How the Great Smoky Mountains changed my life
If you're an artist it's hard to beat the inspiration one can find in the the Great Smoky Mountains and particularly within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Although it's easy to miss this opportunity of being forever inspired by it's sheer brilliance with today's distractions. A visit to Cades Cove on almost any day will certainly leave you with a smile and that feeling of being inspired by the wildlife, scenery and the history. However with almost no doubt you can assume that this experience will come with the frustration of traffic and those few tourists who have left their common sense back at home.
There is another side to this wild place which I had the fortune to experience. As an artist this has forever changed my perspective of life. I first came to work for the Great Smoky Mountains in 2012. I was stationed out of Bryson City in North Carolina up in an old ranger house along Deep Creek. At the time I was still trying to find my way as an artist. I don't think I knew what I was after and although the experience I had was amazing, it was also overlooked.
I came back to work for the park in January of 2015. This time I worked out of the headquarters near Gatlinburg, TN. While being away from the park I had developed a vision and a passion for the artwork that I was creating. As a painter I was ready, but I didn't know quite what I was ready for.
I was working as a Wildlife Tech for the park and I was granted a key to the gate at Cades Cove. My first visit to the Cove was following some harsh winter weather. Freezing rain was a concern for the area the day prior and the gates had not been opened back up yet. As I drove through the completely empty scenic loop I stopped to take this photo above. Little did I know my job there would eventually take me off-trail to the very top of that middle ridge on the horizon.
The unseen beauty
As the weather cleared and gates opened back up, the visitors began filling the roads and the business of the most visited national park picked back up as usual. Winter is the slow time of year for visitation, but from my experience at other parks it did not seem slow.
However as a wildlife tech the flow of people was avoided as I was instructed to take to the back-country. I hiked many miles off-trail over the next few months. Each time was so inspiring. Navigating through the seemingly impossible forest of rhododendron and wet side hills left me screaming inside with frustration. There were several times when I actually feared for my safety. As an experienced back-country hiker that feeling is extremely unsettling. After all I'm supposed to be experienced. So these types of situations shouldn't happen.
Then just when you think that nothing else could possibly go wrong you find yourself in a small clearing overlooking this...
I'll never forget a lot of moments I've had such as this, but this one in particular was special to me. It was my last week on the job and I was about to embark on my journey of trying to become a full-time artist. I had hiked about 8 miles prior and had about 5 to go. I remember falling over a log as I was working my way down the mountain just before reaching this point. Physically I was totally exhausted on this humid day in May. Mentally I was reaching a dangerous state of frustration. It was one of those moments of feeling very nervous as I had no idea of the level of difficulty ahead of me. I was merely hoping that it would be easy enough for me to get back to the vehicle.
It seems like it's at these times is when beautiful moments create themselves. I was so awestruck by this view as openings in the forest's ceiling in this area are rare. Once the leaves open up it can seem impossible to find a spot such as this. I sat down and reflected on my experience in the Smokies. I needed this moment so badly at the time and it seemed almost too perfect. If it had been any other time I don't think I would have been so amazed. However it was the context of the situation that left me so moved.
Changing me forever
This photo here was near the top of Shuckstack Mountain right after sunset on the Appalachian Trail. I was posting bear warning signs as part of a last minute emergency type of situation. My hike for the 6 miles back down the mountain was in the dark. I had forgot my headlamp back at the vehicle so I traveled in the dark. The forest goes through this change when night falls that can be eerie at times, but also amazing.
To think that early settlers ventured into these wild places to make a living out of nothing is incredible to me. It must have been so scary and so hard for so many. Yet think of how beautiful life must have been for them. I came across so many broken down homesteads while exploring the back-country. Some of those moments of finding those remnants of old homes were so perfect that they just mesmerized me. My perspective of life had forever changed.
Bringing back the inspiration
For a month long I was instructed to spend 8 hours a day guarding a sensitive area 3 miles back in the woods to prevent visitors from disturbing it. White Oak Sinks is one of the most popular places in the spring for rare floral enthusiasts. A very large hibernation site for bats exists here as well and because of disease, I was keeping visitors from getting too close. Rain or shine I sat here each day and alone most of the time. I watched as the most incredible display of native flowers and trees bloomed all around me.
I bought a plein air pochade box and painted to pass the time. My time painting for a month long in one of the most incredible places in our country has forever left a scar. I love wildlife, but my time spent here as a whole has left a passion in me that I cannot force myself to ignore. I have learned just how amazing life really is and how to appreciate that through all these experiences. I'm drawn towards what we don't know and what's out there to explore. My artwork has forever changed because of this and I'm learning to embrace that.
I love painting wildlife and I'm surely going to incorporate that in my work down the road. Many of you who have followed my wildlife art for years have asked me why my art has changed, begging me to paint more animals. I've been trying to find a way to answer this for you. My art is a reflection of my inspiration and I must follow that. I want to capture this inspiration in a way which no one has ever tried to do. I'm uncertain if I'll get there or if that's even possible, but I know I must try. The Smoky Mountains has inspired me to explore something new inside of me.
I thank each and every one of you for supporting my work and giving me encouragement along the way. I'm floored by the amount of support that all of you provide me. I'm excited to see what the future will hold for my painting and I'm thrilled to have you along for the journey.
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I'm Chuck Black, landscape and wildlife artist based in Southwest Montana.
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