When I mentioned to a handful of artists my plans to check out the "Impressions of Florida" show at Bonnet House recently, one reaction was a dismissive "Oh, old-lady art." The perception, sadly, was that the Bonnet estate's annual juried show is a stuffy, unadventurous affair, something suitable only for Sunday-afternoon painters whom nobody in the local art world takes seriously.
But the juror for this year's exhibition — painter, photographer, and collage artist Janet Gold — had gone out of her way to call the show to my attention, insisting that the work was of a high caliber. Further investigation was necessary.
Upon seeing the admittedly traditional show, I began to sense that what might really be on display here is evidence of art snobbery, in which artists who lavish their attention on local color are looked down upon by artists with much grander ambitions — and pretensions. In other words, provincialism is alive and well and hard at work.
It's a first-rate little exhibit, one that goes a long way toward debunking the idea that there's anything inherently wrong with regional art. Yes, there are plenty of palm trees, but in the best work, we see familiar material in new ways. As usual, the artists themselves fare well when they portray what's in front and all around them. Didn't the impressionists — to name just one example — often just step outside and paint what they saw?
The concept for "Impressions of Florida" has been around in one variant or another for 11 years. Bonnet's in-house curator, Stephen Draft, told me that at different times, the exhibition has accepted entries from all of Florida, from just South Florida, or even from particular Florida counties. The current designation opens the competition to all Florida-based artists, and this year, 34 are represented, for a total of 50 pieces on display in the five small Bonnet House galleries.
Draft has hung the show beautifully, so that there is a subtle flow to the galleries and appropriate interplay among works that are shown in close proximity to one another. And although I might have singled out a couple of different award winners, I can't quibble with the criteria Gold applied in selecting her top three, along with a handful of honorable mentions.
I knew I was in good hands from the beginning, where Rita Houldsworth's Melaleuca Drive, an honorable mention, is on view. It's a mixed-media work in which the artist combines quilted fabric with slivers of bark from the melaleuca trees lining the approach to Bonnet House. Something about the piece feels instinctively right.
A lot of the artists, not surprisingly, focus on elements of the Bonnet estate, and there's plenty to work with. Sandy Dolan's color photograph Irish Oatmeal (another honorable mention) zeroes in on some of the art supplies in the studio of the late Frederic Clay Bartlett, himself an artist as well as former owner of the property and architect of its buildings. Ellen McNally, who has been in all 11 exhibitions, contributes an atmospheric oil of the boathouse you pass on your way in.
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Jane Riles does an impressionist-style watercolor rendering of The Bonnet House Slough, and Karen Eskesen takes a similar approach to the Bonnet House Lake for another watercolor. One of a pair of oils by Vince Neradka captures an array of pots and pans from the Bonnet House kitchen.
Draft sets up an eye-pleasing series of visual echoes in the final gallery, where he has juxtaposed three contrasting views of the aviary in the central courtyard. Thomas Rebek's take is in watercolor; Daniel Routhier goes for a color photograph. And Jane Washburn captures the subject in an oil that she somehow throws into soft focus.
Other artists venture farther afield. An unmistakable Everglades landscape is the subject of Linda Apriletti's oil Three Pines and Paurotis, which is much grander than its title suggests. Nia Nakis gives us a lovely view of another regional attraction, the Morikami in Delray Beach. (She also painted a view of the Bonnet House that snagged a People's Choice award.) A touch of the urban is provided by Marilyn Johansen's detailed watercolor Miami Moment. Ronald Shelley contributes two images of cabbage palms painted in the classic style of the Florida Highwaymen.
That we even have a Bonnet estate for artists to contemplate is something of a wonder. The house and its gardens sit on 35 acres of prime real estate just south of Sunrise Boulevard between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. Fortunately, both Frederic Clay Bartlett and his second wife, Evelyn Fortune Lilly, were artists, and first wife Helen Birch was a poet and composer. So the entire Bonnet compound is steeped in the arts. After "Impressions of Florida" is over, the five galleries it occupies will go back to their primary function, as a showcase for the Bartletts' own art. If you have never been to the regional treasure that is Bonnet House, let this fine little exhibition motivate you to visit.