Florida’s Finest Ambassador and Artist-in-Residence
This is the final post of a 5-part blog (scroll down for earlier posts) about my experiences this spring as Artist-in-Residence and as a Florida’s Finest en Plein Air Ambassador for the 2019 Forgotten Coast en Plein Air, the invitational event held annually in the communities of Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe, Apalachicola, Eastpoint, St. George Island, Carrabelle, and Alligator Point, in Northwest Florida. These coastline communities together with Panama City and all points northward, encompass most of the area of Florida impacted by Hurricane Michael on October 10, 2018.
As Artist-in-Residence, my last tasks were to help hang my work at Cal Allen’s Coastal Art Gallery in Carrabelle, FL, and to give a formal talk about my work at the public reception on Tuesday of event week. I had the day off from my Ambassador duties that Tuesday, which allowed me to visit for the first time, St. Teresa and Alligator Point, at the easternmost edge of the Forgotten Coast. Alligator Point reminded me of the coastal communities of Seagrove Beach and Dune Allen when I first moved here from Colorado in 1980. Many of the roads of St. Teresa and Alligator Point are dirt, and the coastal live oak trees form a thick brush starting low to the ground at the top of the dune, the tops thickly arcing upwards to form a dome over the squatty, single story houses with low roofs, which is smart design for windstorm areas. One street in Alligator Point was closed due to erosion, and I had to detour for a few blocks. I could see more severe erosion near the “neck” of the peninsula, if you want to call it a neck, similar to the erosion at the Stump Hole on Cape San Blas. It is my understanding that barrier islands become islands when the peninsula is eroded through the “neck”.
I had met a resident of St. Teresa in one of the ANERR classes I took during my residency, Mary Balthrop, and she suggested I stop by the FSU Marine Rsearch Lab in St. Teresa, and that I ask one of her former colleagues to give me a tour, so I did. What a bonus! Durene showed me the damage the facility sustained and what they were doing with the amount of recovery funding they had received from the university to date, but she also showed me some of their research projects, which I can’t share because the conclusions are not yet published. That was very interesting to me, because in my younger years I toyed with the idea of a career in marine biology.
For my presentation that night, I spoke of the cycles of nature in constant flux, and presented the hope I found in each situation, from the breach in the peninsula nearly closing already, to the pitcher plants and underbrush coming up from the ashes of the Eastpoint wildfire, the students from Marquette High School in St. Louis, MO, coming to make living shorelines and plant sea oats and do other projects to help the community, and the animals returning, attired in breeding plumage, proof of reason for hope. I talked about the scarped dunes, with the roots of the sea oats and smilax and other flora exposed. I mentioned my amazement that one exposed rhizome was 11 feet long, with root balls every 12″ or so, ready to sprout new sea oats at each root ball,. The exposed roots seemed to me to be a metaphor for the people of the area, their character roots exposed, digging in and digging themselves out, one foot in front of the other. I shared something that happened when I visited Peru, to hike the Salkantay Trail over Apacheta Pass and down to Machu Picchu — I remembered the pack-trains of horses, and how the pack driver would look each hiker in the eye, and say “Buenos Dias”, to each of us individually. Since Hurricane Michael this was the first time I had seen this in the United States, where strangers are paying such close attention to each other, asking you how you are, and how your home is, and looking you straight in the eye when they ask. Normally we bump into each other and barely say “Excuse me”, but people who are solidly grounded seem to be more connected to each other and to everyone they meet. It’s humbling, as an “outsider”, to be greeted so directly and with such caring.
When I finished my presentation, one woman said that her perspective had changed during my talk, and she found herself more hopeful. What more could I ask!!!
(I posted a snippet of unedited, raw video of my presentation in my last blog post.)
A great deal of clean-up has taken place since the storm last October. But there still are mountains of debris on the roadsides of the communities, and in rural areas the marsh grasses are covered with debris. Most places are navigable although there was that detour I had to take in Alligator Point, and there is a long stretch on St. Joseph Peninsula where only one lane is open while the other lane is still being reconstructed, each direction of traffic controlled by a stoplight at both ends.
Massive destruction is everywhere. The few undamaged buildings seemed to be miracles, and suddenly you realize you are looking through the windows at sky on the other side where there should have been a roof or a wall. It is a disappointment our US Congress has failed to approve the much-needed federal funding to help the communities get back on their feet, as of this writing, now 7 months after the storm. Normally federal funds are approved within the first month. No city or county has the funding to survive a Category Five hurricane. Consider if you had to repair or rebuild your city’s infrastructure from the ground up, including the sewer systems, while also having to pay for massive debris removal and rebuilding essential structures. The area needs federal assistance — if everyone reading this each could call their legislators, it might help. Each party is blaming the other.
