The River is a Strong Brown God

‘A Strong Brown God’ is what T. S. Eliot called a river. No doubt he was right. Certainly the Tennessee River plays a large part in my life and so the Jackson Point flotilla is once again preparing to set out on the waters. Persistent rains slowed down preparation and maintenance this year as did problems created by a half-hearted job of winterizing the boats last fall, but the 14-foot sailing skiff, Flower Ann, is almost ready —just a small sail repair remains.

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The Flower Ann

The 18-foot motorboat, Nocturne, needs a bit more work. A more rational approach to stowage in the cuddy cabin is being built —the ‘just throw it over there’ method of storage proved inadequate— and some changes to the trailer to make retrieval less of a chore need to be completed. Nevertheless, the river awaits and we shall be glad to get back to her.

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The Nocturne

I built both boats with the help of my stepson, Andrew, and with the patience of my wife, Deb. Any boat builder will tell you that last commodity, a wife’s patience, is essential to boat building and often in short supply. Women don’t seem to grasp the necessity of letting house and garden go to hell while the build is under way, nor do they revel as they should in detailed discussions of construction arcana. Fortunately Deb’s patience was sufficient, and for the last eight years we have had one or more boats on the river. Indeed, we also started a yacht club, The Jackson Point Yacht Club. It is a club so exclusive that we are the only members, but what we lack in membership we make up for in style. My son-in-law, Liam, created a nifty logo and gave us T-shirts which proudly display the design. Since we are trailer sailors and our yacht club is located 2000 feet above sea level on the Cumberland Plateau and at least 1000 feet above the nearest large body of water, we are rather short of reality and grateful for this affirmation.


The two signal flags tell other boats “you are about to run aground”, which is a useful piece of information when approaching a mountain-based yacht club.

The two boats are an important adjunct to my studio work and using them has influenced my approach to drawing and painting the river. That is why I prefer the word, “riverscape”, to describe these works. The view on the river is different from that seen from the shore and not just in the vantage point the boat offers. From the boat you can see things that you can’t from land, but more importantly, on the boat you are fully part of the life, the feel, the rhythm of the river. Sailing or rowing the Flower Ann allows the river to predominate. A small boat moving quietly under sail gives the multitude of river sounds a presence they can’t have with a motor hammering away. When sailing, you come upon things quietly, and the river animals are not so quick to run away. I do own a small powered craft, the Nocturne, but by the standards here in Tennessee, she, with her 4hp outboard, barely qualifies as powered at all and isn’t that much faster than the Flower Ann, if there’s a reasonable wind to fill the smaller boat’s sails.

I much prefer this lack of power to the alternative. A bass boat powered by a 350hp outboard motor screams along at 65mph, rendering everything around it invisible. River current means nothing, wind direction and speed mean nothing, even distance, given the boat’s speed, means almost nothing. Only the screaming power of the boat exists and the river is its shabby servant. It is a mechanical metaphor for humankind’s ruthless need to subordinate the environment. Sail boats are slow, fragile, and subject to the forces around them. Sailing does not allow you to dominate the river and her forces. You come to understand these forces because you must work with them, and those forces are benign, if properly understood. Working with them endlessly reinforces the notion that we are all only part of a very large web of environmental energies that we ignore at our peril.

Sail boats are slow, and slow is an artist’s friend. I never find much subject matter driving around in my truck. Everything goes by too quickly. For me, I like a bike or my feet on land and a slow boat on the river. All these means of transport are dawdling enough to be very efficient. I have spent days sailing up river and then just drifting back down, letting the current do with the Flower Ann as it would. It often takes us places I might not have thought to go. Along the way I make quick sketches, take photos, and sometimes anchor and do a more finished drawing or a small painting in gouache if time and light allow. Most of all I soak up the sights, sounds, and feel of the river : T.S. Eliot’s “strong brown god.”

S. Pittsburg bridge gouache
Gouache done from the river on which the oil painting, “Unsettled Day: The Shelby Rhinehart Bridge” is based.

Unsettled Day--Shelby Rhinehart Bridge, South Pittsburg--Deborah Tucker 12-2012

Unsettled Day: The Shelby Rhinehart Bridge

Copyright 2014 James Tucker

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