Art Gallery