Artists and Conservancy: Conservancy Close to Home

by Lori Putnam, originally published at: Used with permission.

Artist Lori Putnam speaks on the role artists can play in the conservation and preservation of land, cultures, and buildings. Lori explores conservancy in the Harpeth River Watershed, close to where she lives.


The Harpeth River near my home. Photo courtesy Harpeth River Watershed Association

Land conservancy and plein air painting groups are nothing new. From Maine to California, and most states in between, artists are working to save the places they love and the resurgence of plein air painting itself. We paint in packs, travel like herds, and gather across the globe to worship the light and its ability to describe what lies before us.

California Impressionists Guy Rose, William Wendt, Edgar Payne, Granville Redmond, Franz Bischoff, and others (some native Californians and others who traveled there) were in pursuit of the same thing we are, color and light on the land. Many became members of early art clubs. Some helped established schools. Others helped drive land preservation and settled art colonies. I am drawn to those subjects, to the Pacific coastline and the mountainous West too. I belong to both the California Art Club and to Laguna Plein Air Painters Association and paint with them as often as I can. Not everyone has the opportunity or even the desire to travel. If you are looking for some place your work can make a difference, I suggest looking closer to home.

I live about a mile from the Harpeth River in Middle Tennessee. It is 125 miles long from its headwaters to its confluence with the Cumberland River. The flow from Tennessee’s rivers provide nourishment to flora and fauna as it makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico. According to the website, the Harpeth has more than 1,000 tributaries and is a unique system of freshwater rivers that contains a greater variety of aquatic life than anywhere else in the world. I grew up not too far from where I live now in the middle of the Cheatham County Wildlife Management Area. As a child I watched as the Harpeth River, low and dry in the summer, came to swell and flood in the spring. One of my childhood memories is canoeing down the raging river over what had been a bridge only a day before.

Tennessee’s approximately 61,000 miles of rivers, lakes, and streams offer recreation, fishing, and boating all year long. The area’s thick, humid summers and abundant water sources provide plein air artists with an assortment of spring greens as early as late March. By the end of October or early November, those brilliant greens will turn to russet, orange, and gold. The distant hills and mountains are as blue as their name suggests. Moderate Tennessee snowfalls complete a landscape painter’s paradise.


Chestnut Group Member Lynne Edgerton painting along the Harpeth River

Our local painting organization is writing an impressive chapter on the subject of conservation. The Chestnut Group, a non-profit plein air group, is helping preserve my paradise. The group partners with other non-profits that have like-minded missions: conservation of land and restoration of historic properties. Established by a small group of painters in 2001, its membership has grown to more than 200. Several of our members come from surrounding states as well.

One of the great things about this particular organization is that it has members at all levels. We have rank beginners and people with established careers of 30 years or more. I have been a member since 2004. Joining this group as a beginner provided access to those seasoned veterans and early education opportunities, and contributed to my path of artistic growth and exhibition experience. In fact, the first plein air painting I ever sold was during one of their fundraisers.


“Bellevue Bluffs,” by Seth Tummins, oil

“Amos,” a rather horrible cow painting, was purchased by a lady who said she sort of felt sorry for it. I was thrilled! Someone recently found the painting in an estate sale. Too bad I do not have a picture of it; we could all laugh hysterically. That first sale meant a lot to me. It encouraged me and it helped raise money for a good cause.

Another perk of working with the Chestnuts is their fairness policies to all involved. Artists are not asked to donate 100 percent of the sale. The Chestnut partnerships are split 45/45/10 (artist/partnering organization/Chestnut Group). Artists are giving a hefty chunk, but are still able to afford to be part of multiple shows in any given year. The 10 percent that goes to the group covers minimal administrative costs the group has. Because the group is so large, not everyone is expected to take part in every event. We all do what we can, and some do a lot more than others; no effort goes without appreciation.

The absolute best thing about the Chestnuts is the spirit of the group. It is contagious. Paint-outs take place all year long in snow, rain, 105-degree heat, and 100 percent humidity. We have a lot of fun, but we also understand we are given a great privilege and a great responsibility.


The Tennessee River and streams — the Harpeth River Watershed Area

Sometimes the lands on which we are invited are spaces that are already open to the public. Other times they are areas that are not yet publicly accessible. We are there to capture time and to document both beauty and destruction through our paintings. Following months of well-organized painting opportunities, an exhibition and sale is held. It is an opportunity for supporters of the partnering cause, of our group, and of the arts to come together and make a difference. Recent partners have included the Land Trust for Tennessee, Friends of Warner Parks, Friends of Radnor Lake, the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee, and more.

Chestnuts recently partnered with the Harpeth River Watershed Association (HWRA). The local area benefiting from the HWRA is highlighted on the map of Tennessee above. Only the largest bodies of water are marked. If all of our streams were drawn on this map, it would make little sense. The Harpeth River watershed covers a small footprint relative to the size of the state. Yet there are 1,314 stream miles and 655 lake acres currently recorded in this watershed alone. In 2015, the Harpeth was listed as one of “America’s Most Endangered Rivers.”

Dorie Bolz, HWRA’s executive director, said, “The love of the land and the great outdoors is evident in all of the works produced for ‘Scenes of the Harpeth.’ Just as the Chestnut Group is dedicating to preserving and protecting what they love, the Harpeth River Watershed Association is passionate about protecting our rivers and ensuring that everyone has access to clean water. The mission of our two organizations couldn’t be more closely aligned.”


“UnbeLeafable,” by Lori Putnam, oil on linen, 20 x 28 in.

A huge struggle for watershed areas is urban expansion. Nashville was voted the friendliest town in America in 2016 and ranked 19th as the nation’s fastest-growing according to U.S. Census figures for 2015. Nearby Franklin ranked 14th in growth the year prior. As more land is developed into subdivisions, malls, and parking lots, rain has less chance of soaking into the ground, trickling into streams, and nourishing our rivers. Instead it must flow into storm drains. As more development occurs, storm drains work less efficiently, causing flooding. Flooding destroys riverbanks and natural vegetation. Less ground-absorbed rainwater leads to lower water levels and increases water temperatures. This not only has an effect on the water we drink, but also fish and wildlife. Add man-made pollution, such as litter, and runoff from golf courses, construction sites, and septic systems to the problem, and clean, once-plentiful water becomes more and more scarce.

Members of the Chestnut Group exhibited more than 200 pieces in the HWRA sale. Prices ranged from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. Sales brought in just over $20,000 for the weekend. This group never rests. There are two remaining partnerships in the works for the Chestnuts this fall; Dinner on the Bridge, an event with Greenways for Nashville, and Farm to Fork, benefitting the Cumberland River Compact. With an average of $10,000 raised for each partner agency, I’d say the Chestnut Group is hitting the mark.