Philip Juras, The Grand Prairie of Illinois, Night Fire, 2019, Oil on canvas, 36 x 60 in.

Painting Prairies of Illinois: An Interview with Philip Juras

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Editor’s Note: American landscape painter Philip Juras has keenly captured some of the remaining wild landscapes of Illinois during a six-year study of the state. Here he discovered a surprising diversity of prairie plant communities that were a bit different from the grassland remnants he studied in his home state of Georgia. Philip was invited to take this visual journey by one of Illinois prairies’ biggest allies, Wendy Paulson, to discover and capture these lovingly restored Midwest landscapes. To honor these prairies and share their uniqueness with visitors, the Chicago Botanic Garden will be celebrating the beauty, ecology, and history of the Illinois prairies in an exhibit showcasing Philip Juras’s work. Minding Nature is honored to share some of his paintings from this exhibit along with Wendy Paulson’s interview. They met on the coast of Georgia last fall to share thoughts on their love of prairies.

Philip Juras, The Grand Prairie of Illinois, 2019, Oil on canvas, 36 x 60 in.

Wendy Paulson (WP): What I’d like to first ask you is just what originally sparked your interest in grasslands?

Philip Juras (PJ): Well, I did not grow up in a grassland. In fact, I grew up in a part of the United States where that old popular myth made sense, that a squirrel could have once crossed from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever having to touch the ground, traveling on an unbroken forest canopy. I always thought that this was true until I was in my early twenties, when I went to a conference on native plants. There I heard a speaker talk about the southeastern United States not as an unbroken forest, but as open woodlands, and sometimes grasslands, experiencing frequent wildfires. This was not the landscape that I had always imagined as a child.

At that time, I already had an art degree, so being a visual person, that set me on a course of wanting to discover what those landscapes really looked like. Interestingly, what I learned about the Southeast turned out to apply to Illinois as well. They share an origin since it was southern grasslands that migrated into the formerly glaciated areas of the Midwest. In a way, the South is the home of the tallgrass prairie.

WP: You’re actually leading into my next question because I’ve always thought of you as an artist focused on the Southeast. How did your interest, which has become a sustained interest in midwestern grasslands, develop?

PJ: It came about from the very same question of wanting to know what the southeastern landscape looked like—which led me to do my thesis research in landscape architecture on southeastern grasslands. Since grasslands have basically disappeared in the South, I studied midwestern tallgrass prairie and savannas as a parallel. This was not my first introduction to the Midwest and to tallgrass prairie, but it was the point at which I really began to understand this ecosystem.

There was an earlier seed of interest planted though. My mother grew up in Illinois. Although I never lived in Illinois, I heard a lot about the state. I heard about the prairie too, but I mostly associated it with the stories of corn and the big sky. I visited Illinois with my mother a few times as a young person and I experienced the agricultural landscape, but we also encountered a couple of restoration or remnant prairie sites. I think one of them might have been just south of Chicago, possibly the Hoosier Prairie in Indiana, but I was a teenager and don’t remember exactly. That was my early exposure.

I knew, though, that if I really wanted to experience or understand or explore grasslands as an artist, I would have to go outside of the Southeast. As you know, I’ve developed quite an affinity for them, and I’ve been exploring them from New England to Texas and even Colombia, but it was really when you in fact invited me to come to Chicago to see the fantastic restoration work being done that I came to investigate tallgrass prairie. I’m so glad you did. I’ve developed a much deeper appreciation, especially for restorations.

Phillip Juras, Winter Evening, Sand Prairie-Scrub Oak Nature Preserve, Mason County, Illinois, 2019, Oil on canvas, 36 x 60 in.

WP: There is such a wide spectrum of landscapes to be painted, but you’ve always been drawn to capturing native landscapes and often what I call historic landscapes. So I’m curious about this, because a lot of landscape painters aren’t depicting functioning ecosystems or native plants. Can you talk more about your preference?

PJ: I guess the short answer is that I prefer to paint native landscapes because that’s the subject I’m most passionate about. And I think I developed a love for that subject matter very early on. I got to know and love nature both in my mother’s garden—I had a native fern garden when I was little—and on camping trips and outings in the woods with my family. We went to places like Cades Cove in the Smokies and historic sites like Mount Vernon. And there were the nature shows on PBS and books we had at home, like Bartram’s Travels. All of that developed my interest. I learned even more in graduate school studying under Darrel Morrison, and then there was my thesis on historic grasslands.

