A Fine Madness

By staff November 1, 2003

For several decades the little city of Sarasota boasted a reputation as an artists' colony, a period long-time arts writer Marcia Corbino explored in a chapter of the recent book A History of Visual Art in Sarasota, written with Pat Ringling Buck and Kevin Dean. Not every story about those famous artists made it into the book, however; here Corbino recalls some little-known anecdotes about such outstanding art personalities as Julio de Diego, Fletcher Martin, Boris Margo, Lois Bartlett Tracy, Jon Corbino, Ben Stahl and John Chamberlain. (A History of Visual Art in Sarasota, is available in local bookstores.)

An obscure fishing village on the Gulf Coast of Florida-now a playground for the rich and infamous-once enjoyed a national reputation as a flourishing art colony. What made Sarasota different from other art centers in the state, such as Miami and Palm Beach, was the number of nationally known artists who established studios in the area from the 1940s through the 1970s. They were attracted by the natural wonders of the tropical landscape-the dazzling light, exotic colors and misty shadows. But even more seductive for an artist was the subliminal aura of eccentricity that had invigorated life in the small community since the turn of the century.

In the early 1900s, circus baron John Ringling roamed through Europe searching for Baroque masterpieces to fulfill his fantasy of a world-class museum, while Chicago socialite Mrs. Potter Palmer reinvented herself as a savvy cowgirl, breeding prize-winning cattle at her ranch on the wild west coast of Florida. Later, families of circus midgets walked their tiny dogs along South Osprey Avenue, and the elegant A. Everett Austin, the first director of The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, drove around town in a Rolls Royce flaunting a long cigarette holder. After World War II, author John D. MacDonald and his alter ego Travis McGee plotted complex crimes from McDonald's Siesta Key home, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author MacKinlay Kantor hid in his car on the back roads of Myakka to dictate his Civil War novel Andersonville into a tape recorder.

The idiosyncrasies and peccadilloes of the artists added a mix of buffoonery, insanity, egomania, sex and violence to the ambience of the art colony. Although their personalities were as variable as the unsettled climate, they all had a passionate interest in life-its joys, mysteries and anxieties. Their work has an individual artistic identity and is a significant response to the contemporary world. These artists brought a larger and more eclectic view of art and life to the provincial art scene in Sarasota.

The most flamboyant artist-in-residence was Julio de Diego, who usually appeared in a black wool cape, a bizarre hat, heavy gold rings and necklaces. His odyssey began in Spain, where he was born in 1900, but he had cavorted through France, Mexico and the United States, and for several lustrous years was married to Gypsy Rose Lee. Generally his paintings were politically focused, but in his final years in Sarasota he exhibited biographical scenes of luscious paganism in bold, sensuous colors.

Julio had a whimsical sense of drama and entertained guests at dinner parties with a foolish game he liked to play. "I take a big cloth napkin and put it in front of my face like I pretend it was a theater curtain. Then every time I lift the curtain, I appear with a new face. Sometimes I announce what kind of faces they are going to be-like a woman who is against modern art," he once explained.

Like many artists, Julio was interested in film as an art form. He collaborated with local resident Jay Starker on an educational film titled Julio de Diego-Painting in Egg Tempera. In the last scene he paints faces on a girl's bottom and watches her saunter across the room with all the painted eyes winking at every step.

Julio was an imaginative raconteur, and the art crowd congregated on his patio at Alameda Way to listen to his stories. A favorite was about the games artists played at his soirees during World War II. The guests who came to his studio at 65 W. 56th St. in New York City were mostly refugees, such as Man Ray, Peggy Guggenheim, Andrés Segovia, Anais Nin and Max Ernst (father of Jimmy Ernst, who was a prominent member of the Sarasota art colony in the 1970s). The evening began with films compiled by Joseph Cornell, who searched the junk shops on Sixth Avenue for stills from silent movies and objects to use in his magical boxes. Then they played a game of disclosure. As Julio once described it:

"André Breton, the surrealist who wrote all kinds of manifestos, was the host. He spoke no word of English, so everything was conducted in French with people translating. Breton would sit and look at the circle of people around him. Then he would point at one person and say, 'Could you tell me honestly, actually and sincerely when and how you..' He would end the sentence with some kind of erotic act that offered all kinds of possibilities. It was asked so seriously that the person became completely transfixed and started to talk and tell what happened in his or her life. Everybody answered with such a sincerity that it was fascinating."

