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1991-94, 48 x 60 inches, 122 x 152 cm, oil on linen

Large detail view 1

Large detail view 2

24x30-inch poster reproduction of Tootoosahatchee is available

About this Painting and the Process

TOOTOOSAHATCHEE is the second of three major works in the Florida Hammock Series, the third being Herndon Swamp. To date, there are only a few major completed paintings in this series.

"TOOTOOSAHATCHEE" may be a Creek Indian word, and might mean "creek with chickens" -- so I was advised by a fellow who was part Creek Indian. He said the Creek Indian word for "chicken" or curlew -- ibis -- is "tootoo" pronounced "thoo-thoo" with soft "th."

Tosohatchee State Reserve was named after the stream which meanders through it, and is located east of Orlando, Florida, on the west side of the St. Johns River. Tootoosahatchee was painted here on location, working just outside the entrance to the reserve. I had intended to work IN the park, but I arrived during a period of high water and most of the park was closed. That turned out to be a lucky circumstance, because doing this painting became a huge project.

HOW LONG DID IT TAKE? That's the first question most people ask. There are two answers to this question. 1) It took me fifty years of practice and preparation without which the painting could not be accomplished. And 2), I worked from direct overservation -- en plein air -- for nine months on location over a period of three years, 1991-94.

My normal routine was to camp on the St. Johns about 7 miles away, and drive to the Tootoo work site. Thus I regularly saw sunrise looking across the St. Johns River prairie, which led to the birth of the St. Johns River series --first with tiny paintings being done as dawn came over the prairie, and as the sun went down. Nights gave rise to the candle series, too. A tiny format was chosen deliberately for many of those paintings, so they wouldn't interfere with the main focus of each day's work: Tootoosahatchee.

EACH PAINTING IS A LEARNING EXPERIENCE... in matters both practical and artistic. The hammock paintings are major learning experiences, the results of long-term observation and intense mental labor over a sustained period of time. They are slow, exhausting work, the most complex paintings I have done. There is no "slack time" in these paintings, they're saturated with intense labor. "Slack time" was taking a break and walking down the road, or a short walk in the park, and then going back to work. Each painting mentally equips me for the next one, just like going from simple math to algebra to plane geometry to trigonometry and so on. It's the same in visual learning.

OUTDOOR WORK... of any kind can be physically exhausting in times of heat and humidity -- painting included. Then there are biting insects, yellow deerflies being the worst. When deerflies got really bad, work shut down. Working conditions helped make Tootoosahatchee one of the most difficult I've accomplished.

When I was a youngster, I remember reading somewhere that each painting was a learning experience. I didn't really comprehend the truth of that at the time. But, at this point in my life, I understand it absolutely.

SUSTAINED OBSERVATION & WORKING PROCEDURE. While working on any painting outdoors, one of the most obvious difficulties -- and opportunties -- is the constant changing light. Visual change is continuous. In Florida, much seasonal change is subtle but not readily apparent -- until one is staring at the same patch of ground for months and months. The more I looked, the more I saw that none of it was static. It is a process of visual discovery. Working on Tootoosahatchee revealed a new Florida for me, seasonal changes that were always there but scarcely noticed. Bits and pieces from the ongoing change, from all the seasons and all times of day, from dark, rainy weather and bright sunny day -- all were incorporated into Tootoosahatchee. Red sweetgum leaves from fall and spring oak buds are both in the painting. From the visual change shifting all around me, I selected as much visual information as I could.

My observation point was marked by a cypress knob at my feet. If I shifted away from this point, everything was visually rearranged. Frequently, to better understand a tangle of trees and limbs, I moved away from the observation point to get a view from a different perspective. I regularly used binoculars to study tangles of limbs and trees, or to make a sketch to help construct what was there. Through the day, when palm fronds became backlit and suddenly glowed yellow-green, I often tried to incorporate that into the painting. Through the weeks, as some fronds turned brown, I sometimes updated that part of the painting. This was — and is — my working procedure.

I think there is no better way to accomplish painting a complex, ever-changing subject. A sustained effort is required — something added here, something changed there. The process seems especially organic, and especially suited to this organic subject. There's nothing artificial about the process.

