Florida Has Been Inspiring Artists Since Long Before Basel

Nov 19, 2018

Hundreds of years before Art Basel brought tens of thousands of spectators to Miami Beach, artists from around the world were already drawn to Florida.

A new exhibit at the Boca Museum of Art called “Imagining Florida: History and Myth in the Sunshine State” features the work of artists who traveled here in the 1700s to capture the state’s wildlife, natural landscape and unique residents. 

The collection — which took three years to compile — includes more than 200 photographs, drawings and paintings dating back centuries.

"It's time for us to see that continuum that leads us to the contemporary art today," said Irvin Lippman, the museum's executive director.

Lippman joined Sundial to talk about some of the pieces in the collection and explain the visual history of Florida.

SUNDIAL: You shared with us this book that contains all the artwork from the exhibition — and on the cover is this photograph of a family visiting a beach in Sarasota. They are in all black attire with their car parked on the beach and an Ohio license plate. Described the photo and why it's indicative of the rest of the exhibition.

LIPPMAN: What's important about that license plate is that it says Ohio 1940. The people who are sitting on the beach are wearing their heavy overcoats. This is a winter scene on the beach. It helps define the whole concept of imagining Florida. Here are people who are coming on their winter vacation from Ohio. Not surprising. They're the ones who developed Naples and much of the west coast of the state, and they're sitting around having their picnic. They're imagining Florida. It's one of many works that I think visitors will find very engaging as they look at what is our visual history.

The exhibition also dives into some of the state's troubled history. This is fascinating. Tell us about the photographs of the construction of the Tamiami Trail.

The most remarkable is a painting that was done during the Works Progress Administration [that] was actually intended as a mural. It's on loan from the Smithsonian. I really doubt that it's ever been on public view, but it shows prisoners wearing their black and white shorts who were pulling high explosives building the Tamiami Trail. It's a remarkable painting.

So yes, the myth and history of Florida is not always about the picturesque — it's also about the reality of how the state was made. There is a Trail of Tears in building that Tamiami Trail that led to the more romantic parts of Florida we'd like to think about.

Something else that's interesting is that a lot of these artists are not from Florida. So they come down and now they are, through their work, trying to create this picture, this representation of what they see. What are your thoughts? Did the artist get the image right of what Florida is?

They got what sometimes the buyer wanted. Think of The Highwaymen who were also in our exhibition: Alfred Hair and Harold Newton. They had a formula for painting the picturesque Florida in the 1950s. It's what people wanted. They bartered these works in the appliance stores and doctor's offices.

They're remarkably beautiful paintings, but, you know, they don't show mosquitoes. They don't show the snakes, and they don't show the alligators. It shows the landscape that we wanted. That's why the exhibition is called the myth and history of the Sunshine State.