Mountain Man Jack Stern of Tuckasegee
By Frances Figart
Although Jack Douglas Stern was enamored of the sea for a time as a teenager, it has been mountains that have played the most formative role in his life and his art.
He was born at an elevation of 5,430 feet in Boulder, CO, where his great-grandfather’s homestead looked out over the foothills of the Rockies. His mother was a nurse and his father sold Bible storybooks, the kind, he says, most people have seen in their doctor’s waiting room.
“My dad got into evangelism when I was young and we moved to California, where I started school,” he says. For the next decade plus, the family—Jack, his two sisters, and mom and dad—lived all over northern, central and southern California, under the shadows cast by the Transverse, Coast and Peninsular mountain ranges.
When he was about 13 years old, his grandmother Ruth started oil painting. “When she came to visit us, she would set up her paints on the kitchen table and I would watch her. One day she asked if I’d like to try it. ‘Sure,’ I said. I started a painting like hers and I remember everyone went to bed and, when the sun came up, I was still at the table working.” His parents put the painting on the refrigerator and told him how good it was. “It really wasn’t that good,” he says, “but I believed them.”
By the time Jack was 14, the Sterns were living in San Diego, where the Laguna Mountains dominate the landscape and roll down to the Colorado Desert. “Here my dad started painting also,” Stern recalls. “We attended art classes taught by William E. Steinbach together every Tuesday. We’d watch a demo—one week he might paint a mountain scene, the next a desert or seascape. During the week, we would try to paint what he painted in class. There were about 20 or 30 people in the class and we would bring and show them what we had done. It was interesting to see how each painting was so different.”
By age 16, Stern was surfing up and down the coast and even into Baja Mexico. “An art dealer saw my paintings and wanted to sell them for me,” he says. “She sold my seascapes and landscapes in places like La Jolla and Torrey Pines. I was asked to go into the mountains above San Diego to the town of Ramona to teach an oil painting class. I learned a lot from having to verbalize the process.”
Then, when Stern was beginning his junior year: “My father announced we were moving … to Nebraska! I didn’t think I’d ever want to live more than a mile from the ocean, but I ended up graduating from high school in Lincoln.” Though not what he would have chosen, this temporary stint in Great Plains did inspire some artistic growth. “I would drive down the country roads looking for wooden windmills and old barns to paint,” Stern remembers. “I found out that people really love these country scenes. Sometimes I would start paintings on location (plein air) or paint from photographs I’d taken.”
Whenever he visited his grandparents, the Lippincotts, back in Colorado, Stern hiked and camped with his dog, Herbie, and fell more and more in love with the Rocky Mountains. “Thankfully,” he says, “I didn’t have to go to Vietnam at this time in my life because I had received a high number in the lottery and was not called.”
Stern’s two sisters moved to the Northwest, graced by the Cascades and the Oregon Coast Range. “When I visited them, I was impressed by the beauty of the mountains and the coastline of Washington and Oregon,” he says. “I worked my way down the coast—sometimes washing dishes, bucking hay or tuning pianos to pay for my travels. I eventually made my way back to San Diego, but the mountains of Colorado kept calling.”
In 1975, he got a job at Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado and began exploring the San Juan Mountains, opening a small studio and gallery in Silverton, CO, in the spring of 1976. With stunning views of the La Plata Mountain Range, Silverton has an elevation of 9,300 feet and is an historic mining town where the Durango Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad now brings hundreds of tourists during the summers. So many tourists, in fact, that Stern decided to get out of town after about three years.
“I bought a donkey, LBJ, for fifty dollars, closed my studio and spent my summers hiking and painting in the high country and wilderness areas around Silverton.” He built a unique “pack-box” for transporting wet canvases, enabling him to enjoy extended plein air painting treks. “I would bring my paintings back to town and sell or trade them.”
Little did Stern know what life-changing events would be catalyzed by this donkey. In the winter, when the snow was deep, Stern would pasture LBJ on a friend’s property near the Utah border.
“After tasting freedom for the winter, LBJ didn’t like the idea of being caught and having to carry all my camping gear,” Stern chuckles. “During the summer of 1983, I tried several times to catch him, but he evaded me. So I went back to Silverton to find someone to help. That’s when Peggy Bird—who came from Cullowhee, North Carolina, to teach school in Silverton—offered to help me.”
Successfully wrangling LBJ, the pair spent several weeks hiking the Rico to Silverton Trail in San Juan National Forest, falling in love and getting married the next year. They bought a little cabin north of Silverton at 10,250 feet and Stern reopened a studio/gallery. Peggy eventually ended up homeschooling their two sons, Paul and Will.
It’s only fitting that if this mountain man were ever to leave the West, it would be to live under the shadow of the oldest mountains, the Appalachians, where the Blue Ridge meets the Great Smokies. In 2000, the Stern family moved to Jackson County to be closer to Peggy’s family. They settled in a remote, off-the-grid log cabin built by her father on Charley’s Creek Road in Tuckasegee, near the Balsam Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Here, Jack Stern continues his lifelong focus on capturing the natural beauty of his rural surroundings in oils, watercolors and acrylics.
Folks who know his work say his paintings seem to capture a sense of place and help his audience feel as though they have been transported, through his art, to valley, lake, meadow or mountaintop.
During the past decade, Jack Stern has received numerous regional honors including Artist of the Year from the Art League of Henderson County, the People’s Choice Award from the Art League of Highlands, Best in Oils and Best of the Leagues from The Bascom Center for the Visual Arts in Highlands, the Award of Excellence and the Award of Distinction from the Art in the Park Juried Show in Blowing Rock.
His work is represented in these galleries:
Twigs and Leaves Gallery
98 North Main Street
Blue Valley Gallery
45 State Rd 1141
It’s By Nature
678 West Main Street
20 Cullasaja Vista Lane
Turning Leaf Fine Art Gallery
651 East Main Street
Blue Ridge, GA
Reach Stern at firstname.lastname@example.org or 828.293.7729.