The Farther South You Go the Further North You Are

What does it mean to be Floridian and how would this manifest itself in art? It’s only in recent years that St. Petersburg, for example, has been able to shed the rep as “God’s waiting room”. The one shared aspect of an identity for many was (how to say this nicely?) a proximity to expiration. This didn’t exactly translate into a collective artistic identity (and God help us if it did).

by Danny Olda

“The farther South you go the further North you are” – a sentiment you’ve probably heard referring to the geography and soul of Florida. While reading a recent issue of the Southern lit mag, Oxford American, I noticed scant mention of Florida, the Southernmost of the contiguous forty-eight. Apparently it takes more than South to be Southern – something Florida hasn’t got. Not that Florida pines to be Southern all that much anyhow.

If not Southern, though, what does it mean to be Floridian and how would this manifest itself in art? It’s only in recent years that St. Petersburg, for example, has been able to shed the rep as “God’s waiting room”. The one shared aspect of an identity for many was (how to say this nicely?) a proximity to expiration. This didn’t exactly translate into a collective artistic identity (and God help us if it did).

WPA kids
WPA: FAP: kids involved in painting and sculptures based upon spirituals: Jacksonville, Florida, Extension Art Gallery

Think of American art history in terms of region: The “Cool School” of Southern California, The New York School, Taos, New Mexico, and so on. Did our contemporary tradition come into existence by way of immaculate conception? Where is our old school?

At this point the Highwaymen likely come to mind. The group of artists known as the Highwaymen is, of course, distinctly Floridian. I’m not going to hate on the group – though their work doesn’t exactly suit my taste, their story and conditions they worked under is fascinating. The history of Florida’s Highwaymen says a lot about race relations, art world economics, class concerns, and so on. However, I’d sooner regard the group as a cultural phenomenon than a cultural heritage. The group began, was exclusive, and ended with nary a tie to Florida’s current contemporary art scene.

Highwaymen Artist Group
Mary Ann Carroll - Highwaymen Artist
To be clear, however, what it means to be Floridian is not the bothersome part. What’s bothersome is the seeming absence of any distinctly Floridian artistic identity. It has taken most of my mental fortitude to avoid the nagging feeling that Florida is America’s identity miscellany file. Think of a record shop, for instance. Vinyl records are separated into a jazz section, rock, R & B. Then there is us: the three for a dollar section. Not that Florida is worth less. Rather, in our section one just has a better chance of finding Marching Band Classics beside The Best of Styx. I hate to say “the one thing we have in common is we’re all different”. It sounds like a meaningless hippy maxim but in this case it may be true or at least all we’ve got.

In his novel Citrus County, Author John Brandon describes Florida, and by extension Florida’s art community, accurately. Florida is a seriously wild state. Otters poke their heads out of sewers while alligators are constantly found in pools. It feels like the forests are waiting for the cities to turn their backs in order to reclaim what’s theirs. Our Sunshine State only has the appearance of being settled; Florida is a state of perpetual struggle. Not only naturally, but sociologically, politically, religiously, financially, and, of course, artistically.

I understand this could sound disparaging. However, isn’t art dialectic, the parade of ideas down through art history, only a centuries long magnificent argument? Maybe in this way, through struggles of all sorts, our peculiarly Floridian identity is a moving target – not so much the sum of our parts as the difference of our differences.

Though Florida may not be included among them, New York, California, Paris, and the rest should be proud of their monolith of an artistic heritage. And even if the South would have us, likely we’d politely excuse ourselves anyhow. I like to think that Pascal’s words are peculiarly Floridian, that “The struggle alone pleases us.”

Danny Olda is our Tampa Correspondent and publisher of
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March 30, 2012 – October 14, 2012
On view at Ringling Museum – Sanford Biggers uses the study of ethnological objects, popular icons, and the Dadaist tradition to explore cultural and creative syncretism, art history, and politics.

March 30, 2012 – October 14, 2012
Ringling Museum of Art

Featured Visiting Artist – View Interview ‎Friday, March 30 at 3:30 pm, Sanford Biggers will present “Speaking of My Work,” in the Ringling College Auditorium. This talk is FREE and open to the public.

A native of Los Angeles, California, and current New York resident, Sanford Biggers uses the study of ethnological objects, popular icons, and the Dadaist tradition to explore cultural and creative syncretism, art history, and politics. An accomplished musician, Biggers often incorporates performative elements into his sculptures and installations, resulting in multilayered works that act as anecdotal vignettes, at once full of wit and clear formal intent. Biggers has won several awards including: The Creative Time Travel Grant, Creative Capital Project Grant, New York Percent for the Arts Commission, Art Matters Grant, New York Foundation for the Arts Award in performance art/multidisciplinary work, the Lambent Fellowship in the arts, the Pennies From Heaven/ New York Community Trust Award, Tanne Foundation Award, Rema Hort Mann Foundation Award Grant, James Nelson Raymond Fellowship from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Camille Hanks-Cosby Fellowship.

