REMNANTS OF HISTORY
Deborah Paris Paints Texas’ Forgotten Prairie
by Elizabeth L. Delaney
Sometimes the artist chooses her subject matter; sometimes the subject matter chooses her. So it was when Deborah Paris discovered Daphne Prairie two years ago. Initially interested in the ecological notoriety of one of North Texas’ largest enduring tallgrass prairies, Paris soon became captivated by its extraordinary beauty and ambiance as well. Although she was not prepared to begin a new body of work, the art spirit prevailed, and Paris followed the call.
Titled The Nature of Things: Daphne Prairie, the resulting collection features enticingly warm, luminous paintings and drawings of what the artist calls the “intimate prairie.” It embodies the intersection of art and nature, lending an aesthetic and intellectual voice to one of the last remnants of Texas’ often-unnoticed Blackland Prairie. The artwork commemorates the prairie’s former glory, simultaneously calling attention to the importance of protecting the few pristine areas that remain.
Hidden in plain sight among the pastures, roads, and small towns of Franklin County, Daphne Prairie survives as a contemporary relic bearing witness to what the land once was. Tallgrass prairies like Daphne formerly occupied some twelve million acres, but today have dwindled to less than one tenth of one percent of that, victims of plowing, over-grazing, and development. That Daphne Prairie exists today as it did for centuries before is a credit to BF Hicks, whose family has actively cared for and preserved the land since the early nineteenth century.
A longtime conservation advocate and naturalist, Paris was first drawn to Daphne Prairie for its unique place in local history. As she explored the space at the behest of Mr. Hicks, she was delighted by the abundance of inviting natural elements, along with the tranquil splendor that emanated from the land. “The more I looked around, the more I noticed motifs that I had completely overlooked at first,” she recalls. “I loved that the prairie was encircled by woods and that there were creeks and ponds around—things I always like to paint. Eventually, I started to see it as a fascinating mixture of motifs that encompassed ideas of intimacy as well as openness and I was intrigued by that dichotomy.”
The Nature of Things: Daphne Prairie opens at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) on Fort Worth’s Fall Gallery Night, September 10, 2016. The venue serves as more than a gallery space, merging ecological and creative concerns and prompting a conversation about how art and natural science relate to, and in fact inspire, one another. The exhibition consists of twenty-five oil paintings that reveal the open yet intimate space found in Daphne Prairie. The pieces range from large-scale landscapes to smaller, cozier scenes, offering viewers a variety of perspectives and reinforcing the visual opulence to be found among the prairie’s many species and spaces. Nearly a dozen “found still life” canvases appear as well, and feature detailed views of indigenous flora and fauna. Paris has also included several charcoal drawings and etchings in the collection.
Paris’ landscapes depict the broad, atmospheric expanse of Daphne Prairie, even as they maintain its quiet solitude via soft, nimble brushwork and subtle but brilliant light. Compositional elements hold the viewer close inside each scene, as the high grass reaches up, the clouds dip low, and the trees and groundcover gently embrace the plane. The still lifes travel deeper into the layers of prairie life to reveal the lush microcosms that form its foundation. “I worked really hard to design these paintings to reflect my interest in the intimate corners of the prairie,” Paris says of her subject matter, which portrays the mood of each scene as much as its appearance. In that vein, her canvases reveal cloudy, wintry days where the prairie life swells just below the surface; sunny summer days filled with colorful wildflowers; and verdant, fecund swaths of native tallgrass swaying in the breeze.
Historically, Paris has viewed and interpreted her subjects through a Tonalist lens, echoing the spiritual, even mystical, sensibilities of such American landscape painters as George Inness and James Abbott McNeill Whistler. However, after encountering the tangible vibrancy of Daphne Prairie, she was inspired to adopt a more varied color palette centered on the subjects’ chromatic intensity. Here, the artist presents a range of colors, from the vivid pinks and yellows of the native wildflowers to the more subdued blues and browns of the dormant grass and overcast sky.
Indicative of Paris’ creative process, the Daphne Prairie project is deeply rooted in the artist’s extensive fieldwork and observation. Nearly a year-and-a-half elapsed as she savored all four seasons, dynamic weather changes, and animal migrations. That real-life experience is the predominant force that drives Paris’ creativity—directly informing her work and also granting her the artistic freedom to interject the ethereal, atmospheric essence of place into her compositions.
As she worked, Paris did not endeavor simply to catalog Daphne Prairie’s ecological and aesthetic wealth. Moreover, she sought to convey the experience of being there—of completely occupying the space. Paris put into practice what Matt White suggests in his book, Prairie Time: A Blackland Portrait: “You must get the prairie under your skin and under your fingernails, and in the soles of your shoes and between the toes of your feet, before you will begin to understand its power.” Ultimately, Paris wants to communicate that power with paint, brush, and charcoal, allowing viewers not only to see, but also to feel the beauty and intrigue of this unlikely space.
As much as they are a reverie of Daphne Prairie in its current state, Paris’ artworks also serve as a window into the past, reminding viewers of the prairie’s imminent decline as a result of overuse and carelessness. By fusing her creative spirit with ecological concerns, Paris urges us to consider nature’s beauty and fragility, and to continue the conversation between the two.
Connect with Deborah Paris
For more information about this or our other exhibits, please contact Laura Venhaus at LVenhaus@BRIT.og or 817-332-4441 x259.