We're home at last from another amazing trip to Florida, though this one was more poignant than previous trips. The Forgotten Coast has certainly changed since last year, the scale of the destruction caused by Hurricane Michael last October is mind blowing, yet the people remain just as warm and the Gulf Coast retains its charming character despite the damage. More than ever, I feel honoured to have been invited to join both the Forgotten Coast Paint Out and the faculty for Plein Air South convention this year.
Our first day on the coast was spent driving around, trying to comprehend the changes and piece together the story of what has happened since we were here last May. We spoke with friends and residents along the coast and I asked them how they would like to see their home depicted by the artists this year, should we just paint the idyllic scenes and ignore the sad ones? Their overwhelming answer was that they wanted us to paint ‘the truth’.
But what is the truth? Doesn’t it differ for each of us, according to our experiences and characters? It was fascinating to see how the 20 invited artists all painted their own truth. Some tackled the scenes of devastated homes in a documentary style, creating a painted historical record of the destruction. Others focused on the personal stories of people living in trailers on the land where their homes had stood. Some depicted the wildlife and the natural environment in recovery, and some celebrated the beautiful light that remains unchanged.
So what was my truth and how could I paint it? Above all, I felt hope and wonder at how much of the natural environment had survived and re-grown and how many of the people I met were totally engaged in re-building their community, no self-pity here, just a positive mindset and a thankfulness for one another.
I made a commitment to tell the story of the hurricane without using graphic images of jagged broken trees or wrecked buildings. Such scenes were too violent to express my sentiment. There was a sense of duty to continue to find beauty in the aftermath of the storm, if the people who had lost everything could still find hope then surely my work should do the same? As I painted, passers by would stop for a chat, their stories added new meanings to my subjects. Every single person who spoke to me thanked me for coming to paint their coast - what an extraordinarily gracious gesture from folks who have lost so much yet retain every ounce of their legendary Southern hospitality.
I looked for metaphors and motifs in my surroundings that I might use to reference the storm whilst still making appealing images, it struck me that perhaps beauty is the visual equivalent of hope.
Here are some of the paintings I made and the stories behind them:
These perpetually bending trees seem to illustrate the strength of the wind they withstood, like a monument to the power of the storm and the resilience of the place and the people who survived it.
In the first version I included the diggers in the background to symbolise the stoic re-building of the marina in Port St Joe.
A house-boat caught my eye in the evening light across the river in Apalachicola . Whilst I was painting, a lady stopped and told me it had floated down the river after the storm and drifted around for a while, getting in the way of the shrimp boats until somebody towed it into the reeds for safety. What a beautiful storm relic!
I liked it so much I returned to make a bigger, more detailed version a few days later.
The boardwalk and the vegetation in this painting are both recently renewed, the old walkway was washed away along with all but the young, flexible trees that could withstand the wind and water. It looks so peaceful now, it’s hard to imagine what happened here!
Whilst I painted this ‘Gentle Dawn’ from behind an oyster packing shed, one of the workers was chatting to me about his experience of hurricane Michael
“when I came outside after it was over I knew we were in big trouble ‘cos I saw the chairs from Burger King floating past the house – and we were a mile inland from Burger King!”
He shrugged and said
“Livin’ here it was never a question of ‘if’ so much as ‘when’ we would get hit”.
I marvel at his acceptance and resolve.
These old sheds on Water Street have withstood many a storm in their lifetime, their reflections in the rainy-day puddles seemed a fitting subject.
One of the lucky ones, this old house remained much the same as last year, despite losing a couple of its neighbours to the storm surge.
The shoreline at Eastpoint has a lot less restaurants and oyster sheds than 12 months ago, and many of the docks are damaged, but the guys are still heading out to fish at sunrise and the rhythm of life on the gulf coast still moves with the water and the sun.
This little house in the town of Mexico Beach was one of few left standing after the eye of hurricane Michael and the ensuing storm surge washed away both its adjoining neighbours along with much of the rest of the town.
Property owners are now being hassled by prospectors, hoping to buy their plots for bargain prices. Some owners have placed ‘Not For Sale’ signs on their plots, the small print reads ‘We love our neighbors and our community’. Such a powerful statement of their dedication to re-building their town!
The beauty of this little cove caught my eye as I drove past, the shapes and colours were striking in the morning sun. When I returned to paint it, I noticed that the roadway had collapsed and many trees had blown over in the hurricane. I debated whether it was appropriate to paint such destruction, yet the image remained beautiful to me, the rhythm of the trees and the sweep of the beach still held my gaze and forced me to question what is beauty anyway? Is nature made more or less beautiful by its imperfections?
I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks to all the wonderful people who blessed me with their hospitality, their company and their incredible generosity as I painted their world. As they stopped to talk to me, their stories added depth and meaning to my work and their warmth of spirit will remain with me always.