One Artist’s Long Trail to the Top

Mike Wurman found his artistic path on America’s longest hiking trail.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

Eight years ago, Mike Wurman paid a visit with his wife Rhianna to Max Patch, a grassy mountain bald on the North Carolina/Tennessee border. At that time, Wurman was experiencing an artistic crossroads: A crippling self-criticism had led him to abandon a career as an illustrator and graphic designer. 

Arriving at Max Patch’s own crossroads — the summit path where the mountain intersects with the Appalachian Trail, a spot with 360-degree views — Wurman knelt to take a photograph of the AT’s white blaze mark. “My eyes began to water, and as I stood up, I told my wife I had an immense desire to draw again,” Wurman remembers. 

Needle Falls

“I was also being pulled by the trail itself. … I knew what I had to do.”

Nearly four years later, Wurman had completed hiking all four segments of the AT, summiting Mt. Katahdin in Maine in July of 2018, and, along the way, resurrecting a career in the arts that had seemed all but expired.

“Hiking the Appalachian Trail gave me confidence in myself as an artist and as a person,” Wurman says. “Now when that self doubt creeps in, I just need to get outdoors, go for a hike, long or short, and that inspiration to create returns.”

Snow Top

Sketchbooks are always a part of Wurman’s outdoor pack, providing a basis for more polished work he completes in his home studio. “Some of the drawings and sketches I did while hiking the AT were done on the spot or in the tent at night. But there was no way I could have done as many drawings as I did and finish hiking in a timely manner. Otherwise I’d still be out there.”

An even more direct result of Wurman’s weeks on the trail is an expansion of his repertoire to pastels, a medium he’d hardly used before his Max Patch epiphany. 

Rock On

“As I hiked the AT, everything was so vibrant with color that I found it difficult to convey what I saw in black and white alone,” he explains. “It took only 1,000 miles of walking before I came to the conclusion I had to incorporate color into my work. Pastels have opened up an entire world of art to me.” 

Much of the work in color is done en plein air, part of Wurman’s involvement with the group Preserving a Picturesque America. Using a 19th-century book of landscapes, Picturesque America, as their guide, artist members document changes in local and national vistas depicted more than a century ago. Their own collection of drawings and paintings, Rediscovering a Picturesque America, will be published soon.

Highlands Blaze

“I’m not sure what I’d be doing today if I hadn’t answered the call to hike on the summit of Max Patch,” Wurman says. “I discovered a passion for art like I’d never had before.”

Mike Wurman, Asheville, mikewurmanfineart.com and preservationthroughart.org. The artist will participate in the Kenilworth Artists Association Studio Tour happening Saturday, Oct.  8 and Sunday, Oct. 9, 10am-5pm. For a map of studio stops, see kenilworthartists.org. Wurman’s art is represented by Marquee Gallery (36 Foundy St. in the River Arts District, marqueeasheville.com) and at Number 7 Arts (2 West Main St., Brevard, number7arts.org).

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