I’m excited to write this blog post for the Mountains and Lakes Chamber of Commerce to share more about my art and upcoming adventures in Jackson County. This year, I plan to visit a few outdoor attractions to learn more about the exceptional places in the area while developing art that tells a story of those places. During my first trip, I visited Cathedral Caverns State Park, an extraordinary place – right in our own backyard! Although the entrance to Cathedral is located in Marshall County, the cave extends underground into Woodville.
In this post, I want to tell you a little about my art, some cool facts about the cave, including my experience there, and show you the custom painting I developed during my visit.
A really important part of my artistic practice is visiting the place I want to paint, so in February two friends and I headed up to Cathedral to spend the day exploring the cave.
Doug Clark (left) is Professor of Photography and John Oles (right) is a Professor of Ceramics. We all teach art at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama. It was a great day of experiencing new things, discussing nature and art, and enjoying the natural beauty of the cave, including the sense of wonder it provoked. Doug is an extremely knowledgeable photographer. It was great listening to him explain his process as he skillfully captured well composed and clear images of the cave. All the photographs in this post were taken by Doug. John is a ceramicist. It’s amazing to watch him work in his craft. Many of the forms he creates are a response to natural architecture and a lot of his art has an affinity with the rocky inner space of the cave.
As each of my travel partners explored, my painting began to develop. I’ve been interested in interpreting the natural wonder of Cathedral Caverns for some time.
Alabama is full of exotic places of significance and cathedral is at the top of the list. Did you know that Cathedral is one of six National Natural Landmarks in the state? It received this distinction for its remarkable geology. For both the variety of beautiful stone formations it contains as well as for the size of its entrance.
Visiting Cathedral Caverns opens your mind to other worlds…other ways of understanding…other realities.
The original owner, operator, and engineer of Cathedral, Jay Gurley, had a vision that people needed to have this experience. The story goes that, after years of constructing the paths that allow visitors to access deeper areas of the cave, Gurley’s wife, Helen, finally accompanied him on a trip through the cavern. It was her that decided on the name “Cathedral”. And it is apt. The sheer scale and sense of space one experiences in the cave inspires awe. It boasts immense stalactite forests that fill areas of the cave from floor to ceiling and are as delicate and ornate as anything that I’ve ever seen.
The formations of flowstone spark the imagination and are as suggestive than any surrealist imagery.
There is a small book by Bill W. Varnedoe, Jr that describes Gurly’s exploits and the later engineering projects by Alabama’s park service. The book also explains the geology of the cave and how it was formed over millions of years. It’s available in a small gift shop a few hundred yards from the cave entrance. However, if you want to enter Cathedral, you’re required to take a tour and the guides are excellent!
Insider’s Tip: Everything in the book, and more, is communicated on the tour.
Suffice it to say, Gurly began the monumental task of exploring Cathedral and building roads and bridges within the cave. The state of Alabama, after acquiring it, built upon Gurley’s infrastructure, and with Gurley’s help, created a paved path that extends three quarters of a mile underground. In some ways, the easy walk along this path is a very different experience from how most caves are visited. But I appreciate this. It doesn’t take anything away from the experience. In fact, I believe it adds to it.
For one, it allows you to safely shift your focus from what could be a difficult scramble over rocks with headlamps, to be able to more fully take in the beautiful cave features above and around you. Secondly, the path makes it possible for people to visit Cathedral who might not otherwise have an opportunity. For example, a parent could easily push a child in a stroller on this tour. The cave infrastructure; roads, bridges, lights, tunnels, etc. are amazing feats of engineering that enhance our appreciation of the experience. For Doug, John and I, this all meant a lot of time to contemplate, talk about all the interesting formations and features, sit, draw, and photograph.
Underground, it is a fantasy landscape of tunnels and flowstone.
My painting, which I’m calling “Cathedral” imagines a cave system inspired by its namesake. Something that intrigued me when visiting Cathedral Caverns was the connection between the world above and the world below. The idea of an entire ecosystem existing over the top of this cave, separated by a hill of solid rock. I use a cross-section style to get this idea across. Above, we can imagine trees swaying in the breeze. Grass growing. Maybe a tiny brook making its way down the hillside. Underground, it is a fantasy landscape of tunnels and flowstone. Below, you are inside the structure. Part of the girding that holds up the world. Because the cave cuts under a hillside the amount of rock between you and the surface quickly increases as you enter the cave. As the hill crests and slopes down the other side, even though you are deeper within the cave, you get closer to the surface.
I am also enthralled with the formations and the natural architecture of the cave. The Cathedrals were carved by water, specifically the mystery river (because no one knows where it comes from) through limestone. Limestone is created over millions of years through compression of ancient sea creatures, like corals. And you’ll learn on the tour that in fact this part of Alabama was once under a shallow warm sea. Evidence of this can be seen throughout the cave – from shark’s teeth embedded in the ceiling to the band of fossilized sponges tracing along the cavern wall. As water drips through the limestone above, it carries with it minerals that are deposited, little by little overtime, creating all the varieties of incredible flowstone throughout. They say it takes 100 years to create an inch of flowstone. The geologic time scale of Cathedral can cause us to think about the world differently.
Visitor information for Cathedral Cavers can be found on the Alabama State Parks website https://www.alapark.com/parks/cathedral-caverns-state-park.
Until next time, we hope you enjoy your own outdoor adventure in Jackson County, Alabama this year!