LUTZ — Hernie Vann paints Florida the way he remembers it as a child: pristine and largely undeveloped.
He sees how the light filters through the cypress trees along a bend in the Hillsborough River, the way the palms reflect in a stretch of water near Ozello, the cliff of silver clouds against pastel sky on the Alafia River and Australian pines in a storm on Longboat Key.
At 76, Vann spends weekends paddling a canoe or exploring the state with his wife, Sandy. Cameras in tow, they capture images of water, trees, birds and sky for Vann to paint later in his studio, a converted back bedroom in their house in Lutz.
"Florida landscapes are my favorite subject to paint, hands down," says Vann, a retired public school art teacher who has a master's degree in fine arts from the University of South Florida.
"I like to take pictures and then see what I can do to bring it to life."
He's also a stickler for detail, typically working from several photos to capture the shadow on a bird's wing or the way trees reflect in the water in certain kinds of light.
His paintings are reminiscent of the work of Fort Pierce artist and humanitarian A.E. "Beanie" Backus, who captured Florida's rugged beauty in his landscape paintings.
Vann, a member of the North Tampa Art League whose work was shown this summer at the New Tampa Regional Library, travels the local art fair circuit during winter. He has sold his paintings at the Gasparilla, Mainsail and Mayfair art fairs and at shows in Tarpon Springs and along Florida's Suncoast. He will sell his paintings and prints, which range from $25 to $115 for a print and $700 to $2,500 for an original, at the Dunedin Art Harvest Nov. 1-2.
Vann, who grew up in an old neighborhood east of Ybor City, was raised by his grandmother, Angela Pizzo, a strong-willed Italian immigrant.
"I was actually born at home," recalls Vann, who had the quintessential Tampa childhood experience — fishing, crabbing, scalloping and heading to the Pinellas beaches.
"We used to grab our cane poles and head off to some lake or the Hillsborough River. We used to skip school if the fish were running," says Vann, whose family ran a grocery in Ybor City.
Vann was always the neighborhood artist, copying the funny pages for friends and decorating the school blackboard for holidays. He majored in art education at the University of Tampa, leaving school for four years to serve in the Coast Guard during the Korean War. After that, he spent 35 years teaching art in the Hillsborough County schools, mostly at Greco Junior High School and Leto High School before retiring in 1995.
Since then, he and his wife have spent a lot of time at art fairs and shooting photographs of scenic Florida.
"I tell Hernie that he is God's gift to me," says Sandy, who handles the bookkeeping and marketing.
Now he's working on a large-scale painting, a commission for an art collector who built a home along the Alafia River.
The canvas sits on an easel in Vann's small studio. Amid the coffee cans of acrylic paint, brushes and other art supplies, he has several photos of the river and sky at different angles and different times of the day. The painting looks through columns, at a terrace and then beyond at water and sky.
"My paintings evoke and recall old Florida — no people, just the landscape," Vann explains. "I try to paint Florida like I remember it."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at [email protected].