Jim Couper saw the Everglades for the first time in the mid-1950s, on a visit with a high school buddy. He took in the stillness, the varying shades of green and brown, the barely moving water, the pine rocklands and the tropical hardwood hammocks.
“It was nothing like anything else,” he recalls. “I was hooked.”
And in a very big way. The Atlanta native, who attended graduate school at Florida State University, would end up moving his family to the sleepy town of Miami in 1963. In the decades that followed, he would visit, alone or with his son, by boat or walking on firm ground, “this incredibly exotic place.”
The result of those trips to South Florida’s most unique ecosystem can be seen in a collection of his paintings, landscapes that are less realist and more interpretative, full of both the subdued hues and the brilliant light of the region. “Jim Couper: There Are No Other Everglades in the World,” opens Sept. 12 at The Patricia & Phillips Frost Art Museum at Florida International University’s Modesto Maidique Campus. The museum is also sponsoring an education panel about conserving the Everglades on Saturday, Oct. 3.
For the retired art professor, the exhibition is both a tribute to the Everglades and a warning to the public. The title is taken from the first line of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ classic book The Everglades: River of Grass. Those eight words, Couper says, carry a responsibility.
“The Everglades is a fragile place,” he adds, “and it is irreplaceable.”
Couper, 77, visited the Everglades for several years before he began painting it. He would drive south to Flamingo or west to Shark Valley and beyond. He watched. He listened. He took ranger-guided walks and solitary strolls. With each foray into this wilderness, he grew more enamored of the textures, the hues, “the constant light changes” that turned vistas into an ever-changing wonder.
“It was like a courtship,” he explains. “At the beginning, I didn’t quite feel like I knew it well enough to paint.”
At times, he spent the night there “in complete solitude. It was magic.” And even during the past year, as he finished some of the most recent paintings, “I had to go out and breathe and see it again just to make sure.”
The result of this love affair is a feast for the eyes, particularly for any South Floridian who has explored the area. Whether on a small or large canvas, Couper manages to capture the various moods, as well as the details that might have been overlooked by a less experienced observer.
The earliest paintings in the exhibition are of Shark Valley and date from 1986. Because each of the four canvases in this one collection is small, he finished these paintings outside. The rest, however, are large and imposing, products of days in his studio. Night Sky, for example, is an enormous reflection of the vastness of the Everglades sky, the deep blackness interrupted by both minute dots and brilliant stars. “There’s nothing like the sky at night out there. It’s breathtaking.”
But don’t expect to find a recognizable constellation anywhere on the canvas. “It’s completely made up. I have only an idea in the broader sense.”
Though Couper initially painted the Glades in a realistic mode, he found the meticulous rendering had “no magic to it.” So he moved away from this crisp preciseness to something more atmospheric, something “that would be more open to interpretation.” He became interested in how the Everglades was experienced as much as it was seen.
So there are the stunning colors of daybreak in Coot Bay (inspired while watching the sun rise on his 15-foot Boston Whaler) and the mesmerizing movement of Florida Bay and Shark River Slough. Some of the paintings are a result of hundreds of cellphone photos that served as visual notes, but many are distilled from memory.
The idea for the exhibit dates back almost two years. Couper was one of the pioneer faculty members who opened the one-building campus in its inaugural semester in 1972. He would go on to teach and mentor hundreds of students and would serve as the founding director of the art museum that would later become the Frost.
Jordana Pomeroy, the Frost’s current director, says it’s only fitting that Couper’s career at FIU should come full circle.
“This honors Jim’s legacy,” she says, “but it’s also a way of addressing the changes that have occurred over time in the Everglades. Rarely can you use the word unique, but you can for this ecosystem. It’s an environmental treasure.”
Couper is particularly concerned with those changes, with the way industry, development and agriculture have affected what he calls “a hallowed place.” He’d like for visitors to walk away from the Frost exhibition with an appreciation for — and a mission to preserve — what remains of the Everglades.
“I hope this opens up the Everglades for people to come out and actually see how very, very special it is.”
If you go
What: ‘Jim Couper: There Are No Other Everglades in the World’
When: Sept. 12 to Nov. 1. Opening reception 4 to 7 p.m. Sept. 12 is free and open to the public.
Where: The Patricia & Phillips Frost Art Museum at Florida International University’s Modesto Maidique Campus, 11200 SW Eighth St., Miami
Panel discussion about conserving the Everglades
3 p.m. Oct. 3 at the Frost Art Museum, free and open to the public.
Panel will include artist Jim Couper; Dr. Evelyn Gaiser (executive director of FIU's School of Environment, Arts and Society); Prof. Peter Machonis; cultural ecologist and author Thomas E. Lodge; associate professor Nick Oehm, and professor/architect Elite Kedan of Artists in Residency in the Everglades.