When George Rue started hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail six summers ago at age 18, he carried a sketchpad, intending to use it as both diary and camera. But when he brought the weathered notebook back to New York’s School of Visual Arts—full of dirty faces and forgotten detours—his professors urged him to return to the trail.
Now pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at the New York Academy of Art, the 24-year-old from Nashville took their advice, continuing to section-hike and sketch over the past four summers. Rue has expanded the project into a mixed-media art installation, using his sketches as inspiration for sculptures, prints, and woodcuts he made in his New York studio. And though he considers it a work-in-progress, Rue started showing Appalachian Travelogue around the city, dragging along his dirty boots and backpack. Parts of the project have been shown at Sotheby’s art gallery in New York and other galleries as far away as Rome, in addition to having a solo show in New York City’s VCS Gallery.
“What I’m trying to do is capture the culture and landscape of the trail by drawing from life,” says Rue, who finished the trail in Maine last summer but has started to section-hike it in reverse. “I hope that it transcends its subject matter to become more about how we relate to nature in contemporary life.”
Photo: Appalachian Travelogue, Thesis Installation, Mixed Media
This piece was the first iteration of Appalachian Travelogue. Rue created it as his undergraduate thesis installation in 2014, focusing mostly on sections of the trail closest to his home in Tennessee. Since then, he’s added sketches from the northern end, especially Maine and New Hampshire, his favorite states to hike. “I wanted to create something that represents every section of the entire trail,” he says. “So that, as you moved through it, it would almost be like traveling from Georgia to Maine.”
Boots, Mixed MediaTo create these prints of his Merrell and Scarpa boots, Rue stepped on a copper plate covered in an acid-resistant coating while wearing his hiking boots. He then dipped the plate in an acid bath, which ate away at everything around the boot imprint. After inking the engraved plate and running it through a press, Rue displayed these etchings with the actual boots, each of which has covered over 1,000 miles. “In my most recent show I had my trekking poles and my sleeping bag,” he says. “Nothing has been retired yet except the boots, which have holes and smell bad.”
Packing List, Photolithograph on Paper
This lithograph, made using a scan from his first sketchbook, shows Rue’s packing list from an early trip on the AT. Creating a lithograph involves a complicated chemical process that results in an ink impression of the original drawing.
The note in the right-hand corner refers to one of his first experiences on the trail, when a bear stole his foot bag but left the rope holding it in place. Along with camping gear, Rue also carries a nine-by-12-inch spiral bound notebook, ink pens, graphite pencils, watercolors, and chalk.
Self Portrait, Mixed MediaRue, pictured in this self-portrait, says he usually starts his hikes—which last from two weeks to two months—alone but ends up joining other groups. “I like to hop in with other groups of hikers and stay with them for a week at a time,” he says. “That way I could get to know them, make sketches of them, and get all of their stories.”
Great Smoky Mountains Map, Mixed Media on PaperRue created this map, for the AT section that follow the Tennessee-North Carolina border, by turning drawings from his sketchbooks into etching plates that he printed along the state line. “I use the sketches as reference materials that I update into something more substantial when I come back to my studio,” Rue says. “That’s where I make my more elaborate pieces—woodcut prints, lithographs, large scale charcoal drawings.”
Head Studies, Ink on PaperRue likes to wake up early to make sketches of fellow hikers while they’re eating breakfast or making coffee. Some are nervous about this idea of playing model, but Rue says most are excited and ask for an emailed a copy of the sketch. “Hikers are very active people and don’t stay still for very long,” he says. “I like to wake up and do little portraits of them while they’re at their most relaxed.”
Youngblood, Graphite and Ink on PaperRue spent most of this past summer hiking with Youngblood, an 18-year-old Californian. After staying in a hostel in Maine, the two bummed a ride back to the trail in a pickup truck. Rue couldn’t sketch during the bumpy ride so he had Youngblood pose outside a shelter later that night and filled in the truck details by memory. “As much as I think drawing from life is important, I’ve recently started to do things from my memory because I think that's a form of truth as well,” says Rue. “It’s not necessarily showing things as they were factually, but how they impressed us.”
Tennessee Map, Red Chalk on PaperUsing red chalk, Rue sketched two of the most well-known examples of trail flora in Tennessee—the Eastern White Pine and Black Cherry tree. Below that, he mapped the elevation profiles of the shelters along Tennessee’s section of the AT.
Caribou Map, Mixed Media on PaperOn the trail, Rue goes by Caribou, a nickname given by an old cross country coach who recognized that, while he couldn’t run fast, he could run far. Seeing as Caribou migrate the furthest of any land mammal—and the Appalachian Trail is 2,190 miles—the name stuck. Rue signed trail logs with a drawing of a caribou and later used it as an inspiration for this woodblock print.
Studies of Tennessee, Mixed Media on PaperRue often uses his sketchbook as both camera and diary, like this page from the Smoky Mountains portion of the trail. “I really like when my sketchbooks get dirty and smudged and covered in footprints,” he says. “I like that grittiness because I think it captures the spirit of hiking.”
Hands and Mouth, Ink on PaperLast summer, Rue hiked most of Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness with Hands and Mouth, an Iraq war veteran who took to the trail while returning to normal life off the battlefield. “It’s kind of funny because you never really know anyone’s real name, but you know so much about them based on how you've interacted and the stories they’ve told,” Rue says. “I think when you boil it down, the trail is really about the people around you.”
Uphill, Woodcut on PaperOne of Rue’s newest pieces is a large woodcut of a steep uphill section of Old Blue mountain in Maine. The low vantage point is intended to make viewers feel as though they’re looking up at the hill, sizing up their next climb. “I like to draw stuff that is a representation of the trail itself,” he says. “The trail that you walk on and that gives you blisters and makes you sweat.”
The Horn, Graphite and Watercolor on PaperRue did this watercolor on top of the Horn, near Saddlebacks, in Maine. He chose to position himself looking north, towards where he was headed, but a stiff wind threatened to blow him and his materials away. “Working from life can be really challenging: you get sunburnt, rained on, blown around with wind.” he says. “But I like the idea of drawing from life as a way of truth.”
Stratton, Maine, Ink on PaperRue also documents the communities that surround the trail, like Stratton, Maine (population 618). “I try to capture that small-town spirit of the places that you stay along the trail.” he says. “It’s a cool way to see America.”
Self Portrait Study, Graphite on PaperLast summer, thirty miles short of Mount Katahdin and the end of the trail, Rue came across this pond. Realizing it would be his last opportunity to swim that summer, he drifted off-course and later captured the moment in this study that he used for a larger charcoal drawing. “All of a sudden I didn’t want to hike anymore, and I just waded into the water,” he says. “It was a moment of self-reflection, when I knew things were about to be over.”
Photo from 2014 on Webster Cliff, White Mountain, New Hampshire
George recently started work on the first draft of a book that would include works from Appalachian Travelogue accompanied by handwritten descriptions. He hopes it will touch on a range of trail life—other hikers, trail towns, backcountry cooking—and plans to do more research this summer, when he’s back on the trail.
"The Appalachian Trail means the entire world to me, and there’s not a day where I don't think about it," Rue said. "It's a part of who I am."Not Now
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