When Europeans first landed in Florida, resigning themselves to the diet that sustained the native cultures for thousands of years was a challenge. “I think a lot about the first European contact. Before the Europeans, the native people had lots of sources of protein: oysters and fish, snails. They ate snails as a naturally occurring protein source. It supported a tremendous number of people … effortlessly,” says artist and radical naturalist Jim Draper. Beef, nor butter or any of its rich byproducts that the Europeans enjoyed were on the native menu. And when they brought their livestock to Florida, our watery landscapes changed forever, as did the North American diet.
Through his artwork, Draper has celebrated the natural landscapes and native species of Florida for decades. His work speaks to the fundamental principles of radical naturalism, a philosophy rooted in the idea that human beings should live in harmony with the natural world and its order of balance. Recently, his art was chosen for an international exhibition titled “We are What We Eat” at the United Nation’s headquarters in New York. It was organized by the Jack Brewer Foundation and curated by Jacksonville-based independent curator Aaron Levi Garvey. The focus of the exhibition was to highlight humanity’s right to sustainably produced food and access to nutrition. Five countries were chosen to participate in the exhibit, and Draper was chosen to represent the United States in the exhibition.
His contribution was a collection of paintings titled Produce, inspired by the history of agriculture in Florida and its role in our food system. The project highlights the ways European settlers transformed the food system of North America to suit their menus, steering away from sustainable foods like oysters and fish and creating pastureland for beef and other livestock. Draper recognizes that our modern day food practices are simply part of the phenomenon that started when early settlers imposed European agricultural customs onto a landscape very different from their own. “What happened at Fort Caroline is that these French settlers practically starved to death because their culture would not allow them to eat the things occurring naturally here. The St. Johns River provided a tremendous amount of proteins, from crabs to snails to oysters. So that’s what the Produce images are about,” he says.
He describes his series, a collection of paintings featuring farm animals, as simple and sweet. “They’re meant to have this children’s illustration kind of thing,” he says. There are seven pieces in the series, and they all evoke the quality of children’s books from the 1940s and 1950s. “They could very easily be illustrations for nursery rhymes, and that was intentional,” Draper says. Their playfulness stands in stark contrast to the ugly reality of industrial agriculture and the livestock industry. Draper has a strong conviction that we need to work on restoring our natural environment, and he knows this message is best relayed through beauty, not fear or disgust. He’s had more conversions to radical naturalism through his idyllic images than he would with scenes of violence or decay. People who come to view his work always want to discuss the themes with him. “I could do a picture of a dead cow or killing something, but then you immediately turn your audience off,” he says.
While he tries to avoid over-intellectualizing his artwork, Draper’s creativity has always been fueled by his philosophical stance. “Radical naturalism is a radical way of looking at our position in the cosmos,” he explains. “We are in a system, and the natural order dictates everything that we are participating in, and it defines everything about our existence.” According to Draper, a balanced diet is more than just eating more produce. It is about having good practices of food production. A true balanced diet is both good for us and for nature, because we are one in the same.
Artist Jim Draper in his studio.
Draper’s paintings of livestock created for the UN exhibit “We Are What We Eat” discuss the way European settler’s agricultural practices disrupted the balance of North American ecosystems.
The paintings are intentionally illustrative and playful to contrast the dismal reality of industrial agriculture.