Mr. Biggers has also participated in several prestigious national and international artist residencies and fellowships including; Akademie Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, Germany, Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, Poland, Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, California, ARCUS Project Foundation, Ibaraki, Japan, and the Art in General/ Trafo Gallery Eastern European Exchange in Budapest, Hungary. He has been a fellow of the Socrates Sculpture Park Residency, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council World Views AIR Program, the Eyebeam Atelier Teaching Residency, the Studio Museum AIR Program, the P.S. 1 International Studio Program, and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture residency.

Sanford Biggers
"Sweet Funk—An Introspective" at the Brooklyn Museum

Sanford Biggers’ installations, videos, and performances have appeared in venues worldwide including the Tate Britain and Tate Modern, London, the Whitney Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, as well as institutions in China, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Poland and Russia. Sanford has been included in several notable shows such as Prospect 1/ New Orleans Biennial, Illuminations at the Tate Modern, Performa 07, the Whitney Biennial and Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem. He has also had solo exhibitions at Grand Arts, Kansas City, Mary Goldman Gallery, Los Angeles, Kenny Schachter’s ROVE gallery, London, Triple Candie, New York, D’Amelio Terras Gallery, New York, Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, Matrix/Univ.of Berkeley Museum, Berkeley, Zamek Ujazdowski, Warsaw as well as venues in Hungary, Indonesia, Japan.

This exhibition is the result of the Greenfield Prize commission awarded in 2010 by the Hermitage Artist Retreat and the Greenfield Foundation.

Featured Artist: Gale Fulton Ross

My only challenge is what do I want to paint on what day. I paint because I am free to do so; not to become famous. I am grateful for this blessing; I have the ability to make marks that people want.

Gale Fulton Ross
Red Tide

My father was my biggest influence. He was my champion. He is dead now, but never far from my mind. I am an artist because he could not be the artist he wanted to be. I took over the job!

My role as the oldest child helped me accept the fact that I am responsible for my own life, but also know that the choices I make in my life affect my family. I have a strong work ethic, I try hard to be a good daughter; a good sister; however, I can be fiercely independent which is sometimes difficult for the people who love me to accept. When I am into my work they feel abandoned by me because I am seriously intent and focused. When I am not working that focus is on them; I think maybe they feel pushed and pulled. I need my family. I need my work.

I began painting when I was six or seven years old. My father affirmed me as an artist when he referred to me as his “Baby Artist.” My formal education was in the study of museums and art history. I taught myself how to paint… the Universe gave me a gift that I never wanted to squander.

Gale Fulton Ross
Snake and Frog

I began the process of studying with other Artists while I was in high school in Medford, Massachusetts. A friend’s cousin had been discharged from the military with a disability. He chose to go to art school to become a graphic designer. I liked him, perhaps a bit of a crush… anyway, he was older and took an interest in his natural ability to draw. His name is Melvin Johnson. Melvin taught me what he learned while still attending art school, so I was going to school with him in a sense. I was the beneficiary of an education in the discipline of pattern, line, form and color before I even knew what it was I wanted to paint.

Many, many years later I met my second biggest influence in an artist named Cleveland Bellow. I moved to Oakland, California with my former husband and son. While there I decided to open a small portrait studio and gallery. I sat in the window street level so that people passing by could stop and watch me draw. Cleveland was passing and decided to come in to say hello and he was working on a series of nudes that he wanted me to see. As an artist, he was extremely technical. He knew all the tricks and illusion required for fine art drawing of the face and figure. He would come in every day and show me a little this, and a little that. His words still ring in my ears when I am working on the eyes in a portrait. “Make them see you,” he would say… “see them so they will follow you around the room. If you see the Spirit in your subject’s eyes, they will return the favor.” He truly believed the eyes were the path to a person’s soul.

Cleveland passed away a couple of years ago and I miss him very much. As artists we had a great respect for each others differences as it related to our work. While living and working in Oakland, Cleve and I collaborated on several paintings that went to exhibition. We worked very well together. In the early years our collaboration included a series of socially conscious billboards in Louisiana. We were a team for about 15 years. And friends for over 35.

Gale Fulton Ross
Mouth of the Basin

Currently, my work is abstract. However, I am still in love with the face and figure. I speak in two art languages. My figures are stronger because I have been doing them a lot longer and I am known for emotional expression. I find comfort in going back and forth between the two art genre’s. Abstraction is freeing. I can loose myself in form, color and paint. My work is organic and fluid. I feel like I’m spreading wings and can take flight. On the other hand, when working on the face or figure, I go deep within myself to connect to my mood. My feelings are what drives a figurative piece of work. I speak to an audience through this body of work. I use my feminine state of mind to make a soul-to-soul connection. The lightness or heaviness of my heart, soul, body and mind determine who I am going to paint and what I want my subject to say via composition and pose.

