The following essay is reprinted with permission of the Greenville County Museum of Art., which organized and is presenting the exhibition Hubert Shuptrine, which will be on view January 23 through April 14, 2002. The essay is contained in the exhibition's gallery guide, which may be obtained through the museum's bookshop. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Greenville County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
by Martha R. Severens, Curator
Hubert Shuptrine has described working in watercolor as "chasing rainbows," yet for the past thirty years he has undertaken the task of taming this evasive medium. Shuptrine began as an abstract oil painter in the 1960s, earning various awards as well as the praise of his mentors. His turning point came in 1970 on a family vacation to Maine. Originally planned as a two-week respite, the trip became a three-month stay during which Shuptrine taught himself the basics of watercolor painting. "I was fascinated with watercolor. If I had studied it in art school it wouldn't be the same. Most watercolors are very pastel, wet in wet; that didn't seem important to me."
Like many artists before him, he found the landscape and the light of Maine inspirational. Significantly, at Prout's Neck he visited the studio of Winslow Homer, one of the early champions of watercolor, who succeeded in legitimizing it as a medium in its own right. Shuptrine reckoned not only with Homer, but also with other painters of Maine, including Edward Hopper, John Marin, and Andrew Wyeth -- all masters of watercolor.
Reflecting upon his embrace of the medium, Shuptrine notes his difference from other watercolorists: "Having worked with oils and acrylics proved to be a strange sort of boon. Not knowing the so-called limitations of watercolor, my expectations were unrealistic for the medium, and experience with strong, opaque color dictated the demands on technique and application of pigment. My teachers were (and still are) trial, error, and perseverance. Each completed and signed painting is preceded by several flops, which I think of as lessons learned."
Although he has worked in watercolor for thirty years, Shuptrine still struggles with the medium. He states that it is "often hit-and-miss. I have startovers and failures. In fact, I estimate that nine out of ten end up in file thirteen. And some paintings are pure accident." Yet he persists, convinced that there is a freshness and an intimacy in a successful watercolor that is possible in no other medium.
When it comes to materials, Shuptrine believes that it doesn't pay to scrimp. Without hesitating, he calls cutting corners a false economy and an unnecessary handicap for the artist: "I don't shackle myself with inferior materials and supplies. Handmade paper is my choice, over machine or mold made varieties, and its inconsistency and unpredictability are exciting.
Shuptrine uses watercolor both in transparent washes and in layers. He achieves each painting's denseness and richness of tone -- holdovers from his days as a modernist oil painter -- through the technique of drybrush and the application of a thickening agent. He is adamant about the nature of drybrush. "The term drybrush has become a misapplied term. Drybrush is a technique of watercolor painting -- not a medium in itself. I would define drybrush as a method of drawing or painting in watercolor with tiny strokes. One method of drybrushing is to splay out the hairs of a sable round in order to make several strokes at once. That method does not work well for me. I can't control the details in that manner. So instead, I drybrush with only the point of the brush, sketching and modeling the form as one would sketch with a pencil. This is done over watercolor washes that approximate the end color values desired."
Born in Chattanooga in 1936, Shuptrine was a precocious child who loved to draw. As a young teenager, he took a correspondence course in art. Shuptrine, however, also had a passion for horses, and for a while he worked as a groom. Urged to go to college by his parents, he began studies at the University of Tennessee in veterinary medicine. However, after observing a studio art class in progress, he changed his major, and in 1959 he graduated from the University of Chattanooga (now the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga) with a bachelor's degree in fine arts painting.
After his initial experience in Maine, Shuptrine, then in his mid-thirties, began not only to paint for himself, but also, upon his return south, to paint the people and the region that he knew so well. Shuptrine, the storyteller, had found his life's calling, and thus began years of pilgrimage along back roads, pursuing images that fulfilled his vision. The publication in 1974 of Jericho: The South Beheld was his first major statement as a chronicler of the South. An oversized volume -- it weighs slightly less than seven pounds -- it was a collaborative endeavor with another great Southern storyteller, the poet and novelist James Dickey. Although the two men created text and pictures separately and with little consultation, the end product is a harmonious paean to the region that both held so dear. As the biblical Jericho was the Promised Land for the Hebrew people, the American South was Jericho for Shuptrine and Dickey.
