That Old Florida Magic

By Pam Daniel December 1, 2009

Remembering Eden

In this city of the arts, I’ve developed an artistic passion of my own—for works that capture the sights and feelings of old Florida. Below, roseate spoonbills in a mangrove forest, from Sarasota's Estate Sales Outlet; a lithograph from the 1940s.

I was prowling around a little resale shop, where a gargoyle with cold green eyes glared down at a Queen Anne table set with Limoges china, when my eye caught a flash of pink and gold in the corner. I looked up and, I swear, my heart stopped—there hung a painting of a larger-than-life-sized pair of roseate spoonbills, in all their pink and white feathered glory, perched on the twisted roots of a mangrove forest above a sliver of turquoise water.

It looked like it was from the 1960s; and the scene evoked a long-ago Florida—but one that still survives in the Jim Neville Preserve off Siesta Key, just across from our house. From our kayak, George and I have watched spoonbills feeding there, and the two in the painting could have been their twins. Just as important, the painting was huge—more than five feet tall—exactly the size I needed for the big wall over our sofa.

Fifteen minutes later, I was making arrangements to have it delivered, and another piece of Floridiana had joined my little collection. As you’ll read in this annual Visitor’s Issue, Sarasota is famous for its artistic riches, with one of the country’s largest art museums, a prominent college of art and design, and galleries that serve sophisticated collectors. I am anything but the latter, but in the 20-some years I’ve lived here, I’ve developed an artistic passion of my own, for works that capture the sights and feeling of old Florida, that tropical wonderland that seduced early explorers with its natural beauty.

What started me off was a children’s book, The Story of Florida, published in 1947. It had belonged to my grandmother, who spent the winters in a Spanish bungalow on Oak Street in downtown Sarasota; and the original lithographs that illustrated it were charming, child-like depictions of iconic Florida scenes, from a hurricane sending cows and cats flying through swirling orange-and-purple skies to Seminoles in patchwork clothes paddling by alligators and wading birds in an Eden-green swamp. When I moved to Sarasota, my brother, an art dealer, suggested I should have the illustrations framed.

Since then, my collection has grown—in large part thanks to our city’s many thrift shops and garage sales—to include dozens of vintage Florida objects, prints and paintings. They range from a magnificent six-foot-long sailfish to hand-colored photographs of pastoral scenes from the 1920s. Some of the artists were rank amateurs with little talent but a kind of primitive charm; a few actually had respectable credentials. But none of my finds was expensive, and their value is mainly in the eyes of besotted collectors like me. I’ll never make a profit from my treasures (and even if I could, I wouldn’t part with a single one), but I do like to tease my kids that when I’m gone, they can hold the garage sale of  the century.

Like me, Bill Hartman of William Hartman Galleries on Palm Avenue loves old Florida artworks; but unlike me, he’s an expert who’s intimately familiar with the state and region’s history and artists. “We’ve always attracted good artists,” he says. “In the 1890s and early 1900s, they came to paint the Florida landscape.”

Flooded with sunlight and color, Florida was like no other state in the nation—the last frontier, a still primeval wilderness of swamps and forests and endless beaches, abounding with life in new and wondrous forms. Thousands of birds filled the skies at sunset; the clear waters seethed with fish; and the warm, moist air was heavy with sensual promise.

That Florida has virtually disappeared, says Hartman, erased by dredging, construction and the population explosion of the last century. “I almost feel sick to my stomach,” he admits, when he contemplates that all we have now are “traces” and “tiny fragments” of the paradise that was. But he believes the appeal of that vanished splendor is stronger than ever.

“We call it nostalgia, but it’s more than that,” he says. “It’s pride of place.” In the last few years, he’s been digitally restoring vintage Sarasota photos, and they’ve sparked tremendous response from buyers who are “fascinated” by the city’s past and “avid” to connect with it. Newcomers fall in love with Sarasota, he says, and then “they want to know all about this new love.”

In fact, says Hartman, “the market for [vintage Florida art] grew exponentially during the recent boom years—people were collecting across the board, not just the most valuable works.” Florida art was so hot that fans paid thousands of dollars for anything by the Highwaymen, those itinerant black Florida painters who in the 1950s sold their garishly colored landscapes from the back of trucks. With the real estate collapse, demand has fallen, but Hartman predicts it will rise again when the economy recovers and more newcomers arrive.

Wondering if this time I’ve snagged a real treasure—maybe it’s worth thousands, like those Highwaymen pictures!—I ask him to look at a photograph of my spoonbills.

His verdict—gently delivered: My painting is “decorative” art, probably commissioned by an interior designer who wanted a local scene for a client’s home. Yes, it’s pretty, but no real art collector would take it seriously. Still, for the price—a few hundred dollars—he says, “You got a lot of picture and frame.” I should be disappointed, but I’m not. Whatever their provenance or value, those spoonbills in the mangrove forest, like my other bits and pieces of Florida past, will bring a bit of context into our modern lives, reminding us of the fast-vanishing beauty and romance of this land we love. z

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