Even so, the 20 invited professional artists were able to create incredible beauty at the Forgotten Coast en Plein Air. The various collections can be viewed at this link: https://forgottencoastculturalcoalition.wildapricot.org/ART
The four Florida’s Finest en Plein Air Ambassadors were tasked with providing 2-hour one-on-one introductory plein air painting lessons. I was scheduled to teach 3 lessons a day between 9am and 6pm, for 5 days. That translated to teaching from 9am-11am, 1pm-3pm, and 4pm-6pm, 15 students, 15 lessons, 5 days.
All supplies and equipment are provided for the Ambassadors’ introductory plein air painting lessons or “Painting Stations”. Some of the students were accomplished studio painters who did not have much or any plein air experience. One student had not painted since elementary school art class. Some others were novice plein air painters and brought their own equipment.
The weather cooperated, for the most part providing beautiful light for plein air painting. Each day we were assigned to a different community. Mexico Beach was hardest hit by Hurricane Michael, and our location was at the tourist welcome center near the boat canal, which is now housed in a trailer, the building destroyed. There was very little shade anywhere, and it was a hot day, so we set up in the shade of the trailer. Mexico Beach was in the path of Hurricane Michael’s eastern eyewall, so beauty was non-existent. Bulldozers had scraped up debris and then afterwards had smoothed out the land again. The trees were stripped lifeless. A pond remained in the distance, but I did not want to get close enough to be able to smell it. So I asked my student to use her imagination. I asked her to think of the scraped foreground as a field where a crop might have grown. Rows of grass were coming up at the edges of the bulldozer’s shovel tracks. I asked my student to think of the trees as if they were merely dormant, like in the dead of winter. By doing that, we were able to present the scene in a beautiful way, despite the chaos and noise around us. Below is my demo.
The afternoon sun eliminated every bit of shade at the trailer, so for my afternoon students, I set up underneath the bridge where US 98 crosses over the canal. The boat dredging the canal was not nearly as noisy in the afternoon as the nearby generator was during our morning session. For our subject I focussed on an outcropping of palms in the wall of the canal, quite bedraggled from the storm but with new green growth. Below are my demos from the afternoon sessions in Mexico Beach, 9×12 and 6×12.
My other locations were in Port St. Joe and Eastpoint, and 2 days were at the Millpond in Apalachicola. One of my students selected this more complex scene to paint in Port St. Joe.
The paintings at the Millpond in Apalachicola were simpler compositions, varying only slightly, but the lighting changed as the day passed.
It was an honor to be invited to be an Ambassador again. I had served as an Ambassador in 2016 as well as this year. Two of the other Ambassadors also were second-timers, Ruth Squitieri and Cathy Berse, and one was here for the first time, Theresa Grillo Laird. As an instructor, it is difficult to cover very much information in a two-hour lesson, just the basics of starting a plein air painting, so my efforts were aimed at getting a paintbrush in the student’s hand as soon as possible, after showing how to choose a scene and how to crop the scene before starting to paint. In each session I painted the same scene as the student, staying one step ahead of my student, offering tips and suggestions each step of the way. I started all lessons with a value study sketch and showed them a photo app I find useful for checking values, and then we toned our 9×12 canvases and started painting.
During the whole week, I and the three other Ambassadors each displayed five plein air paintings in The Joe Center for the Arts. We were honored with a reception for our exhibit along with the reception for the exhibit of pre-hurricane paintings showing things the way they used to be.
The oil paintings I selected for my Ambassador wall, each available and for sale, were the following:
Being an Ambassador is a grueling schedule, so I was a zombie for the week afterwards attending Plein Air South, an educational conference for plein air painters, following the Forgotten Coast en Plein Air. I served as a volunteer at PAS, which kept me active and engaged; otherwise I might have slept the whole week. The world-renowned faculty included David Boyd, Jr., Greg Barnes, Anne Blair Brown, Bill Farnsworth, Mary Garrish, John Guernsey, Kathleen Hudson, Christine Lashley, Larry Moore, Vicki Norman, Kathie Odom, Lori Putnam, Iain Stewart, and Dawn Whitelaw, and the keynote speaker was Quang Ho. What a treat, not just to rub shoulders with so many of these greats, but to actually know most of them and call many of them my friends!
And that wraps up this series of 5 blog posts. The experience has changed me and has put my fledgeling art career on a steeper trajectory. I finished all responsibilities for my business on May 1 last year, so the first of May marked my first full year as a full-time artist. Onward ho!