Dickey wrote his poetic prose in tawdry motels throughout the South, while Shuptrine roamed more than 15,000 miles, meeting people, talking with them, and gaining access to their humble dwellings and farmyards. He soon recognized that he was not just a painter, but also a preservationist determined to document a threatened way of life. He found he was eager to depict old farmhouses before vandals arrived to torch them or progress leveled them. In his epilogue to Home to Jericho, the 1987 sequel to his earlier publication with Dickey, Shuptrine mused: "In the real world, this Jericho is vanishing. There are fewer family farms, fewer rural communities and fewer people interested in a good life, apart from good living. This place of the heart is dying."
Although Shuptrine has rendered the places and objects associated with the rural South, his paintings have come to be dominated by people. He first engages his sitters by persuading them to tell him their stories, and then, with brushes and paint, he translates them to the viewer. As his sitters -- whether mountain people or Cherokee, young or old, black or white -- recount their tales, Shuptrine is able to observe them unselfconscious, relaxed, yet purposeful.
In 1973, while in the midst of the Jericho project, Shuptrine reflected upon his figurative work:
Shuptrine's artful use of props and settings, such as glinting eyeglasses and worn-out hats, the weathered siding of a mountain cabin and the old family Bible cradled by the Mennonite Bishop's wife, enhances the warmth and vitality of his compositions. The artist's wife, Phyllis Shuptrine, distinguishes between her husband's paintings and photography: "A photograph usually locks a subject into a particular moment. That's a simple vision. But the approach you can take is that you can depict more than the obvious. It's a biographical process. A good portrait is like a biography."
Whether the sitter is young, as in Little Silky, or old, as in Sage of the Blue Ridge, Shuptrine captures the essence of each. Silky radiates a self-confidence that belies both her age and the humbleness of her surroundings. She proudly displays her new frock, acquired from a nearby dump. Shuptrine artfully contrasts the delicate floral pattern of her dress with the splintery austerity of her cabin home. He even detailed the newspapers that serve as makeshift insulation, but he does so with a characteristic sense of irony. Visible in the upper left are the words EASY STREET, and, indeed, Silky lived not far from Woodstock, New York, a mountain haven where people escaped society's mainstream. Her life, however, was obviously not one of luxury.
More often than not, Shuptrine seeks to portray older sitters primarily because they are available and have time to spend with the artist. An even more compelling reason is the evidence of life that Shuptrine sees in their faces. As he has said, "Experiences etch the human face as if maturing were a divine draftsman's art. Lines and shadows draft biographies I strive to portray. Faces are the great storytellers." There is no better example of the "etched" face than that of George Houston Greene of Thompson's Cove, North Carolina. When the artist first saw Greene, he was asleep under an apple tree like a modern day Rip van Winkle. He became Shuptrine's Sage of the Blue Ridge.
Shuptrine later learned that this remarkable man had made weapons in Pennsylvania during World War I and automobiles in Detroit. When Greene's wife became terminally ill, the couple retreated to their cabin where he nursed her until her death. At one hundred years old, he lived simply in a rustic shack without electricity and with water diverted from a stream. He cut his own firewood and grew his own vegetables. His companions were a motley pack of six dogs.
As Shuptrine sketched, Greene regaled the artist with stories. Shuptrine posed his animated sitter so that he looked directly at the artist. His gentle blue eyes, slightly veiled by lashes, look quizzically at the viewer. In Sage of the Blue Ridge, the largest portrayal of Greene, his head tilts to his left, creating a diagonal that is further reinforced by the crotch of the tree behind him, his folded hands in his lap, and his denim-covered thigh. The composition is enlivened by these angles and unified by a recurring use of pale blue in the eyes, the jeans, the beard, and the flesh tones.
While Greene relaxed under his tree, Mama Agnes sat on her porch. As Dickey noted in Jericho, porches have a special role in the region. "The South has a long tradition of slow-moving, of standing and watching. Of having the time -- of giving ourselves the time -- to sit on country porches and courthouse Confederate Monuments and on green benches in public parks and tell each other stories, [and] gossip."
Shuptrine encountered Agnes Woodward one Sunday morning. A former field hand, she had completed her morning chores, and now she rested. When he inquired why she had not gone to church with her husband she replied, "Cool, rainy Sunday morning is my church." Her joyous sense of humor is reflected in her gentle smile and faraway gaze, as if she recalled some happy moment of the past. Shuptrine was amused by what he saw: "I liked the red bedroom slippers from K-mart. The Christmas lights entwined with fishing lures. See the old yellow foam rubber. . . . I didn't change anything. Painted it just the way I found it."
