Society & Culture

Georgia Sea Grant combines art and science to teach about changing ecosystems

Athens, Ga. – Georgia Sea Grant brought together landscape painter Philip Juras and leading Georgia scientists to raise awareness about the processes driving ecological change on the Georgia coast for two events in Savannah earlier this month.

At an exhibit at the Telfair Museum, Juras displayed more than 60 paintings representing rare and endangered Southern ecosystems inspired by the observations of 18th century naturalist William Bartram. Juras recreates scenes of longleaf pine forests and tidal marshes as they likely looked in Bartram’s time with near photographic precision.

“This exhibit is more than just a body of paintings,” said Juras. “It’s also a story about changing landscapes and history.”

Juras, who lives in Athens, Ga., was joined at the Telfair exhibit by ecologists Charles Hopkinson of the Georgia Sea Grant and Clark Alexander of the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, who explained to the audience the important ecological processes underlying the landscapes presented in Juras’ paintings. The audience learned why landscapes have changed over time and how they’re likely to continue to change in the future as sea level rises and development pressure continues.

“What we’re trying to convey to people is that we need to be aware that whatever we do in the coastal zone is going to have an impact on what that landscape looks like in the future,” said Hopkinson, who is director of Georgia Sea Grant and professor in the department of marine sciences at the University of Georgia. “What we see and what we are familiar with isn’t necessarily going to be what the next generation sees. To some extent that it is a natural process, but very often it is exacerbated by human activity.”

When Bartram journeyed through the South, much of the region was covered in endless expanses of longleaf pine forests. These forests, along with many other pre-settlement ecosystems, changed radically as humans used the landscape’s resources and interfered with ecological processes.

Having experts at the exhibit to explain the science behind the ecological changes occurring in the landscapes was a unique opportunity for a landscape painter and for the audience, said Juras. “Being able to present the scientific information that goes with the paintings makes them a lot more compelling,” he said. “It’s all part of the same effort, which is to communicate not only that these are beautiful places, but they are important places.”

Juras used Bartram’s detailed descriptions of the vast Southern wilderness as a historical source for his work. He hopes his paintings will help people better understand what the Southern landscape used to look like and the importance of preserving what remains of the landscapes Bartram described.

Guests also were invited to historic Wormsloe Plantation and Fort Stewart to witness first-hand the ecosystems presented in paintings at the exhibit. Fort Stewart’s Fish and Wildlife Branch and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources conducted a prescribed burn of the lonfleaf pine forest at Fort Stewart, an important part of the ecological process of this now rare ecosystem. The group then took a tour of a healthy marsh ecosystem on Wormsloe Plantation. The events were attended by city council members, coastal legislators, university faculty members, and business and community leaders.

The Juras paintings exhibited at the Telfair are collected in a book titled, “The Southern Frontier: Landscapes Inspired by William Bartram,” which was funded by Georgia Sea Grant. The collection also contains essays by Juras, Dorinda Dallmeyer of UGA, Holly Koons McCullough of the Telfair Museums, and poet and environmental advocate Janisse Ray.

Georgia Sea Grant, which is part of a national program within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , or NOAA, channels funds into colleges, universities and research institutes throughout Georgia to support local research, education and outreach to bring a balanced approach toward land use, economic development and ecosystem health on the coast.

“Georgia Sea Grant is here to help people explore interactions between humans and ecosystems so that we can better understand what the landscape is going to look like in the future,” said Hopkinson.

For more information on Georgia Sea Grant, see