The Serpentine Chain: A story of culture, respect and preservation of the Appalachian Mountains

Authored By seanphippster

How many times have you woken up in the middle of the night with a detailed plan of your life neatly planned out? Never, right?

But this happened to artist Alan Shuptrine. He remembers waking up and realizing the next few years would be spent painting the Appalachian Mountains culture in a project he’s calling The Serpentine Chain.

“It was one of those things where literally I sat up at 2 a.m. and said, ‘This is what I’m going to do with my life,'” he said.

Shuptrine, 51, has already reduced his business-Shuptrine’s Gold Leaf Designs-to spend weeks at a time hiking the Appalachian Trail in search of subject matter for a series of watercolor paintings.

He has started a Kickstarter campaign to raise funding for forthcoming expeditions, including travel expenses and reimbursement for hiking gear. More funding campaigns will be launched to complete a coffee table book and cover future expenses.

Backers can support the project at a variety of levels. Depending on the monetary level, rewards include signed paintings or samples of his family’s other business venture: Shuptrine’s Twisted Products.

But for now, it’s about painting.

Armed with a custom easel and Captain, his 100-pound German shepherd puppy, Shuptrine will seek to capture the “cultural connections between the Appalachian people and their brethren across the pond in the British Isles,” he said.

“The traditions that are still alive-fiddle tunes, quilt making, whiskey making and stories of star-crossed lovers-it’s all from ancient Celtic Britain,” he said.

The project centers on the theme of “coming home,” which he said goes back in time to 250 million years ago when Great Britain and all of Europe were connected to the United States on the Eastern Seaboard.

“When the Celtic settlers arrived on our coastline, they could’ve lived everywhere,” he said. “But they eventually arrived in the Appalachian Mountains and they knew they were home-because it looked like home.”

Along the way, he’s asked the people he met questions like “What’s your heritage?” and “Where are you from?” He said 99 percent of the people tell him they are of English, Scottish, Irish or Welsh heritage.

These are the descendants of those first travelers who decided to settle in the mountains that reminded them of home.

“The irony is [that] in essence they were coming home to the same mountains,” he said. “That is what I want to capture in my paintings and eventually in the book. I want to celebrate those connections and traditions.”

The collection is named after the mineral called serpentine, which is present along the Appalachian Mountains range and across the pond.

The greenish mineral was prized by the ancient Celtics because, as legend explains, a person could feel the energy from the rock crawling up your forearms into your shoulders like a serpent. The mineral also has a snakelike texture.

Native Americans also considered the mineral sacred and would use it to make decorative items.

The plan
Shuptrine has already produced several pieces for the project-eight, as of this article-and he’s anxious to get back on the trail.

Over the next two years, Shuptrine plans to create 60 to 70 paintings culled with material gathered on his weeklong expeditions on the Appalachian Trail.

Those paintings will then be exhibited at museums.

Already, he’s gained the support of Rock/Creek Outfitters and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which are helping make his expeditions as comfortable as possible.

He just returned from a sojourn to Southwest Virginia and plans to leave for northern Virginia in two weeks. 

Although Shuptrine uses photography as a reference-recently he photographed a gathering of bluegrass musicians in Chilhowie, Virginia-his preference is to produce loose watercolor studies in the field.

He designed a lightweight easel that can be set up in under five minutes.

Once home, he will focus on completing the paintings before heading out yet again. Rinse and repeat.

The culmination of the project will be the debut exhibition at the Tennessee State Museum in November 2016.

“I’m completely immersed in the project,” he said. “What drives me as an artist is to connect to people on a personal level. I feel like I can say what I want to say with my paintings.”

The idea of creating a coffee table book of Appalachian portraits is not new. Shuptrine’s late father-Hubert Shuptrine-created “Jericho: The South Beheld” with writer James Dickey (author of “Deliverance”). The book is considered a masterpiece among Southern art and literature enthusiasts.

“I am hopeful that my collection of paintings will one day be published in a coffee table book similar to ‘Jericho,'” he said.

The first edition of “Jericho” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It was followed by another book of paintings and evocative prose called “Home to Jericho.”

For Shuptrine, this project is about preserving the legacy of the Appalachian people in the most respectful, tasteful way possible.

The journey will take him further than just the Deep South portion of the Appalachian Trail. He plans to include stops along the entire stretch of the trail. 

Rugged beauty and all. Especially the people, who are-as he describes it-“rough as the terrain.”

“I want to preserve these people and their way of life so future generations can become knowledgeable about the true people of Appalachia,” he writes on the campaign page. “I feel that in order to preserve this heritage, it needs to be captured in a respectful and timeless light before it is lost entirely.”