By: Jan Engoren Contributing Writer
Three years in the making, the Boca Raton Museum of Art presents “Imagining Florida,” an exhibit featuring more than 200 paintings and photographs by both well-known and lesser-known artists and photographers focusing on Florida.
What they have in common is capturing the universal theme of this southernmost state in all its whims and peculiarities.
The show is curated by Jennifer Hardin and Gary Monroe, who wrote the definitive book on The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters.
Paintings by two of the original Florida Highwaymen, Alfred Hair, (Florida Hurricane) and Harold Newton (Pink Cloud) are on display as part of the exhibit. Both were students of the Ft. Pierce-based painter, Albert Ernest (Beanie) Backus, whose work is also on display.
The work, on loan from museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as well as from private collections, brings to life the Old Florida, one of nature, its flora and fauna, pristine beaches, wildlife and man-made curiosities from the 18th to the mid-20th century.
Some of the well-known artists include Milton Avery, John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer, while visitors will also recognize the renowned photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Bruce Mozert and Robert Frank (known for his book “The Americans”).
Many of these artists and photographers were drawn to Florida for its natural beauty, its exotic nature and untamed Everglades – the only place on earth where alligators and crocodiles lived side by side.
The images document the unfolding of the state’s history and its peoples – including the coming of Henry Flagler, along with artist Martin Johnson Heade who founded an art colony in St. Augustine, the building of Vizcaya by James Deering, a patron of the arts, the WPA mural project, the Seminoles and other natives peoples, and African American communities in Maitland and Eatonville (home of writer Zora Neale Hurston).
“It was a challenge to condense 200 years of art making into a selection of approximately 70 paintings and 100-plus photographs,” said Irvin Lippman, executive director of the museum.
“But, it’s a compelling show, illustrating the diverse and eclectic elements of Florida,” he said. “Artists come here for a variety of reasons: Heath because of health, Winslow because of fishing and John Singer Sargent in 1917 at the invitation of James Deering.”
“Each artist finds a special memory of Florida,” Lippman said. “People will be impressed that artists have found the subject of Florida to be of interest for two centuries – well before the current-day Miami art fairs.”
Of particular interest to Boca Raton residents may be the photograph by Bunny Yeager of Bettie Page posing provocatively in a leopard print leotard flanked by two leopards at Africa USA, an African-themed amusement park in Boca Raton that closed in 1961.
Another telling photograph is titled, “Unidentified developer with a scale model of the Longboat Harbour condominium development,” taken in 1969 by Joseph Steinmetz, capturing an unconsciously prescient moment in time.
The show doesn’t shy away from some of the harsher realities of Florida life before and during segregation.
Artist George Snow Hills’s 1938 mural study “Building the Tamiami Trail” depicts a black chain gang at a time when enforced incarceration and labor were not uncommon and Madeline Hewes’s 1948 painting “Florida Chain Gang,” reinforces that point.
Artist Jules André Smith founded the Maitland Art Center in 1937 (now an historic landmark) and depicted African-American life in that city and in neighboring Eatonville, at that time a self-governing black township founded by freed slaves.
The exhibit culminates with Garry Winogrand’s 1969 photograph of the Apollo lift-off, symbolizing a new era for the state of Florida.
Also on display are material culture objects, such as the hand-painted photographs of Parrot Jungle and Man with Jumping Dolphin, from Marineland Dolphin Adventure, pink flamingoes and a mounted standing alligator lamp, circa 1910.
“There is a nostalgic and totemic aspect to these pieces of Florida memorabilia,” said Monroe. “These objects conjure up deeper thoughts than pure sentimentality and people can relate to them.”
“Our goal is to shine a light on what Florida was,” said co-curator Monroe, a Florida native. “It’s not just the public image, but to go beyond and show the gambit of what is good, bad and ugly.”
“Imaging Florida imparts a sense of our wacky and wonderful state,” he says. “Art inspires imagination. Anything the visitor takes away comes not from the work itself, but from their own imagination.”
“You can’t help but love Florida – it’s built on dreams and hyperbole all of which is manifested in this show,” Monroe said.
“Imagining Florida” runs through Mar. 24. For more information visit bocamuseum.org or call 561-392-2500.
The museum presents two related exhibitions: Michael Smith’s Excuse Me!?! … I’m Looking for the “Fountain of Youth,” and Daniel Faust: Florida Photos from the 1980s, also running through Mar. 24.