Local artists work to inspire a picturesque America

AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL: For over a decade, Scott “Doc” Varn has traveled the country visiting sites featured in Picturesque America, an 1870s publication that documented the country’s natural wonders. Currently, Varn is working with local artists to reinterpet 12 WNC locations featured in the series. Photo by Sam Varn

Happenstance led Asheville artist and printmaker Scott “Doc” Varn to establish Preserving a Picturesque America, a local nonprofit that promotes conservation efforts through the arts.

More than a decade ago, Varn came across an online estate auction. While scrolling through its inventory, he noticed a woodblock print of a familiar waterway — the French Broad River. Enamored by the design, Varn purchased the item, but his infatuation was dimmed upon the print’s arrival when he realized the image had been sliced out of a book — a grave taboo, according to the printmaker’s worldview. “I was disgusted,” he says.

But curiosity soon eclipsed his repulsion. “It made me ask questions,” he says. Primarily, “What book did this come from?”

18-pound monsters

Research revealed that the print was part of Picturesque America, a series published by Appleton Press in the 1870s. Released in 48 parts, the collection was eventually bound into two volumes featuring over 900 engravings.

While few copies survive today, Varn was fortunate to discover both volumes — which he describes as “18-pound monsters” — at The Captain’s Bookshelf, long before the store closed its downtown brick-and-mortar in 2020 (it continues to maintain an online shop).

“I’m getting chills right now just thinking about how monstrously huge of a moment that was,” Varn says of the purchase.

A decade later, that occasion continues to direct and influence Varn’s life. Initially, he set out to document the books’ featured locations during family vacations. But as he shared his plans with friends, Varn was encouraged to expand the project into what it’s become — a coalition of artists working to recapture the more than 900 sites as they appear today.

“Before we die, our job is to get 1,000 pieces of art created,” Varn says.

Western North Carolina is the launch pad for Preserving a Picturesque America’s mission. Working with local artists, historians and conservationists, the nonprofit’s first group exhibit/fundraiser is set for September, though a location has not been finalized. A portion of the money raised will go toward restoring and protecting the 12 local sites featured in Preserving America, with remaining funds supporting the expansion of the project throughout the continental United States.

Graffiti and litter

Not surprisingly, plenty has changed — both locally and nationally — since the series first published. Today, highways bisect some of the collection’s featured landscapes; industrial buildings obscure others.

“We’ve not always been good stewards,” says Varn.

The most heartbreaking example for the nonprofit leader is Paint Rock outside Hot Springs. The location is home to the state’s best-known American Indian pictograph, featured among the engravings in Picturesque America. Today, Paint Rock is defaced with graffiti, and its surrounding area is fouled with litter — issues Preserving a Picturesque America is working to address through cleanup sessions.

“It makes me sad for the people that I love in Western North Carolina,” says Varn. “Why would anyone do this?”

But the thrills outweigh the heartache for many of the project’s volunteers. Finding a location from the original publication is a rush for seekers like architect and Madison County historian Taylor Barnhill and local author Jacqueline Painter, who have scouted several of the 12 WNC sites featured in the collection.

The pair have trekked through unkempt trails and underbrush to reach several locations that are pictured completely treeless in Picturesque America. The earlier deforestation, says Barnhill, was due to livestock. Most of the local areas depicted in the publication were along Drover’s Road, a route that ran parallel to the French Broad River along which 19th-century Kentuckians and Tennesseans drove cows, pigs and chickens to South Carolina markets. Capitalizing on these annual expeditions, many area farmers cleared their land and cultivated corn to sell to the drovers as feed.

VOLUME ONE: Scott “Doc” Varn looks through his copy of Picturesque America at his home studio. Photo by Sam Varn

“A lot of these sites today have returned to forest and wild areas,” Barnhill explains.

Indiana Jones moment

Among the most rewarding finds for Barnhill and Taylor was an iron eyebolt at the edge of Hot Springs. The discovery helped pinpoint the site of a former ferry crossing featured in the series.

“It’s an Indiana Jones feeling,” says Barnhill. “You have these clues, and you’re kind of a cross between a detective and a scavenger hunter. The clues begin to fall into place, and then one day you come across the site and perspective you’ve been looking for.”

Like his volunteers, Varn relishes the act of discovery. “It is an amazing, exhilarating moment when you find the exact vantage point where an artist stood 150 years ago,” he says. “There’s nothing I can do to describe the joy in that.”

As fellow artists experience similar thrills while reinterpreting these sites for the upcoming fall exhibit, Varn notes the importance of representing what stands today rather than what stood 150 years prior. Often, he explains, artists want to re-create what is shown in the original publications. But Varn hopes that by pairing the old with the new, he can inspire greater awareness and participation in the conservation movement.

“It’s always a challenge,” he says. “Artists want to emotionally edit out certain things. But I encourage them to paint it as it is — be it with a new road, new structure or trees coming back in.”

To learn more, visit avl.mx/978.

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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2 thoughts on “Local artists work to inspire a picturesque America

  1. Orphie Lovin

    I used to fly the meanders of the French Broad, all the way from near Greeneville, TN to Asheville, and then on to 0A7 Airport at Hendersonville. If you’ve not beheld the French Broad from the air, just about 500′ above, or maybe a little lower, you just THINK you saw this beautiful river. Last time I did it was in an old 1946 Taylorcraft BC12-D. I took off from a little sod field along the Nolichucky River and headed eastward toward Asheville. The old bushplane and I had to search and search for some clear sky because the mountains separating Tennessee and North Carolina were obscured by clouds. And I didn’t want to fly into the side of a mountain. We were getting frustrated when all of a sudden I found a hole with the beautiful French Broad shimmering in the sunlight beneath us! Such exuberance, such a sight! The rest of the trip was pure joy. The only thing that bothered me about it was you could not fly just above the river any more because power lines were strung across it everywhere. Some of the old timers used to tell me what a pleasure it was to skim it up the French Broad just above the treetops.

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