I have yet to do any work that has successfully communicated my intentions. I continue to paint; once I am gone… it is up to the scholars and the critics to debate my intentions. That is if they are even interested in doing so. At present I am just involved in doing the work. I see art as my job. My job is to honor my father, my son, my mother, my siblings, my audience. My audience is varied; family, friends, buyers, collectors, and critics. I do not try to paint for one audience and I cannot please everyone; so in the end I paint for myself. Let the chips fall where they may.

Gale Fulton Ross
Kicking Warhols A on Behalf of Basquiat

Women artists ARE moving forward. I still believe it is marginal, but I am glad to see more And more women being appreciated in not only the art world, but, the art market as well. That being said, I still believe the Canons of the industry are powerful men. Mostly, powerful premier dealers and their billionaire, multi-millionaire collectors. Artists today are famous if the pockets of their collectors are deep and if their dealer is deep in the pocket that holds true wealth.

Women artist of color have little more than a ‘snowball’s chance in hell’ of making it to the level of a Rauchenberg, Picasso, Pollock, DeKooning, Hirst, Judd, Kahlo, et al. Just to name a few. And now that the trend in art is moving toward the Chinese, even American Artist are slipping in the Art Market in terms of value.

Very few Black Artists are taken seriously. I believe it is because White America does not understand that we are not monolithic; we have evolved out of ‘Steppin’ Fetchit; Amos and Andy; Mammy ; Bojangle; Uncle Tom or Aunt Jemima. Because we are not allowed our individualism, or our maturation, so to speak, some of my Black colleagues continue to promote the disparaging figures of the past or figures that they believe can only be appreciated by White America. Jazz figures for instance, along with old men and ladies in the South, with corn-cobb pipes sitting in rocking chairs and stoops; or Church folks and Gospel Choirs. Please do not get me wrong there is nothing wrong in painting your culture. I have done it and in some ways continue to do it because IT IS MY CULTURE, as all artist do, I paint what I know and feel.

It is WHEN I CHANGE and begin to work in the abstract, White Art America gets frustrated and wants me back in my place. They certainly do not want to see or hear the pain of my oppression unless I demonstrate my duplicity by mimicking the bad behavior of the oppressive. It feels to me something like this… when a man beats his wife and then apologizes but says, “you made me do it… if you would only do as I said I would not have to hurt you like this.” Well, I feel, White America wants to observe me only in that place where they believe my art should reside. Anything else is only going to be given marginal lip-service. I am punished with invisibility. Other ethnic groups are allowed to preserve their oppression as a reminder to us all that their horrific crisis should not be allowed to be repeated. Of course they are correct, it should not, yet, the Black American Artist continues to live in a new intellectual kind of oppression that in all its racist maneuvers and propaganda is designed to keeps us… in our place.

As Visual Artist it is hard to create anything new if you are pigeon-holed and invisible. Jean Michel-Basquiat, because of his connection to Warhol, is the only artist of color to have his work sell at auction for millions. By the way, the truth of the matter is unless most artist’s work goes through auction at five hundred thousand or more, artist cannot reach the success of a Blue-Chip- Artist no matter what your race or gender. It is about promotion, not talent. However, in my opinion, a White artist still has a better chance than a Black one of making it to that coveted place. I got over this obstacle a long time ago.

My only challenge is what do I want to paint on what day. I paint because I am free to do so; not to become famous. I am grateful for this blessing; I have the ability to make marks that people want to buy.

Gale Fulton Ross
Rolling See

I admire too many artist to name them in this interview. There are thousands of artists pouring out of art schools around this country every day. I travel, I visit galleries, and museums wherever I go. I am always looking for something that appeals to my senses. I find art by both young women and men, old and young, Black, White, Hispanic and Chinese as well as Native American, that moves or influences my personal style.

I am a visual artist therefore I like mixed-media because it allows me to be more than a painter; I can sculpt. I can create Public Art, I can do the portrait, I can manipulate found objects. In each case I use materials that I find appealing and will work with my artistic process.

In l990 I was brought into Sarasota by a dealer named Carl Bartholomew. Carl owned the Anita L. Pickren Gallery on Palm Avenue. He was friends with my N.Y. dealer and liked my large canvases featuring headless nudes, among other subjects. He gave me an exhibit with much fan-fare during Black History Month. One long walk on Siesta Key Beach and I was hooked. I fell in love with the Spiritual qualities of Sarasota. Twenty–two years later… I am still here.

For more information on Gale Fulton Ross, visit her website