A rare state of beauty

It’s never a bad idea to keep a frog or two on file.

Just ask local artist Robert Johnson, who entered North Carolina biological preserves last year to observe and record the delicate sites. The resulting paintings are quixotically colored, yet finickly detailed — one man’s indelible, highly personal panorama of these vulnerable mini-worlds, which are protected and maintained by the international nonprofit organization The Nature Conservancy.

Framed notebook sketches accompany the large works in their current Blue Spiral 1 gallery setting. The pages detail a bird or frog here, a leaf or twig there, with ruminative notes scattered among them — gentle scraps of near-poetry: “Many black oaks … are stunted by the poor soil and twisted by the wind,” or “The azure blue … is the pure blue of the virgin’s robe, not lapiz but azurite.”

These sketches are valuable apart from their artistic worth, feels Johnson. “I go back to them and use them,” he revealed in a recent interview. “I might want to put a certain type of frog in a painting one day, and I’ll remember that I [sketched] one of them three years ago. … I use them like a refresher.”

Thanks to groups like The Nature Conservancy, however, it’s hopeful that such two-dimensional references — charming though they may be — will never need to replace the real thing. The organization continues, according to its mission statement, to pledge its “commit[ment] to the preservation of ecologically significant land and the diversity of life it supports.” The Conservancy has made good on its promise for more than two decades (it currently protects 10 million acres of land in North America).

Johnson is a devoted environmentalist; his past series — whether depicting the fertile wonders of Ecuador or recording views from Mt. Pisgah — have contained, embedded in their whimsical beauty, an identifying clarity of purpose. But he found he had a thing or two to learn about the Conservancy.

“Their [aim] is much broader than [preserving] particular species of plants or animals,” he explains. In fact, the Conservancy strives to uphold entire ecosystems. The group’s projects continue to broaden in scope; a current proposal involves building a natural corridor between Panthertown Valley (a 6,000-acre Conservancy preserve straddling the border of North and South Carolina, near the town of Cashiers) and the nearby Jocassee Watershed, a 9,000-acre tract of similarly protected land.

“Wildlife could migrate back and forth [between the two parcels of land], instead of being isolated,” Johnson explains.

The artist’s own proposal for the future of the natural world is disarmingly simple — and yet so unlikely that it seems radical.

“A romantic ideal would be that, at some point, we could learn to live with nature,” Johnson posits. “What I see is that there is a race going on in this country. On Grandfather Mountain, if you look down to one side, there’s an incredible amount of development going on, and it’s getting more and more crowded. And then the [opposite view] is the [protected] Wilson Creek Watershed. It’s such a mixed bag. During my three months in Ecuador, I saw the same thing: We’re divided between preserving plots of the world to how they used to be, or [rampantly] developing them.

“I don’t know exactly how an integration [of such disparate aims] would come about,” he admits.

Blue Spiral 1’s gorgeously illustrated booklet detailing the history behind Johnson’s show refers to the artist’s ongoing body of work: “[Johnson] aspires to be impartial, to illustrate the reality of a location without deliberately overlooking or militantly politicizing its misuse.”

Johnson himself states his position more simply. “[I’m] just trying to recreate my experience,” he says. “But I’m including my whole experience, and that isn’t just nature. … My experience includes logging and [other forces] that are destroying these natural ecosystems.”

Bittersweet pleasures lurked in his chosen territories. Dare County’s Nags Head Woods — a Conservancy preserve along North Carolina’s Outer Banks — offered the same conflicting vistas that Johnson observed on Grandfather Mountain. “On the island, you’ve got McDonald’s, K-Mart … this really heavy-duty strip, and then, all of a sudden, there are these woods — 1,600 acres of what it used to be like. It’s amazing.”

The preserve itself, a maritime forest haunted by ancient sand dunes, harbored even more excitement. “You have to [watch out for] the cottonmouth snakes,” Johnson warns. “One day — it was a nice fall day — they were out in full force, looking for places to burrow. They blend in with the leaf litter, so you have to be careful.”

In Johnson’s “Nags Head Woods,” one such reptile curls itself around an exotic tangle of vegetation, its head rising saucily above a conch shell. The artist reveals the snake in a pose of open-mouthed warning mode, revealing what the artist calls its “warning patch of pure white.” It’s an obvious touch, yet almost unnecessary: Hissing or no, the cottonmouth is clearly king of the canvas. (Likewise, the autumn-rich “Panthertown Valley,” a deeply lovely mountain vista, is sneakily dominated by a small black bear.)

Other Conservancy sites immortalized by Johnson include Ashe County’s Bluff Mountain, Brunswick County’s Green Swamp Preserve, the Black River, the Roanoke River, the Sandhills Longleaf Pine Forest, Horseshoe Lake and the Green Sea area (the latter a large complex of wetlands that spans five counties in the northeasternmost corner of North Carolina).

“[North Carolina is] really an incredibly diverse state,” Johnson muses. “We’ve got everything from semi-tropical conditions all the way up to [trees like] the spruce fir, which you would usually find only in Canada. … You have all these different ecosystems, this whole world, just in [this state].”

As a biological foundation to understanding the preserves, the physical details of flora and fauna received Johnson’s careful attention (“lichen growing down in drooping tangles from pines,” he notes beside a notebook sketch of swamp azalea). The artist clearly cut no corners during the project, and still speaks of that year with a weighted tone of wonder and gratitude.

But his color travels more lightly.

It’s hard to realize the impact of Johnson’s palette from photographs of the works: His hues are infused with the odd light of dreams and require personal inspection to fully appreciate. Referring to a peculiarly gleaming lily in “Bluff Mountain,” the artist concedes, “I felt the painting needed that spot of bright[ness], so I intensified [the yellow]. Color is more subjective, for me.”

And his enchantment with color for its own sake is a force strong enough to transgress even sacred boundaries, it seems. “If I have to sacrifice botanical accuracy [to foster my vision], I’ll do it,” Johnson notes firmly.


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