The historical aspects in particular have become more important for me as I’ve learned more about pre-Columbian landscapes. I know I’m not the only one who wonders what things looked like in North America before Europeans arrived.

I think we come to understand something about ourselves when we get to know the landscapes that our ancestors encountered. And we certainly get to know the ecology. Being able to see or imagine these native landscapes, not just in a garden or in a small reserve, but over thousands or millions of acres, is what really sparks my imagination, what really makes me want to see things on canvas.

I found over the years that all of North America’s natural environments are compelling, but there’s something about grasslands that is a little bit extra special. I think it’s because of the abundant sunlight and long, expansive views. There’s so little to obstruct either of these, which really enhances aerial perspective. Also, because of the fine texture of native grasses, there’s often a very wonderful play of light in the landscape. All those things together make for a compelling aesthetic, which I’m drawn to as a painter.

WP: Exactly. I know you travel around a lot. You drive a long way to many sites. What stops you and speaks to you and just says, “This is the landscape that I want to paint”?

PJ: Well, it usually starts before I travel anywhere. Oftentimes, it’s based on my previous research. I know that there are environments I want to discover, and I might do further research or consult with experts in the field to get a sense of where to go to find the best historic environments or restorations of those environments. Once on the road, I often stop when something catches my interest, even if it’s not the environment I was looking for originally. Many times it’s plants in a roadside ditch that alert me to interesting subject matter. That’s especially true in grassland ecosystems, like in Illinois, where sun-loving prairie plants have been eliminated from the rest of the landscape.

WP: Once you stop, do you walk around and look for a composition that’s going to work?

PJ: Yes. Once I’ve done the groundwork, the fun really begins. My favorite part of my job is exploring a given landscape and letting it unfold in front of me, experiencing it in sight and sound and smell. Once I’m there, I’m tuned in to anything that strikes me as an interesting composition, or a good combination of color, or a good view into the landscape that invites further exploration. Even out of the corner of my eye, if something suddenly strikes me I will stop and photograph or paint. I’ve learned not to pass up even a slight impulse because the grass is not always greener down the trail. If I’m successful, and a good image comes out of it, I will be able to share what I’ve experienced in that place with the viewer of the painting. That is really what I’m after.

Painting Grigsby Prairie, Lake County, Illinois, July 11, 2017

WP: Describe the artistic challenges you’ve had painting prairie landscapes, specifically Illinois landscapes.

PJ: The emptiness and horizontality of the scenery has been a challenge, especially compared to the southeastern landscapes I’m used to, where there are usually lots of trees or topographic features to frame things. In fact, I’ve found myself favoring compositions that do have at least a few trees, or where something interesting is going on in the sky, so as not to have too empty a composition.

Nachusa Grasslands challenged me in that way. It has some very large open spaces. And certainly, the pre-settlement prairies did, so I’m attempting to depict that aspect as well. I think that’s important, considering how the subject was perceived historically.

I’m pretty sure, having done a bit of searching, that the tallgrass prairie was not well represented in nineteenth century American landscape painting. I suspect the main reason for that was that prairies didn’t offer the aesthetic and symbolic aspects that the artists of the time were looking for. The prairie was simply a horizontal landscape with a wide sky above it and very few features to attract the attention of the viewer. It did not offer the dramatic, sublime scenery of manifest destiny they were looking for back then.

WP: Like the Rocky Mountains or Grand Canyon.

PJ: Exactly. In fact, I can’t think of any historic prairie painting in which the prairie itself is the subject. There’s always some feature or character that makes it about the human story. To really depict the historic prairie, the one that you would have found in Central Illinois, where you might not have had a single tree growing within five miles, would truly be a minimalist depiction. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that that kind of approach to aesthetics would have made sense. Perhaps that will be evident in some of my paintings, but you will see that I remain most attracted to compositions that have framing elements, such as trees and clouds.

WP: Texturally, is it more difficult to paint a midwestern prairie than say for instance a southeastern salt marsh?

