Preserving a Picturesque America With Conservationist Scott ‘Doc’ Varn

Today’s guest, Scott ‘Doc’ Varn, founded Preserving a Picturesque America, a nonprofit that fuses art and history to conserve America’s natural beauty.

Preserving a Picturesque America With Conservationist Scott ‘Doc’ Varn

What’s more exciting than an epic treasure hunt, searching for America’s wild places? Today’s guest, Scott “Doc” Varn, is the founder and executive director of Preserving a Picturesque America (PAPA). Based in Asheville, NC, this unique organization upholds the conservation work begun by Victorian artist-explorers, who documented America’s unspoiled natural beauty with prose and illustrations. Their expeditions paved the way for PAPA and its contemporary conservation efforts, which are equal parts adventure and art.

The idea for PAPA emerged when Doc, a woodcut and watercolor artist, stumbled across a popular 19th-century book of scenic engravings while searching for prints of his home in Western North Carolina. Edited by famed Romantic poet William Cullen Bryant, Picturesque America features 900 wood engravings and 50 steel engravings alongside colorful essays describing the scenery. Initially serialized before being bound in two volumes, the bestselling book brought tourism to America and helped spark the country’s conservation movement after the Civil War. It also inspired Doc to found PAPA and discover the forgotten secrets of the county’s first travel guide.

Using maps and original illustrations from Picturesque America, Doc and his team of writers, historians, and artists hunt for the exact location of the book’s images. These spots are sometimes hard to find, but Doc uncovers clues by chatting with locals and absorbing regional history as he travels. Tracing Picturesque America’s footsteps, artists and writers working with PAPA document these rediscovered places with prose, sketches, and plein air paintings.

Watch the PBS episode on PAPA, The Land We Live In, to learn more about Doc and his expeditions through scenic America. The episode delves into Doc’s quest to find locations along the French Broad River, which flows through Tennessee and North Carolina, his home state. Doc uses the French Broad chapter of Picturesque America as a guide, supplementing his trek with word-of-mouth clues from residents and local historians. PAPA’s book, Rediscovering a Picturesque America, is their version of the original French Broad chapter, a modern retelling of the classic Victorian travelogue.

Doc’s work is on view at the Ferguson Family YMCA in Chandler, NC, through Aug. 31, 2024. Presented in partnership with ArtsvilleUSA, the exhibit also showcases prints from the original Picturesque America.

Key Points From This Episode:

  • The history of PAPA and the unifying factor of America’s natural beauty
  • How Doc and his team find new spaces worthy of conservation
  • Where Doc developed the skills necessary for his conservation work
  • How the process of conservation and preservation works
  • How PAPA find like-minded artists with similar goals
  • Understanding our place in history through documentation of old and new
  • The PBS documentary: bringing PAPA to a screen near you!
  • Membership information and where to view their work online


“I’ve always wanted [my work] to tie back into my love of nature and to find something that would make a larger difference. That’s what PAPA has given to me.” — Scott “Doc” Varn [0:15:02]

“We don’t want the convenient spot. We want the most amazing spot we can possibly find. Because [we are] sharing that with Americans that had no idea how vast or wonderful the natural wonders of the world [are], specifically in America.” — Scott “Doc” Varn [0:17:10]

Longer Quotes:

“Recently, the tools have gotten better to do the research. A lot less old-fashioned maps, a little more Google, but ultimately, the thing that helps us find all these locations more than anything is the individuals that live there and the historians that are taking care of their own backyards. That’s one of the great things about the movement that’s happened with PAPA is the engagement, not just with the local artists but the historians, the conservationists there that want to take care of their own backyard.” — Scott “Doc” Varn [0:12:51]

“The joy of this entire process is that we are following in the footsteps, sometimes the paddle strokes, but definitely the brush strokes of these early adventure artists. Because how it starts is that we’re really doing it in very similar ways to the way they did in the 1870s. We’ve lost our connection with so much of the natural world in America, just as they were coming to discover it for the first time. So, I follow in similar steps that they did.” — Scott “Doc” Varn [0:15:46]

Scott “Doc” Varn on Facebook —

Preserving a Picturesque America (PAPA) —

America: The Land We Live In —

Blue Danube Productions —

Artsville Podcast —

Scott “Sourdough” Power —

Louise Glickman —

Daryl Slaton —

Crewest Studio —

Sand Hill Artists Collective (SHAC) —