Words and art by Rosamond Parrish
So much has been written about the history of St. Augustine and its native peoples; Spanish, French, and English explorers and settlers; entrepreneurs; pirates; and pioneers. The history of the arts and the people who have lived here and painted here is also noteworthy.
People who live in St. Augustine tend to overlook its exceptional light and beauty. Early in the morning, when I like to go downtown, I can sit on the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument grounds and watch the sun rise just to the left of the turret and spread a golden glow over the historic city. The rooftops around me gradually turn to a burnt orange. The still, early morning waters of Matanzas Bay glisten with tiny lights. White stucco buildings startle with their very whiteness, breathtaking in the contrast between their bright walls and the dark, still-shadowed, narrow streets.
Artists rhapsodize over the light in the South of France or Santorini, Greece, but for me, the morning light in St. Augustine is like no other. I reflect, as I take it all in, on how lucky I am to live in such an exceptionally beautiful town, and how lucky—if you can call 40 years of artistic endeavor luck—that I’m able to see this beauty and try to capture it with paint.
We have quite a history of lucky artists who have lived or visited here. In the mid-1500s the French king sent Jacques Le Moyne to our area to paint and send back any images of things of value. Finding no gold, he returned to France with images of native peoples, drawings which are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
William Bartram, the remarkably inquisitive Florida explorer and painter of birds and wildlife, left his mark on this part of the state by discovering plants and winged creatures that had never been seen before by Europeans and then sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm for our incredible variety of water birds and other native life. He likely influenced the noted naturalist and artist John James Audubon to paint roseate spoonbills and osprey.
When the American industrialist Henry Flagler built the Hotel Ponce de León in 1888, he included studio space for several outstanding artists.
Flagler’s guests, mostly tourists from the north, could visit the artists and watch them paint, and perhaps take home an original souvenir. A lively social scene took place on Friday nights in the studios, where eminent artists such as Martin Johnson Heade and Felix de Crano, and others, entertained visitors to sell their work.
After World War II, writer and painter Langston Moffett lived in St. Augustine. His novel, Devil by the Tail, is said to have inspired the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. His enormous, ten-foot canvasses included one of the old Bridge of Lions.
Emmett Fritz, a neighbor with whom I sketched occasionally on Magnolia Street, maintained a studio on St. George Street throughout the mid-to-late 1900s. It is said that he created over 10,000 paintings, and sent them home with tourists, making him the best ambassador for our beautiful town. He frequently nurtured and encouraged young artists in the community, but cautioned, “Don’t give up your day job.”
I moved to St. Augustine from Jacksonville in 1990 partly because the St. Augustine Art Association was such a wonderful place to get to know other creative souls. I opened a small gallery, Colours, in a hole-in-the-wall space behind Booksmith (now sadly gone) and next to Tradewinds Bar.
Toni, the owner of Tradewinds, often brought me Cokes tasting of cigarette smoke from the bar. I paid the rent by selling my work from the first month, and soon was joined by Joe Taylor, a Grumman retiree and prolific recorder in oils of St. Augustine scenes. I moved on a few years later, but Joe kept it going for at least 10 more successful years as a popular meeting spot and Aviles Street gallery.