PJ:  Yes, it is. There are similarities, but the salt marsh is often a single species of grass dominating hundreds or thousands of acres. That means that similar kinds of brushstrokes over a large part of the canvas will convey that, whereas in the prairie it’s often the case where there is a great deal of diversity, and it’s often very subtly distinguished. A lot more brushwork is needed for that. Showing those elements in the painting is important to me in order to tell the story that this is a diverse environment and the subtlety of those textures and colors and patterns are an important part of its beauty.

WP:  You’ve woven this into your comments already but, if I ask you explicitly, just what are you trying to communicate through your paintings?

PJ: When I’m standing in these beautiful natural places, I’m really moved by them. That feeling is what I want to share. That’s why I paint and exhibit and talk about the work I do. I want everyone to feel that same feeling. That’s even why I compose my paintings so the viewer might feel they can step into the scene and virtually stand beside me.  If that happens, if I can convey even a portion of that experience, it can allow others to think about the landscape in a different way.

WP: It’s almost a nudge to open one’s eyes to things that you may not have been attentive to before.

PJ: Yes. I think paintings have a particular way of doing that, different perhaps from photographs or video or other media. Painting is a very human act, translating an idea from eye to mind to hand, with a great deal of care, onto this two-dimensional surface for others to see and interpret. I think all of us are inspired or at least interested by that. I think that’s one way that the medium of painting can help in a very subtle, possibly a subversive way, to get the idea across that these places are important and beautiful and in need of attention.

WP: I’ve heard you mention that the grasslands have not drawn the attention that those dazzling spectacular landscapes have and that you’d really like to have people also notice the grasslands.

 PJ: Right. That’s my subversive aim. I read recently that the establishment of national parks in the desert Southwest could be partly attributed to the work of Paul Cézanne. Cézanne’s imagery popularized the arid landscape of southern Europe in the public consciousness, and, by extension, that made the Southwest seem more beautiful and valuable, thus enabling the legislation. That nicely echoes the earlier legacy of the Hudson River School painters who inspired the creation of Yosemite and Yellowstone. Grasslands need that love, too.

WP: I was just reading the other day about the evolution of the Coastal Marshlands Protection Act in Georgia. It was described as a nexus of art and science where scientists were advocating for the protection of marshlands, but you also had Sidney Lanier celebrating these marshlands in his poetry. That hit an emotional chord with Georgians and that’s really what pushed that Act over the finish line.

It was my experience in elementary and even secondary education that there isn’t that much exposure to the visual arts except for the practice of doing them. I think that there’s a strong reason for teaching poetry and literature and art because it’s an entirely different motivation than just a purely scientific one, as strong as that can be. I’ve always felt that beauty motivates, whether it’s visual beauty or spoken beauty; that’s what gets people impassioned.

PJ: I agree. That really is the reason I want to present these special natural places to people in the way I know how. I hope it works. 

WP: I noticed in terms of actually experiencing the elements of those places, you do a lot of fire paintings. Could you describe what got you into pursuing the fire paintings, which you’ve done both in the Southeast and in the Midwest. Can you just describe a bit, or all of it, just the experience and the process?

PJ: Well, I came to fire the same way I came to grasslands, because in the East you don’t have grasslands without fire. When I learned that, I realized I would have to explore the phenomenon of wildland fire, something I really wanted to do as an artist. The aesthetic experience of seeing a prescribed fire in the landscape is truly marvelous. It is out of this world.

Almost every burn that I’ve ever been on has been for ecological restoration, all these landscapes being fire dependent. I’m able to paint on these fires because some ten years ago I trained with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources as a wildland firefighter. I have to thank a friend of mine, Shan Cammack, who heads up the DNR ecological burn program, for getting me to do that. With that qualification, and by maintaining it, I’m able to participate on prescribed fires in Georgia and around the country as well.

So I was just delighted when I was given permission from Bill Kleiman at Nachusa Grasslands to paint some of their burns in December and March. The fires were gorgeous. They were different from our southern fires because the prairie grasses of the Midwest burn very rapidly, so I had to have a slightly faster approach to capturing the action. It’s very exciting to paint on a fire because everything is in motion and there is some element of danger, but I rely on my training and my fellow crew members to keep me safe.

WP: The wind can shift?