In Shuptrine's portrayals of mountain people and African-Americans, the artist allows each subject's individual personality and life story to take precedence. When he depicts Native Americans, however, astute viewers detect a decided shift in mood, reflected both in Shuptrine's statements and in the poignancy that pervades these likenesses. In conversation he becomes clearly agitated when he recounts their history -- of how they were driven from their land by the federal government and forced to march to Oklahoma, along the infamous route now known as the Trail of Tears. The Cherokee Indians whom he paints are descended from those who hid in the mountains to avoid exile. In Red Blood the artist presents another severely etched countenance. With a glance that is askew, and even evasive, the sitter wears the weight of generations on her sagging shoulders.
Each fall members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee nation convene at Cherokee, North Carolina. It is a time of harvest, celebration, dance, and athletic contests, and Shuptrine visited to observe the festivities. At such powwows he met other Native American models, including Festival Dancer and Dave Little David. He noticed the woman in Red Blood sitting in the bleachers, watching the dancers. In contrast to his normally loquacious sitters, Shuptrine recalls her stony silence: "I approached her and asked if she would pose for me. She nodded approval but would not speak a single word. Her expression never changed, remaining stoic, hardened, without feeling, and completely indifferent to what I was doing or the dance contestants on the stage. Only her eyes, somewhat out of sync, moved. Later, when the painting was completed, I tried to find out something about her and her name by showing a picture of the painting to several Indian residents of the reservation at Cherokee. None knew her. One said maybe Red Blood,1 and another said she was probably a Choctaw from Alabama."
Different in feeling is the depiction of Martha Owl, which is domestic and maternal. Set in profile, she bends over her wampum, sewing a narrow band of beadwork like those that decorate the wall behind her. The round curve of her back and the warm pink-beige tones reinforce the homeyness of the scene. In a pose reminiscent of the work of Jan Vermeer, she turns toward the light that gently bathes her face and hands. The only details that disrupt the timelessness of the image are the metal bobby pins that hold her scarf and hair in place.
Mary Ann Jefferson in Sweet Grass also concentrates on her work, another longstanding tradition with a particularly southern association. The craft of sweet grass basket making originated in Africa and was brought to low country Carolina by slaves. For centuries the baskets were used solely as utilitarian objects on plantations to aid in the cultivation of rice. With the decline of rice plantations in the late nineteenth century the craft of sweet grass baskets was in peril, until it was rediscovered in the 1920s. Tourists visiting Charleston -- especially those who drove down the coast -- eagerly bought baskets as attractive and inexpensive souvenirs.
Jefferson continues this venerable tradition, which she learned as a child from her grandmother. She acknowledges that, as development and pollution threaten the area marshes, it is increasingly difficult to gather the sweet grass. She is also suspicious that some of the baskets now sold in Charleston to naïve visitors were actually made in Indonesia. Proud of her craft, her heritage, and herself, when Jefferson first saw Shuptrine's finished painting she was both annoyed by how much gray hair he had shown and distressed by the peeling paint in the background.
Unlike the self-absorbed poses of Martha Owl and Mary Ann Jefferson, the men in Geechee and Coach directly engage the viewer. Both stand close to the picture plane against neutral backgrounds and challenge the onlooker. Like the woman in Red Blood, Geechee is a dignified elder, although his visage is less wrinkled. His broad nose and furrowed face, along with his carefully delineated cap and shirt, create a series of arcing shapes that appear to weigh him down. Nevertheless his erect posture and imposing build assure the viewer of his determination.
Coach is exceptional in Shuptrine's oeuvre; it is a commissioned portrait. As subject and patron, John du Pont had certain expectations. In contrast, Shuptrine's other portrayals are timeless and universal, while Coach is more specifically about du Pont, a member of a distinguished and wealthy family.
Although the titles of Geechee, Coach, and even Patriarch are veritable generic nicknames, many paintings, especially the Native American ones, carry the names of their sitters. Some titles appear to be the artist's invention, as in Little Silky or Sweet Sixteen, designations that he made when he met these young girls. In commenting upon the latter, Shuptrine reveals his understanding of young people: "She said that she was sixteen, but I suspected fifteen. She was both mature and immature, a grown woman, yet childish. I wanted to capture that duplicity -- a voluptuousness and at the same time innocence."
Sweet Sixteen's face is smooth and brightly illuminated. She looks somewhat bemused but unfazed by her experience as an artist's model. Shuptrine, in turn, has articulated the winsome details of her dress, from her three necklaces to the patterns of her kerchief and floral top. A braid, about three inches long, peeks out and curls up, a gesture that is reiterated in the curves of her sleeve and her kerchief.
