As founder of the nonprofit Preserving a Picturesque America, Scott “Doc” Varn is on a mission to create a modern-day version of a printed project dating from the 19th century.
As part of that effort, he recently embarked upon a hike of the historic Buncombe Turnpike, the 75-mile route built in the 1820s through Western North Carolina used by settlers and livestock drovers. Varn’s organization, aka PAPA, has also arranged a fundraising art sale and exhibition to support its efforts. Preservation Through Art: Along the French Broad takes place Sept. 16-Oct. 27 at Wedge Foundation’s Cloud Room.
By foot, horseback and canoe
Created during the post-Civil War era, a time when the country was deeply polarized, Picturesque America was a serialized collection of engravings designed to present something upon which everyone could agree: the scenic grandeur of the United States. Varn sees current-day parallels to that divisive era, and his organization has launched a modern-day take on the original series. Working under the aegis of PAPA, 21st-century artists visit the sites memorialized in Picturesque America and capture on canvas the way the scenes appear today.
Those endeavors aren’t as simple as they might seem. Modern roads, highways and superhighways — not to mention the simple passage of time, deforestation and development in general — have changed the American landscape in major ways. So when Varn or one of his artistic colleagues sets out to find the original 1870s artists’ vantage points, it can be quite a challenge.
“We go through the serial, trying to deduce clues,” Varn explains. “We ask, ‘Where might these illustrations have been done? What route would they have taken?’” To date, PAPA has found quite a few of the 60-plus locations. “For years, I’ve been going to other places with PAPA,” Varn says. “And I kind of left my own backyard on the back burner.”
To correct that oversight, Varn embarked on a trip in May of this year. Joined by fellow artist Mike Wurman, he set out to travel the Buncombe Turnpike. The turnpike was a major commerce thoroughfare, used by farmers and drovers alike to transport their harvests and livestock, extending from Tennessee to the South Carolina state line.
The duo did their best to make the trip in the same way that people would have done in the 1800s. For starters, that meant wearing period clothing. “There’s definitely something impeding your progress when you’re in period garb,” Varn says. “They are not made for hiking.”
The two-week journey began in Chimney Rock, with Varn and Wurman on horseback. According to Varn, the location is where Harry Fenn, the original artist responsible for the earliest Picturesque America illustrations, began.
“Then, we walked,” Varn says. The two followed the path of the old turnpike as it extended through Asheville and along the banks of the French Broad. In places, only the faintest hint of the original Buncombe Turnpike remained.
Once they reached Marshall, some 20 miles north downriver from Asheville, the two men had to change their mode of transportation yet again. “We paddled,” Van says. “A friend who’s an Appalachian Trail hiker and river guide got us through the rapids.”
Today, some of the original vantage points used by Picturesque America artists are completely inaccessible by land; in the 1800s, there were ferries to facilitate river crossings at specific points. So the duo’s river guide became their de facto ferry.
The trip was full of such obstacles, but Varn and his fellow artist did what they could to follow the path of the original turnpike. That meant a rare visit to a remote spot between Marshall and Hot Springs. “That’s probably the most well-preserved place on the entire Buncombe Turnpike,” Varn says with a palpable sense of awe.
There are no current-day roads near that location. But remnants of the well-trodden path from the 1800s are everywhere. “You could still see where the road is cut,” Varn says. “They would just grab rocks and throw them from side to side just to get them out of the way.”
Past Hot Springs, the old turnpike becomes completely impassable. “We were stuck,” Varn says. “There were no paths anymore. The only way to get around the cliffs was to paddle again.” So the final leg of the journey to Del Rio, Tenn., was via paddling.
Join the party
At accessible vantage points along the way, Varn and Wurman were joined for painting sessions by many of their fellow PAPA artists, whose work will be featured in the art sale and exhibition. The event is PAPA’s primary fundraiser, and proceeds will go toward the nonprofit’s ongoing mission as well as its collaborative conservation efforts with other regional nonprofits.
Asheville landscape painter Christine Enochs has created seven finished pieces for the show. “It’s been a fun and fascinating endeavor,” she says, “especially the paddling and hiking adventures to paint with others on location.”
Working primarily in oil, pastel and charcoal, Asheville artist Mark Henry estimates that he has created 3,000 works of art, and PAPA’s mission inspires him. “Art captures time,” he says. “We need to ensure that these sites are kept as close as possible to their original beauty. Portions of the proceeds of this show will go towards maintenance and cleanup of sites that have been defaced or vandalized.”
Varn says that the hike helped him get deeper into the mindset of the original 19th-century artists, and his memories inform the texts he’s writing for PAPA’s modern-day serial project.
“There’s something about really slowing down and taking it at that pace that makes a big difference,” he says. “We knew we’d have the opportunity to have some incredibly picturesque locations, but we also knew there was going to be a real challenge. I wanted to write about what it’s like to retrace something in the modern era. And there were so many hidden gems.”
WHAT: Preservation Through Art: Along the French Broad art sale and exhibition
WHERE: Cloud Room at the Wedge at Foundation, 5 Foundy St., Asheville
WHEN: Artist receptions Sept. 16, Sept. 29, and Oct 13, 6-8 p.m.
“Meet the Artists” Q&As: Sept. 22, Oct. 6, Oct. 20, 6-8 p.m.