PJ: The wind can shift. But because I have all of my painting gear contained on a very portable easel and in my backpack, I can pick up and move quickly. That way I can stay ahead of the flames, or behind them, and capture the fast changing and dynamic colors and patterns of the scene.

WP: You’re in full fire attire?

PJ: Right. I’m dressed in Nomex and fire boots and a hardhat. The Nomex is fire-resistant fabric, but I know you know all about that, with your restoration experience.

In that setting, I get to really push the envelope as a painter. Fire puts you outside of your comfort zone right away, and you’re forced to really consider what the most important elements are of the scene that you’re looking at, since you really don’t have time to fool with detail. It’s a really good exercise.

WP: Are your strokes faster?

PJ: Yes, bigger brushes and faster painting in general. They have a more impressionistic and expressionistic feeling because of that. They usually take less than an hour. Really, I try to do all my field paintings that way, not just the fire paintings. It gives me a chance to capture the important elements of a moment in a given place and to understand them in a direct way, the colors, the textures, and so forth. I also try to do that in my large studio paintings, but there I have unlimited time, so they inevitably become more detailed.

WP: So some of your paintings evolve from a field painting to studio work?

PJ: Yes. Several of the paintings I did at Nachusa began in the field and were finished in the studio. I’m thinking of one in particular. It was an absolutely gorgeous sunset. A coyote went by and the bison were off in the distance.

WP: Doing whatever they do.

 PJ: Yes. I was there by myself in the middle of a thousand acres of restored grassland. It was a fabulous experience and a spectacular sunset, but with the sun going down, I knew I only had a few minutes to paint. I knew I’d have to finish it later in the studio.

WP: Are you taking photos as you paint as well?

PJ: I do take hundreds of photos when I visit a site so I can refer to them later in the studio. My larger paintings are usually based on photos like these. I also try to take a few shots once I’ve started a painting in the field in case I need to finish it later. But once I’ve started painting, I may only pick up the camera once or twice, or not at all. Otherwise I’m aggressively throwing paint onto that canvas, like I was for the sunset at Nachusa, because those colors are changing fast. I’m not thinking of details at all. I’m simply trying to place colors where they belong. Only fifteen minutes later it’s going to be too dark and I’ll have to stop, but I’ve established a lot of choices like the general composition and the tone that really attracted me to that landscape. When I bring that partially begun painting back home, I’ll use those photographs I took and also a good bit of imagination, possibly even rearranging the composition, until I bring it to a point of completion, yet still retaining the feeling of the moment.

WP: In a way, it’s a hybrid of precise capture of the scene and—

PJ: An impression.

WP: I’ve seen traces of insects and even traces of raindrops set into the paint. Can you talk about some of the physical elements that you face as a painter? What are some of the normal conditions you experience, which many of us would consider real challenges?

PJ: Yes, probably most people who go into nature will recognize that bugs can be a big challenge and certainly when you’re standing in one place. I have abandoned sites here and there because the sand gnats or mosquitos were just too much—especially the sand gnats in the salt marsh when the sun is setting. No amount of bug spray would have helped. Normally, though, they’re not so bad and you do forget about them, especially when that wonderful moment happens, when you are so engaged with the painting that you don’t notice anything else. Then the elements don’t really matter. And you don’t even notice a deer standing fifty feet behind you watching you paint, which has happened before, too. The wind and rain are probably a bigger challenge, and I especially don’t love the wind. Sometimes you can’t make marks because the wind pushes you around so much. And I’ve had a few canvases blow over—face down, of course.

WP: As a painter, you experience I think a lot of moments in nature that many—in fact, a majority—of people do not experience because they’re either on their way to work or eating breakfast or cooking dinner, or whatever. 

PJ: That’s true. If only everyone could come with me to experience these beautiful moments and beautiful places. It’s so great to be out in the field in that meditative way, watching the sun rise and listening to the sound of the wind and the birds. It has been a revelation to find that so much happens in a place if you give it time. I think paintings do another thing for a landscape. Just by the simple fact that someone has spent the time to closely observe and paint it, that elevates the importance of that place. That means somebody cared about it. Maybe a lot of people care. Maybe it’s something that I should go see as well because it deserves that kind of attention and recognition. It’s another role that paintings can play.