Julio invited his Woodstock friend Fletcher Martin to one of these parties. Fletcher was a tall, tough hombre with a bandito mustache and a crusty voice, who had the stamina of a cowpuncher and the wariness of a riverboat gambler. He painted macho canvases of sailors, boxers and cowboys in action. When he became a member of the Sarasota art colony in the 1970s, Julio indiscreetly recounted Fletcher's epiphany at the soiree. "Fletcher was an agnostic and said no one would tell the truth about these things. But Breton spotted him, pointed at him and asked a question about his sexual fantasies. Fletcher's face got completely immobile. His eyes were wide open. With a trembling voice he started talking. It was absolutely incredible that he was able to talk in the way that he did. I think it was the drama of the whole thing that made people react like that. All the silent faces and André sitting at a table lit by one candle."

Although no one ever questioned any of Julio's outrageous stories, some of the artists were cantankerous and aggressive with their peers. The surrealists Boris Margo and Max Ernst had a serious confrontation in the early 1940s, one that involved the international art world. Boris was an immigrant from the Ukraine, who exhibited his paintings in New York City at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery, Art of This Century. He created strange landscapes with twisted organic images and a spongy texture using a process called decalcomania. These spontaneous images were the result of coating a flat surface with paint, pressing a blank paper or canvas into the paint and then peeling it off before the paint was dry. When Boris was credited as being the first to use this technique, Max immediately challenged this claim by insisting that he was the first to use decalcomania. Artists, dealers and historians were immersed in the wrangling as paintings were compared, dates checked and memories probed. Finally it was documented that Boris had exhibited his decalcomania paintings as early as 1934-five years before Max.

In the late 1960s Boris was persuaded by the charismatic painter Lois Bartlett Tracy to build a rustic house and studio on Van Gogh Avenue in her Englewood art colony, Artist Acres. He lived simply, with minimal furniture, as a philosophical statement against worldly possessions. In Russia Boris had once sung in the chorus of an Eisenstein film, and at parties-after a few vodkas with pepper-the egotistical artist sang in an operatic voice and recited Russian poetry. Lois remembers him as a giant of a man who loved life. "He was not very practical, and he was very demanding. Always ordering people around. He liked to kiss women, so I was always ducking."

My husband Jon Corbino, the irascible artist who was known for his powerful paintings of conflict and violence, led a quiet life in Sarasota until a clique of local artists formed a conspiracy against him. Jon had a prestigious reputation in the international art world, and these artists were consumed with jealousy when Jon received much publicity and sold many paintings at a solo exhibition at the Art League of Manatee County in 1961. Jon agreed to have this exhibition only because he was captivated by Helen F. McKelvey-a tiny little lady with sparkle, energy and enthusiasm-who was being forced out of her job as director of the Art League because of her age. She wanted to leave in "a burst of glory" by having a spectacular exhibition.

Again Jon upset the local status quo when he persuaded his Chicago dealer, Frank J. Oehlschlaeger, to open a gallery on St. Armands Circle. Some local artists were enraged to see work by nationally and internationally known artists competing with their work on their territory, and they influenced the two local art critics to write negative reviews of Jon's exhibitions at the gallery. Although his friends advised him to ignore the insolence of the local writers, the Sicilian artist was always on the alert for treachery and vengeance. He drafted several letters to one reviewer, calling him a "shrunken beetle brain" who wrote "sniveling trash." The aggravated artist, who always slept with a machete next to his bed, ended one letter with a threat: ".you have taken a job of back biting.I was brought up to bite back. Let me know how you want to play?" Fortunately a fight was avoided as his friends convinced him not to mail any of his letters. Instead they wrote letters to the editor denouncing the critic, and every letter was published.

But in the tribal tradition of his ancestors, nothing was ever forgiven or forgotten, and Jon had his revenge at a cocktail party held at a Siesta Key house on a canal. He noticed a group of people huddling outside the perimeter of the other guests and asked Sarasota artist and teacher Jerry Farnsworth who they were. Jerry replied, "Local artists. And that's Ken Donahue in the center, the new director of the Ringling Museum."

