Philip Juras: Picturing the prairie. A vision of restoration

By Bill Kleiman

Philip Juras

Philip Juras is a landscape painter with a show at the Chicago Botanic Garden, ending September 12, 2021.  His new book is Picturing the Prairie.  A vision of restoration.  I had a recent discussion with Philip about the intersection of habitat restoration and his landscape paintings.  At bottom, check out the link to the show.  There is a nice short video on the Botanic Garden site.

Beaver Pond, Nachusa Grasslands, Illinois 2019, Oil on canvas, 30 by 54 in.

Beaver Pond, Nachusa Grasslands.  Bill Kleiman: I know this place. I have stumbled around in this foreground with a pack of herbicide spraying trefoil and sweet clover.   The powerlines that cut across this landscape are behind the painter. The beaver pond looked like that if you squatted down.  This summer the beaver moved down stream a quarter mile and their dam broke down here, so the pond is gone.  Those skies Philip paints are what we Midwesterners feel about our everchanging mountains of cloud. 

Nachusa Bison, Illinois 2021 Oil on canvas 24 by 36 in.

Philip tends to leave out powerlines, cars going by in the distant, humans and he sometimes extends the habitat further than what is there.  Of course, as we are working to restore habitats our imaginations do the same, thinking back in history to what was likely in our view, and what steps we could take that get us closer to that place where nature is thriving. 

Philip says he sometimes extends a landscape because he “can build onto what restoration has done to the landscape in the foreground in front of me.  It is a desire to see something, and experience something, that has not existed in my lifetime.”

“I know [these landscapes have] great quality and significance…and [they] also represent something wild and historic that I can’t otherwise experience.  So I wonder if those motivations that drive me are the ones that drive the restoration expert.” 

Late Afternoon on the Grand Prairie of Illinois c. 1491, 2019, Oil on canvas, 36 by 60 in.

Late Afternoon on the Grand Prairie of Illinois c.1491 Bill: This is a big painting at a width of five feet.   That current view would be perhaps a few acres of prairie surrounds by crops to the horizon.  I try to imagine what it was like before modern settlement.   In 1491, many Native American villages of various tribes would have been located along the rivers and in the oak groves. Such prairie landscapes that may appear daunting to us likely felt to them like a bonanza of tubers, berries, fruits, seeds, fibers and animals to harvest.     

Philip: “[The grand prairie] was written about in a celebratory way as well as being awed by and troubled by the setting they were in.  I was hoping to communicate that this historic landscape was not simple, straight forward, this was a rich and beautiful environment, but this was not an easy place to live in. I wanted to communicate the sense of isolation and lack of orientation.  These things that we have no idea about.”  

Shoe Factory Road Woods, Cook County, Illinois, 2020, Oil on canvas, 30 x 42 in.

Philip: “Something I noticed about restorations I have seen.  How much intent is incorporated in each one of them.  When I first started thinking about prairie restoration I thought it amounted to throwing seeds out and seeing what happens, but knowing what I know now, I see there is a great deal of intention, a great deal of science.   This is not something that just happens.   I went into this looking for something that was very natural and found something that was man made, in the historical landscape and in the contemporary landscape.”

“I got to know the tallgrass prairie in Illinois that were natural and wild, were in fact I was discovering a connection with people who were there a long time ago. I came into this to find nature and I got connected with culture.”

At the Chicago Botanic Garden through September 12, 2021 https://www.chicagobotanic.org/picturing_prairie

You can see many other works at his website. https://www.philipjuras.com/

About Grassland Restoration Network blog published by Bill Kleiman.

Bill Kleiman's daytime job is manager of Nachusa Grasslands. We are looking for guest authors on various topics of grassland habitat restoration. Contact me with your ideas or drafts.
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