No rest area next 100 miles

“Lightning struck and the muse jumped on my shoulder,” declares arts pioneer John Cram in describing the impetus for Scenic Overlook: Blue Ridge Parkway, an upcoming exhibit at his Blue Spiral 1 Gallery.

Of course, there are also less mystical aspects to the show’s beginnings.

“I’m fond of landscapes and so are a lot of people,” notes Cram. “We usually have a landscape show every year, and we’ll often get beach scenes and that sort of thing, and I kept thinking, ‘How do I tighten up the concept?’”

Scenic Overlook will feature the work of 21 artists, depicting the majestic miles of parkway, milepost by milepost, that lie within North Carolina’s boundaries.

Cram and Blue Spiral held an art auction last year to benefit the Conservation Trust for North Carolina, created to protect the state’s land and water resources. The trust reports protecting nearly 20,000 acres since its inception in 1991, most of that land along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Thinking back on that auction, reveals Cram, helped spark his inspiration for the show, and the idea to then tie it to the CTNC.

“We take so much for granted with our natural resources here in Western North Carolina,” he muses. “We need to try and preserve the property that we can before it’s gone.”

The auction also marked the first time in 32 years that Cram had asked any Blue Spiral artist to donate any portion of his or her proceeds to anything.

“But they all thought the idea was great, and they all agreed,” he reports. “Not one of them batted an eye.”

To that end, 10 percent of the proceeds from the sale of art from Scenic Overlook will benefit both CTNC and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, another group formed to protect the world’s oldest mountains. (Of that 10 percent, half comes from the artists’ cut and half from the gallery’s.)

“Urban sprawl is the ticket to what’s going on with land misuse,” observes Cram. “Developments you can see from the Parkway are ruining it. You of course enhance property value by people being able to see the Parkway.”

But economics are but one side of it; nature lovers have a say in it, too.

“[The Parkway] truly is a national treasure, and we aren’t being good stewards of it,” Cram declares. “Maybe the artist’s eye can help us realize the importance of preserving that treasure.”

The 21 artists who have captured mileposts along the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway are as varied in the scenes they capture as they are in their approaches and their media — from paintings to ceramics to photographs to art quilts to woodcuts.

No matter that several artists have chosen to render the same mileposts (Graveyard Fields and the Julian Price Memorial Park, near Boone, are particular favorites) — each vista manages to look fresh.

“It’s fun to compare the visions of the artists when they’re depicting the same spot,” Cram says.

However, photographer John Dickson has captured almost every milepost of the parkway in his stunning black-and-white works, which together offer a map of sorts to the 270 miles of parkway that meander through some of our state’s most extraordinary scenery.

Mythologizing nature

Painter Robert Johnson is often referred to as a “visual storyteller,” and his interests run to sacred spaces in nature. He spent the first 14 years of his life in Caracas, Venezuela, where he became enamored of the region’s rich plant and animal life. Johnson has lived in WNC now for 32 years.

“My spiritual connection with nature is basically what we all have — you transcend yourself,” he said in a recent phone conversation from his Burnsville home. “It’s what happens when you see a sunset, for example. If I were using a traditional religious term, I’d say I was connecting with God. For me, I feel that much more in nature than in a city.

“My first influence on nature came from looking at Italian primitive work between 1250 and 1450 — when artists were first looking at nature. A lot of the abstraction from the Byzantine era has influenced my work.

Johnson also studied with famed abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, and says that during his tenure living on the West Coast in the late ’60s and early ’70s, his work became “kind of far out and dreamlike.

“Then I moved here and found my true voice as a painter,” he muses “There’s something about this landscape that lends itself to both abstraction and realism.”

The artist uses a lush, Technicolor-like palette and an often-exaggerated, off-kilter scale to depict this region’s natural beauty. What he is precise about is depicting painstakingly accurate flora and fauna: goldenrod, blackberry bushes, purple clover, red-breasted robins. He often does smaller, botanical drawings that complement his larger paintings.

“I try to always see the small ecosystems,” he reveals. “I enjoy connecting with a specific ecosystem, and I try to be true to [it]. I won’t put a parrot in a painting from North Carolina.”

Still, Johnson’s paintings endow the local landscape with a headily mythological air. His “Julian Price Memorial Park,” for instance, is a sensual delight. Executed in hues of gold, green, red and purple, the painting features Johnson’s signature — his odd sense of proportion. A gigantic purple flower, larger than any tree in the grove that sits in the center of the painting, rises from the corner of the canvas. An imposingly oversized arch of yellow leaves frames that same grove. In the other corner, a goldenrod plant dwarfs a barren tree that stands alone in the foreground, while a playfully rendered flock of robins forages in a meadow.

Johnson is ever mindful of man’s encroachment on nature. On a mountaintop just above the birds’ playground, a fancy house is visible, up at the peak’s very crest.

“My work is as much subjective as objective,” Johnson says about “Julian Price Memorial Park” and similar paintings. “Elements like flowers blown up to a huge size, that’s part of the experience. If a particular flower has a huge impact on me, that gets reflected in my work. Manipulating the scale reflects the experience I had there.”

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