WP: In that sense, I think for the artist—in this case, you—the painting becomes a form of advocacy, and if you really want to, it can be a form of conservation activism.

PJ: I would like to think it is. If I were to place myself in the world of conservation, it would be in the area of reaching people’s hearts, because nothing happens until people care about something.

WP: That’s right. You have to first know it, which means be introduced to it, then care about it, and hopefully you’ll be compelled to do something. As you say, it’s a straight route to the heart.

Let’s also talk about the upcoming Chicago Botanic Garden exhibit itself, Picturing the Prairie. How did this event come about?

PJ: Well, the wheels were really set in motion because you knew I loved grasslands, and you thought I should come and see the restorations being done around Chicago. I was blown away by them. As I did my first few paintings at Flint Creek Savanna and Poplar Creek Prairie, it became apparent to me that here was a subject that was worth exploring in greater depth, and in a broader context as well, as it turned out. Driving up to Chicago from the South and seeing the entire state, I began to consider a much wider picture that could be painted of Illinois.

I wouldn’t have thought of it before, but Illinois turns out to be a beautiful place and a worthy destination for an artist. The natural places I’ve been are just spectacular. Having gone to so many of them, I began to form a picture in my mind of how Illinois really is the prairie state, although that’s not obvious when driving on the interstate. As this picture became apparent, I began to discuss with you and with Jerry Adelmann of Openlands that maybe we could do some sort of exhibition that would reach people with this natural vision of Illinois that’s probably not well known.

Much to my delight, the Chicago Botanic Garden decided to show the exhibit. I’m really excited about it, and I can’t wait to see all of the paintings together in one exhibition space. When you step into the gallery, even at a glance you should be able to picture what the Illinois prairie was like, where it is now, and perhaps what it can be. A few of the paintings will explore the subject of the pre-Columbian prairie, but considering that the rest of the paintings depict high-quality prairie remnants and restorations, really the whole exhibit is a window into the past. With all of the various environments and different seasons and times of day, I’m hoping it will be a wonderful emergence into the Illinois prairie ecosystem.

WP: Thank you, Philip. Can you think of anything else that you’d like to say that I haven’t asked about?

PJ: Yes. I couldn’t have put this exhibit together if it weren’t for all of the amazing restoration work that has been done by volunteers and professionals. I am very grateful for that. The prairies I visited would all be gone if it weren’t for them, and I wouldn’t have had anything to paint. Also, maybe I said it earlier, but I really think that Illinois is something of a nature destination.

WP: That’s what I was going to say. When you said that, it made me think about birding trails that have been developed in Texas and other places, and I thought, “Oh, we could have a prairie trail.” One with specific directions on where to go—to Fults Hill Prairie or Nachusa, for example. I think there’s a real opportunity for that—a very real one.

PJ:       Thank you so much, Wendy.

WP:     Yes. Thank you!

Image credits:

Philip Juras, The Grand Prairie of Illinois, Night Fire, 2019, Oil on canvas, 36 x 60 in.

Philip Juras, The Grand Prairie of Illinois, 2019, Oil on canvas, 36 x 60 in. 

Philip Juras, Winter Evening, Sand Prairie-Scrub Oak Nature Preserve, Mason County, Illinois, 2019, Oil on canvas, 36 x 60 in.

Philip Juras, Foley Sand Prairie, Lee County, Illinois, 2019, Oil on canvas, 36 x 60 in.

Philip Juras, Chiwaukee Prairie, Kenosha County, Wisconsin, 2019, Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in.

Philip Juras, Galloping Hill Prairie, Cook County, Illinois, 2019, Oil on canvas, 36 x 48 in.

Philip Juras painting a prescribed fire at Nachusa Grasslands.

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  • Philip Juras

    Athens, Georgia artist Philip Juras uses his art training and environmental background to share his passion for intact natural landscapes. Since 2011 he has published two books in conjunction with exhibitions of his southeastern landscapes at the Telfair, Morris, and Marietta-Cobb museums in Georgia.

  • Wendy Paulson

    Wendy Paulson’s career has been in education and conservation action. She taught in both public and private schools and, more recently, helped start programs of classes about birds in New York City and Chicago public schools (and still teaches in the latter).

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