Recently, a group of Jacksonville’s finest artists were challenged by staff at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens to reinterpret masterworks in the Museum’s Permanent Collection while shining a spotlight on one of our region’s most important assets, the St. Johns River.
Reflections: Artful Perspectives on the St. Johns River, on view through October 18, is presented in collaboration with the Cultural Fusion Year of the River, an initiative bringing together more than fifty institutions to raise awareness of the St. Johns River as the “cultural current” of our city. Throughout 2015 there will be exhibits, performances, and special events across the Jacksonville area that will highlight the importance of the St. Johns River as a driver for economic development, recreation, tourism, and quality of life throughout Northeast Florida.
Selected artists were assigned Florida-themed works in the Museum’s Permanent Collection. Asked to view these masterworks through a contemporary lens, the artists created “responses” to the historic works, merging past, present, and future in thoughtful ways. The exhibition presents each original work of art alongside its reinterpretation, allowing visitors to consider not only the point of view of each artist, but their own personal connection to Florida’s natural resources as well. It is not surprising that the resulting exhibition strikes a powerful balance between the majesty and fragility of Florida’s environment, which even today remains the subject of hotly contested debates concerning the balance between progress and preservation.
Printmaker Emily Arthur was asked to reinterpret an image of Florida rats (Neotoma Floridana) (1841) by noted artist John James Audubon (1785-1851). Produced as part of The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, this original watercolor is one of over one hundred and fifty images Audubon produced to document American mammals. “Within the history of printmaking, lithography, etching, and screen print have been used to publish botanical and ornithological illustrations for the colonizing purposes of naming, identification, capture, and collection,” says Arthur. “My contemporary work in printmaking seeks to change that perspective from subjugation of the land to a forward-thinking perspective of how plant and animal species carry the story of human impact on environment. Both plants and animals serve a central role in maintaining diverse, healthy ecosystems as well as being indicators of human impact on our natural environment.”
One of Florida’s first environmentalists, artist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), witnessed firsthand how quickly “progress” could encroach on the delicate balance of nature. When industrialist and real estate developer Henry Flagler (1830-1913) launched St. Augustine’s tourist market with the construction of the Ponce de Leon Hotel in 1885, Heade was hired as one of the hotel’s on-site artists, creating souvenir paintings for sale to the influx of visitors. While Heade admired Florida’s natural resources, he also lamented their disappearance. Writing under a pseudonym, Heade mourned the likely disappearance of Florida’s lush landscape, as well as some of its first residents like sea turtles and manatees. His painting The St. Johns River (c. 1890) is one of the Cummer Museum’s most popular works.
Like Heade, painter Allison Watson considers herself an environmentalist. “My objective is to bring awareness of the fragility of the land and the need to preserve these sacred places,” she says. “I grew up on the bank of the St. Johns River. I still kayak the river or hike nearby trails as often as I can for photographic reference, inspiration, and pleasure. These experiences and the beauty of these wild and mysterious places have influenced me profoundly and are reflected in my work.”
Article written by Holly Keris