Many of these same motifs appear in the painting titled Josephine. Once again there is the curled hair emerging from a scarf and the even more lively patterns of a polka-dot dress and a colorful kerchief. But unlike the youthful openness of Sweet Sixteen, Josephine exudes a kind of mystery, resulting largely from the soft shadow that veils the left side of her face. The smoky quality of light recalls Leonardo da Vinci's use of sfumato in his madonnas and in the Mona Lisa where details are obscured by an atmospheric haze. Intriguingly, Shuptrine's first concept for this painting was to portray Josephine with her grandson -- a kind of modern black Madonna and Child.
In recent years Shuptrine has concentrated on figurative work; but this has not always been the case. Jericho incorporates a balanced selection of landscapes and still lifes, which have their own stories. In the same way that he found Agnes Woodward on her porch and George Greene under his tree, Shuptrine encountered the image in Texas Property. "Near Fredricksburg, a buggy wheel barring a window, the Lone Star flag hanging and cardboard from a cartridge carton patching a pane symbolize what I perceive as Texans' feelings about property and state: anybody not invited is an intruder, and Texans value patriotism. NO TRESPASSING signs punctuate the landscape, and they mean what they say. . . . Lone Star patriots have killed, and imply they would again, for what is theirs."
Forbidding chains and barbed wire hold the wheel in place. With its uncanny combination of the circular wagon wheel, the flag, and its foreground placement, Texas Property recalls the earlier imagery of Jasper Johns's flag and target series.
Shuptrine employed the circular motif in another painting, Pigeon Family, which, like Texas Property, also explores exterior versus interior elements. Additionally, the geometric patterns of the wood shingles contrast the organic shapes of the pigeons themselves. The composition is a close-up of an older home in Chattanooga that Shuptrine frequently drove past. He admits: "I had noticed it for years -- that old house with the faded red shingles before the wrecking crew came. Turned out to be one of the best things I've ever done."
Forgotten objects are featured in a number of still life paintings, including Attic Table and Harvest Basket. Like his figurative paintings, these compositions are endowed with a quiet serenity, and the objects also have a story to tell about the past. The baskets were once used for potato harvesting. They were an improvement over burlap sacks, which trapped moisture, but the baskets were fragile and susceptible to damage, as Shuptrine carefully indicates with broken rims, cracked bottoms, and splayed slats. These are castaways, chaotically arranged relics of an obsolete tradition.
The appellation "realist watercolor painter" undoubtedly suits Hubert Shuptrine, despite his beginnings as an abstract expressionist. Although reluctant to speak against modernism and abstraction, he believes that the work he does now is right for him and for the times. "The trend toward realism has been flourishing for some time and with world events may well come to the fore sooner rather than later. It is what people are yearning for, a bouncing back to an appreciation of technique and skill, paintings and sculpture that look like something, graceful architecture, poetry that rhymes, and music with a melody." Shuptrine conveys in his paintings a wholesome, warm, and incisive view of humankind endowed with unwavering respect for the medium he uses and the subjects he paints.
Historian, raconteur, preservationist, and consummate craftsman, Shuptrine is all of the above in these paintings that chronicle the people, places, and things that he reveres. While more than a quarter of a century has passed since he and Dickey embarked on their joint endeavor Jericho, one still senses Shuptrine's passion for what he paints. As the prophet Joshua said of Jericho, "for the place whereon thou standest is holy," and just as surely sacred is the American South to Hubert Shuptrine.
1. James Dickey, Jericho: The South Beheld (Birmingham, Alabama: Oxmoor House, 1974), 15. Unpublished statements by the artist are derived from interviews with the author conducted during October and November 1997, November 2001, and correspondence from October - November 2001.
2. Hubert Shuptrine, Home to Jericho (Birmingham, Alabama: Oxmoor House, 1987), 153.
3. Hubert Shuptrine, American Artist, July 1973, 41.
4. Shuptrine, Home to Jericho, 6.
5.Shuptrine, Home to Jericho, 30.
6. Dickey, Jericho, 16.
7. Shuptrine, Home to Jericho, 122.
About the author
Martha R. Severens joined the staff of the Greenville County Museum of Art as curator in 1992. She has a masters degree from The Johns Hopkins University. Prior to coming to Greenville, Severens was curator at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, and before that held a similar position at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina. Severens is the author of The Greenville County Museum of Art: The Southern Collection, issued in 1995. Recent book-length endeavors have included The Charleston Renaissance, William Halsey, and Helen DuPre Moseley.
rev. 1/31/02, 2/1/02
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