It was common knowledge that the new director was under the influence of the local art pack. As Jon had not met him, he charged across the lawn toward the group. The artists scattered like confetti, leaving the new director standing alone. Although no one at the party could hear the conversation, they watched in astonishment as Jon began shaking his finger in the director's panic-stricken face. As he backed away from the irate artist, Ken was getting dangerously close to the edge of the sea wall. The hostess, aware that he might tumble backwards into the canal at any moment, bolted across the lawn and rescued the hapless victim. Although Jon never revealed what he said to Ken, he and Jerry often laughed about the incident that they wished had ended with a splash.

Ben Stahl, who was a prolific and successful magazine illustrator, was another highly visible member of the Sarasota art colony known for his scrappy personality and outrageous comments. In the 1970s he took on the Florida State Legislature, and the bellowing was heard all the way to Tallahassee. In 1967 when Claude Kirk was elected the first Republican governor of the state of Florida since 1872, he asked Ben to paint his portrait to hang in the Capitol Building with portraits of all the other governors. By the time Ben's bill for the portrait reached the predominantly Democratic legislature, Kirk was out of office, and the Democrats refused to pay for a portrait of a Republican governor. Ben kept pounding the politicians until the Republican party took up a collection to pay for the portrait.

Ben and his family moved into a luxurious home on Siesta Key in 1953. It was the first Sarasota commission for fledgling architect Victor Lundy. The house had extensive glass walls but no place to hang paintings, which immediately elicited complaints from the artist. "That house was such a horrible mess that it took Ella and me all of 10 or 15 years to rework it, change it to make it livable," he said. "In itself it was very beautiful. But it was an impracticality in glass and stone. As soon as you have pure art, it's not going to be livable."

However, the glass house on the beach became the center of social life for the art colony when the Stahls were in residence. The host often played a dirty trick on guests by hiding a tape recorder near the front door to record comments on the house and other conversations, which were sometimes embarrassing when played back as part of the evening's entertainment.

Ben was one of the original founders of the Famous Artists School, a popular correspondence course for amateur painters. In 1975 he reached a larger audience as the star of a 26-segment television course in painting titled Journey Into Art. Each half-hour session was a spontaneous performance, which might include a discussion on his philosophy of art, a demonstration of techniques, or off-the-cuff advice that would not be tolerated in a conventional art school. "Sometimes I turn around and actually raise hell with the audience," Ben said. "If you can't do this, throw away your brushes and quit. You're not ever going to amount to anything. You've got to either do it or forget it. If you can't get it right, don't fool around with it."

Like Julio and Ben, the sculptor who assembled used auto parts into internationally acclaimed works of art also had film credits on his resume. When John Chamberlain first came to Sarasota in the late 1970s, he was working on a film script titled The Secret Life of William Shakespeare. The basic plot was built around the premise that Shakespeare was suffering from writer's block and living in an institution trying to get "rearranged." A box of index cards was filled with scenes other people had suggested. "It's a sort of a communal kind of film, not written dialogue, just ideas," explained Chamberlain. "Instead of giving a lot of lines, I give a lot of suggestions. It's a very involved project. I changed my mind from a $100,000 campy little art movie to a $4 million number with a real director." Several years earlier John had completed a film titled The Secret Life of Hernando Cortez, starring Ultra Violet and Taylor Mead. One night he showed the film to a group of artists and friends at Syd Solomon's studio. No one knew what to expect, but the most memorable scene was a sexual encounter between John and Ultra Violet in the branches of a tree.

In 1966 he showed this film during lunch hour at the Rand Corporation, a think tank in Santa Monica. The tattooed sculptor was briefly an artist-in-residence at the research and development facility, where a brilliant staff ponders questions ranging from where to build dikes to the treatment of depression. The film was not favorably received. "The powers that be terminated the showing of this movie because there was a little skin in it," John once explained. "They were scared that showing films with skin would get back to the Senate floor and they wouldn't get any funds or something. Then I got a few people on my side because Rand is a think tank where the unthinkable is supposed to be thought about."

Artists often find themselves isolated in a hostile world. Although residents of Sarasota have always been more amused than annoyed at unconventional behavior, John expressed the predicament of the contemporary artist in one of his kaleidoscopic comments in a 1980 interview. "Artists are just like everybody else. Except in this little quirky thing where they have been able to annex their insanity into something that is much more of a positive social redeeming factor than say going out and wiping out 15 people. The insanity is what art is about. Because it is the sharing of the insanity that hasn't been suppressed. If you were just to play it out in life itself, you'd probably get yourself killed or put away. But in art it's looked up to, considered as a genuine piece of information."

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