Catoosa Savanna Contemplation

Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee
Oil on canvas
30 x 42 in. (76.2 x 106.7 cm)

Private collection

This imagined historical view of a shortleaf pine-dominated savanna is based on the geography, plant species, and natural history of a location within the Catoosa Wildlife Management Area near Crossville, Tennessee.

In many ways, creating—or recreating—this view was made possible by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and especially the visionary actions of regional manager, Clarence Coffey (retired), who recognized that a historic grassland lay dormant beneath the 20th century forest shade of the WMA. When a pine beetle infestation in the 1990s made forest thinning necessary, extensive clearing as well as subsequent prescribed burning was implemented to restore large tracts of savanna grasslands across the WMA. Unlike many other grassland restorations, no seeding or planting was necessary to create the species-rich savanna that now sweeps across Catoosa’s uplands. The heliophytes simply needed to be released.

photo of an open savanna
Photo of Catoosa Wildlife Management Area

I relied on guidance from Clarence Coffey as I explored the WMA to photograph and paint it in the summer of 2023 (see studies at bottom of page). Those experiences, and our ecological and historical discussions, informed the view I chose to represent—a relatively flat area right in the middle of the largest savanna (locate in Google Maps) where shortleaf pine was likely to have dominated the canopy. I chose this site, partly for the long views that were available to the north, but also because the open grassy expanse that currently exists there felt like a blank canvas on which I could explore my own ideas of canopy density and old growth tree form. I was aiming for an arrangement I hoped would correspond with historic descriptions of the area as being more than a third dominated purely by shortleaf pine with the remaining a mix of oak, pine, and hickory. I also took into consideration the historic fire regime and openness documented in other parts of the Cumberland Plateau.

Aesthetic considerations for the composition were worked out in charcoal sketches and an oil study (see below) immediately before I began the final canvas. Details, such as the multigenerational tree forms, are based on observations of species from the site as well as photographs I’ve taken of characteristic shortleaf pines on the Cumberland Plateau and from shortleaf and other pines I’ve observed elsewhere in the South. Fire maintained ground plane species correspond to existing conditions.

Charcoal sketch 1, 18×24 in.

Charcoal sketch 2, 18×24 in.

Oil study by Philip Juras of imagined precolonial shortleaf pine savanna on the Cumberland Plateau
Oil study (Shortleaf Pine Savanna), 12×16

Exhibition History