Actually, it is a process that cannot wholly succeed, since it is an impossible task to record all that can be seen — and it is impossible to see all that is there, and there IS something there, into infinity. But, with honest effort -- which is the opposite of superficial playing around -- believability can result, and that is the painting we eventually stop working on.

HOW DO I KNOW WHEN IT'S FINISHED? Good question. There's no clearly known stopping time. I like to work on a painting until it seems to have a satisfying reality, some undefined -- difficult to define -- completeness to it. Sometimes I think it's finished, then I see it's not finished. Sometimes the stopping point is circumstantial. With Tootoosahatchee, when I left the worksite for the last time, I intended to return to do more work on the painting at a certain spot, but I ended up letting it end there.

OBSERVING THE ECOSYSTEM. Wetland hammocks can be found throughout most of Florida. In the rich environment of natural Florida, there's a staggering number of native plant species and living critters, big and small and microscopic, many still being discovered. The whole system is in a continuously evolving flow of unending cyclical change.

All around me thrived a living system of native plants, bugs, birds and critters in an intense, vital, but fragile balance. When I was at work on the forground parts of the painting, a young vine poked up like asparagus, and I was amazed to see it grow four or five feet in just a few days. Yet I had known this vine for my whole life and had no idea about how fast it grew. Various stages of this and other vines are in the painting. One week the ground was covered with thousands of tiny red and green sprouts of young maple trees. How ignorant I was of the natural world around me. Mother Nature seemed to be saying "Pay attention!" Once, a red shouldered hawk cruised by just a few feet away. On an October afternoon, I heard what sounded like a soft chewing sound coming from somewhere. Finally, just above my head, I saw dozens of caterpillars munching away on the oak leaves, well camouflaged and extremely difficult to detect. For three consecutive days, at the same time each afternoon, a long, lean black racer snake came by, searching under leaves and decaying palm fronds for lizards, frogs or insects. A fox squirrel came to dine on cypress seeds. Biologist Michael Rich stopped by and pointed out the big cocoon of the Cecropia moth, the largest moth in North America, only ten feet from where I had been standing for months. He saw it immediately, yet I had never noticed it. How long it takes to absorb awareness of what is around us.

There are several different kinds of spider webs in the painting. The most easily seen web reflects a rainbow of colors and was constructed by a fine architect, an elegant small green spider.

THE PASSAGE OF TIME. One morning a dew-wet glistening residence appeared just a few feet away, and I made the acquaintance of a female golden silk spider. Time passed, and one morning I found the spider dead, suspended lifeless from a strand of web. She is in the painting, recorded as part of my Tootoosahatchee experience. Thus, in a real sense, this work encompasses the passage of time and life in a Florida wetland hammock — which I was privileged to witness.

Provenance / History of Ownership & Exhibition

"Tootoo" was first exhibited in a number of winter-spring Florida outdoor shows, during the 4-5 years I did these shows after moving back to Florida in December 1989, from Alaska.

About 1995, "Tootoo" was purchased by an individual in Indialantic, Florida, and was then donated to the local museum. In 2001 or 2, I learned that the painting may be available, and I purchased it from the museum.

In 2003 and 2004, "Tootoo" was exhibited at Tatischeff Gallery in New York City -- the first Florida landscape to be shown in that gallery.

In 2003, "Tootoo" was exhibited at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, with two other paintings: Exhibition of Work by Newly Elected Members and Recipients of Honors and Awards. (In 2004, I was honored to receive an Academy Award in Art from American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York.)

Shortly after this, Peter Tatistcheff, in poor health, closed his gallery and the painting came back to Florida.

In 2008-2009, Tootoosahatchee traveled around Florida in an exhibition focused on the St. Johns River basin: Liquid Muse -- Florida's American Heritage River.

The Liquid Muse exhibition was curated by art educator-authors Mallory M. O'Connor and Gary Monroe. They also authored a significant scholarly text on the subject, about 350 pages, format 10 inches high x 8 inches wide, profusely illustrated by the works of artists from the 1800s to present: Florida's American Heritage River, Images from the St. Johns Region, published by University Press of Florida, 2009. Tootoosahatchee and Managed Marsh are reproduced in the preface section of the book.

Tootoosahatchee is in the collection of the artist.

-- sg

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