“Imagining Florida” Explores State’s History and Mythology at Boca Museum

Joseph Steinmetz Collection

Of all the artists selected for inclusion in the Boca Raton Museum of Art’s sprawling “Imagining Florida” exhibition, it is photographer Joseph Janney Steinmetz—not a familiar name to me—who best encapsulates the state’s perpetual-vacation mythos in the middle of the 20th century.

His photograph of a family of five having a picnic on the beach on Longboat Key could be a quintessential Florida postcard, or a promotional image from the Keys’ tourist development council: There’s Dad, in swim trunks, cooking up hot dogs on a portable grill; Mom, toweling off after a sojourn in the water; and children, in inner tubes and beach chairs, snacking on some of our state’s bounteous fresh fruits. And behind and around them, palm trees—our state’s flowering symbol of coastal escapism.

It looks almost staged in its nuclear, lily-white “Leave it to Beaver” 1950s era, but it’s not for us locals to make such snarky comments: Florida was, and is, the No. 1 vacation destination in the United States. For the family in this photo, this was probably one of two weeks a year they could break away from the workaday grind of office life and homemaking in some freezing northeastern ‘burb. Wouldn’t you want to go to a beach in paradise and grill hot dogs?

I could have picked virtually any of the 200-plus works in “Imagining Florida” as an entry point in this review, because so many of them are indicative of the state’s singular appeal, its folklore, its history. The images in the show are invariably infused with wonder (at the landscapes, once unspoiled) or curiosity (at the people and the fauna). The best of them also have a point of view and a stylistic idiosyncrasy. As Executive Director Irvin Lippman told me during my visit to the show, the images are “eclectic and diverse, as Florida has been and continues to be.”

Robert Havell after John James Audubon (American, 1793 – 1878 ), Zenaida Dove, 1833, hand-colored etching and aquatint on Whatman paper, Gift of Mrs. Walter B. James 1945.8.162

The show follows an inexact chronology, starting in the 18th century with whom we’d call “visiting artists” today—naturalists like Mark Catesby, whose “Magnolia Grandiflora” from his colossal Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands is on display under glass; and John James Audubon’s essential avian watercolors, his Zenaida doves from the Keys as important and elegant as his bird likenesses elsewhere in the world. This was an exotic place before the arrival of European colonizers, and artists driven to documenting its riches seemed equally intrigued by the indigenous peoples, painted by artists like Charles Bird King and George Catlin as proud warriors—albeit romanticized—in all their finery.

Perusing the paintings portion of the exhibition, it’s notable how many legendary artists considered Florida to be a necessary excursion. There’s work here by Winslow Homer, who found poetry in a dripping Spanish moss tree; by Louis Comfort Tiffany, who was entranced by the pioneering structures of St. Augustine; and by Frederic Remington, whose “U.S. Troops Practicing Marching in the Palmetto” is painted with characteristic reverence, a battalion of endlessly shrinking soldiers surrounded by tall trees and scrub pine. There are evocative works by masters John Singer Sargent and Doris Lee, and the list really does go on and on.

The variety in the paintings gallery alone encompasses Virginia Berresford’s roiling, kaleidoscopic nature images to Steven Dohanos’ folkloric watercolors of the Barefoot Mailman, seen in one memorable image paddling a canoe near a bank of three lazing alligators, commissioned for a mural in West Palm Beach. Ralston Crawford’s geometrically precise “St. Petersburg to Tampa,” an oil painting of the famous Overseas Highway, is a masterpiece of perspective, and is striking for its lack of human activity, while George Snow Hill’s “Building the Tamiami Trail” lends its import from its depiction of the slave labor it took to construct the thoroughfare—a reminder that in Florida, as elsewhere, industry progressed literally on the backs of the marginalized.

The photography section is just as diverse, if quirkier, opening as it does with Bruce Mozert’s hilarious images of models gardening, barbecuing and sunbathing underwater. Commissioned as promotional stills for the Silver Springs Theme Park, they call to mind Weeki Wachee and its fantastical wish-fulfillment: Before there were beautiful mermaids eating apples underwater, there was the dream of aquatic archery.

There’s also local flavor—call it kitsch, if you prefer—in action shots of leaping dolphins in Marineland, and Bunny Yeager’s seriously unsafe cheesecake shot of Bettie Page bookended by live leopards at Africa U.S.A., and Joseph Janney Steinmetz’s documentation of a Tupperware party. But other photographers who passed through our state, often in paid positions with the Farm Security Administration, trained an unflinching lens on the poverty that the sun-baked images of Steinmetz obscured. Arthur Rothstein’s “Migrant Family,” from 1937, evokes John Steinbeck in its direct-to-camera look at a family upended by the Depression. Gordon Parks offered inspiring photographs of African-Americans excelling in sports and education despite a deck stacked against them, and Marion Post Wolcott captured both sides of the state’s economic divide. In one image, a mother and three children stand outside their one-room shack, which the museum’s curators have shrewdly placed above an image of a dapper man exiting a lavish resort that looked to me like The Breakers.

The exhibition culminates with a gallery of “material culture,” which includes irresistible Silver Springs TV-dinner trays, an alligator ashtray lamp, and an inn door covered in bottle caps, among other Florida-specific remnants. I’m too young to have seen any of these items before, or the attractions they were promoting. But I wish I had.

Florida was, and still is, a beautiful, messy, conflicted sort of paradise. It takes a wild ambition to attempt to capture all of its history and mythology in one exhibition. “Imagining Florida,” to its extraordinary credit, comes as close as possible.

“Imagining Florida: History and Myth in the Sunshine State” runs through March 24 at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Admission costs $10-$12. For information, call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.