Sarasota has an art history, how about a future?

by Joan Altabe

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In the beginning… Soldiers returning from WWII came to town to make art their life. One of those soldiers was Syd Solomon, whose legs were frostbitten during the Battle of the Bulge. He was told to live in a warm climate and came to Sarasota on the first day of 1946. Solomon stayed on into old age to become an internationally recognized painter known for his abstract renditions of the area’s light and land. “When I landed in Sarasota, it was the high point of my life,” he told me in an interview in 1988.

Solomon knew at once that the town was for him because its art scene was already active and well-known. And throughout the years, artists have been drawn to Sarasota for its natural beauty and for the attention paid to art making.

Syd Solomon Dabbert Gallery

"Joust" by Syd Solomon 1951– Gouache (Dabbert Gallery, Sarasota)

You might say our art history began in 1931, when art lover John Ringling, whose circus wintered in Sarasota, founded his museum, along with the School of Fine and Applied Arts of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art – known today as the Ringling School of Art and Design. Staffed by 15 faculty members, the school attracted landscape and marine painters from the North.

But even before Ringling’s school began to draw World War II veterans intent on studying art under the G.I. Bill of Rights, the Farnsworth School of Art opened in Sarasota in 1941, attracting students from the United States and Canada and from as far away as the Dutch East Indies.

The Farnsworth School was founded by the husband and wife team of Helen Sawyer and Jerry Farnsworth, two New York City artists with established reputations.

Helen Sawyer Dabbert Gallery

"Soriee" by Helen Sawyer – Oil on Board (Dabbert Gallery, Sarasota)

Sawyer’s New York exhibit credits included the Whitney Museum of American Art, which acquired her work. Many of her paintings have been reprinted for greeting cards by the American Artists Group. Farnsworth’s work also is in the collections of the Whitney, as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His portrait paintings – 23 of which were reprinted for Fortune Magazine and 10 for Time Magazine – included likenesses of three presidents: Truman, Roosevelt and Harding.

The couple opened their school in a leaky, made-over cleaning and pressing shop, later they moved it over a garage and then into the original post office in the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport. Students flocked to the school, and over the next 30 years, more than 5,000 came – ultimately to a location on Higel Avenue on Siesta Key. By 1970, classes had to be limited to about 35 students with tuition costs beginning at $60 for a two-week period.

Farnsworth students were so serious about their work, Sawyer told the Herald-Tribune in 1970, “If anyone would ever hum or whistle while they worked, they would be hissed.” Many of these students liked Sarasota so much, they made it their home, and in the process, made the town’s reputation as an art center.

Jerry Farnsworth Dabbert Gallery

"Pony Tail" by Jerry Farnsworth – Oil on Canvas (Dabbert Gallery, Sarasota)

One of these was the late William Hartman, the first artist in his home state of Michigan hired under the Federal WPA Program of the Arts. He came to Sarasota in 1946 to study art under the G.I. Bill at the Farnsworth School, the Ringling School and the Hilton Leech Studio, begun by noted landscape watercolorist and teacher for which the school was named.

Leech, a nationally known artist and long-time member of the celebrated American Watercolor Society, came to Sarasota in 1931 and helped organize Ringling’s school. His own school thrives to this day as Friends of the Arts and Sciences.

“Many good artists were already in Sarasota, then,” Hartman told the Herald-Tribune in 1986. He met his future wife, Martha, when both were art students at the Ringling School; they opened their own gallery and school in Sarasota in 1952.

Hilton Leech Dabbert Gallery

"Hidden Lake" by Hilton Leech– Watercolor & Mixed Media (Lee Corbino Galleries, Sarasota)

The couple was so popular that a Herald-Tribune article in the `50s commented: “If there were an election to select royalty in the Sarasota art field, it is safe to say that most people would vote for Sawyer-Farnsworth.”

Speaking about why they chose Sarasota in which to live and work, Sawyer has said, because, “Here we find congenial friends, indoor activities in the fields of music, art, theater; outdoor activities; sailing, fishing, swimming. And such a variety of subject-matter for painting! The swamps and forests of the back country for landscapes and the shores and waters of the Gulf; tropical fruits, flowers, vegetables and sea things, as well as fisher-folk and circus folk. So here we find the spice and substance of the good life.”

The good life in Sarasota inspired paintings that earned Sawyer raves from noted critics. Ernest W. Watson, early editor of American Artist magazine, wrote of Sawyer’s depictions of Siesta Key beaches in 1949: “Always she paints to express a mood rather than to record a particular scene – the threat and fury of seas and sky rather than a particular place in time of storm.” Elizabeth Luther Cary, writing for The New York Times at the time, compared Sawyer’s thunderclouds to Francisco Goya’s and found the 19th-century Spanish master’s wanting. Lauding Sawyer’s skies, she said, “We may think of Goya’s carnival scenes under stormy skies, but I cannot recall any by Goya in which the battle of the two extremes plays such a passionate part.”

Always, though, the good life for Sawyer included teaching, she said. “Teaching never became hum-drum. I fed my students my eyes, my heart. They all swallowed them whole and did the most marvelous things.”
Inspiration for local artists also came from the presence of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, which wintered in Sarasota.

Ringling Poster

Circus Poster

“One of the great things we used to do was put on a circus art show. Only circus subjects. It was great,” said Solomon, who studied with the Farnsworths, in a newspaper article. “Jurors invariably included someone from the circus – one of the great performers or one of the great entrepreneurs like Buddy North. It was a very important theme show, and perfectly natural for Sarasota.”

The likes of Sawyer, Farnsworth, Hartman and Solomon put Sarasota on the art world map, and both art makers and art lovers have been colonizing here ever since. The Sarasota County Arts Council has reported a data base of 3,000 people who define themselves as artists and live and work in Sarasota today.

Yet, something is missing. We boast the birth of an arts community. The question is, have we grown? With all the boutique-y galleries, tourist art and match-the-slipcover decorator stuff, not to mention Sarasota signal monument on our bay front – the monstrous “Unconditional Surrender” – it feels as if fine art has moved to another town.


Joan Altabe

Former visual arts critic for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Bradenton Herald, former New York City art teacher and longtime award-winning art and architecture critic for U.S. and overseas publications, is referenced in “Who’s Who in American Art” and “Who’s Who of American Women” and currently writes as the St. Petersburg art Examiner and National art Examiner. Altabe has written several books including “Art Behind the Scenes” (100 painters in and out of their studio) and “Sculpture off the Pedestal” (25 sculptors in and out of their studio). Both available at Amazon.com.

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