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Florida's history, beauty found in Sam and Robbie Vickers definitive collection of artworks

JACKSONVILLE

In my Florida travels I've seen panthers, bears, crocodiles and even the now extinct dusky seaside sparrow. I've waded in a swamp to look for ghost orchids. I knew Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who wrote the book on the Everglades, and I'm such a Florida boy I was just as tickled to meet Ricou Browning, who played The Creature From the Black Lagoon in a favorite childhood movie.

But my knees start knocking after I park my truck in Sam Vickers' driveway. Am I worthy enough to enter the high temple of Florida art?

He opens the front door. His wife, Robbie, smiles behind him. "Come in," he says. "We're delighted to show you our paintings."

In the foyer, my senses begin their overload. In a dark corner hangs Robert J. Curtis' famous 1838 portrait of Osceola, a hero in the Second Seminole Indian War. It's next to a striking 1825 portrait by Aaron Corwine of Andrew Jackson, the Florida governor (and later president) who tangled with the Seminoles. Jackson was the most frequently painted American president, Vickers tells me, and this painting is considered the best of them.

Down the hall I encounter a Frederic Remington, the Wild West artist who brought his easel to Florida during the Spanish-American War. In another room, I am told, Winslow Homer and even an Andrew Wyeth are waiting.

Florida has many art museums, but at present none quite like what is found in the Vickerses' mansion on the St. Johns River. For one thing, it's not even a museum. Sam and Robbie eat and sleep there, entertain their adult daughters and play with their grandchildren. It's home.

Their home just happens to be filled with 600 works painted by an important cast of American and European artists who traveled through Florida from 1829 to the present.

One more thing.

You can't just show up. You have to be invited.

• • •

They are in their 70s now. They have been collecting for more than two decades and routinely loan paintings to museums. But they long for something better. They hope their collection — including about 1,000 they keep in storage — one day finds a permanent home in a real Florida museum.

"Everybody should be able to see these," says Sam Vickers, who was born in Miami and owns a successful international shipping box company in Duval County.

The paintings they own show what Florida was like before the bulldozers, before there were window screens to keep out the mosquitoes and the malaria. Farmers plow fields behind mules in some paintings; in others, women in cotton dresses and bonnets scrub dirty children with lye soap in Saturday washtubs.

Sam and Robbie Vickers display paintings from Civil War Florida and from the days when paddle wheelers steamed up primeval rivers, where witnesses included alligators and great blue herons. Men fish and palm trees sway in some of those paintings. In others women cavort on the beach. Floridians sing and dance and sweat and bleed.

If their collection ends up in a real museum, art fanciers who dismiss the Sunshine State as the epicenter of the velvet painting universe are going to get an eyeful.

Of course, there is no guarantee the museum will happen as much as the Vickerses would like it to. A lot of their financial resources are tied up in those paintings. They can't afford to just give them away.

Hyatt and Cici Brown also collect Florida paintings. In 1995 the wealthy Ormond Beach couple saw a traveling exhibit of the Vickers Collection and were inspired to start buying Florida art themselves. Now they own more than 2,000 masterworks, including what they say is a one-of-a-kind Florida painting by Thomas Hart Benton.

The Museum of Arts & Sciences of Daytona Beach will debut a Florida wing for the Brown collection within the next three years, perhaps even sooner. The Browns have donated $15 million for construction of the building.

"Whatever happens," Sam Vickers says, "it can't be anything but good for the arts in Florida."

• • •

Florida may not have the Louvre or the Met or the Museum of Modern Art, but it boasts some dandy places to look at paintings. There's the Ringling in Sarasota, the Harn in Gainesville and the Cummer in Jacksonville. St. Petersburg has the Museum of Fine Arts.

If you have time, gas for your car and an appetite for Florida culture, you'll see a handful of Florida-inspired paintings in those museums, possibly something by Thomas Moran, Martin Johnson Heade or Herman Herzog. But you won't get the real story about what happened here.

Those famous artists — and a legion of others — came to Florida to paint. Some of what they produced here ranks among their greatest work. Yes, some wanted to escape the cold and some to relieve their tuberculosis. Others visited at the invitation of Henry Flagler, who was building ritzy hotels at the turn of the century and hoping a few glorious Florida paintings by notable artists might lure wealthy tourists down South.

"Some artists were simply looking for an exotic locale to paint," says art historian Gary R. Libby of Daytona. "Florida was sexy, mysterious and dangerous, full of amazing plants and wild animals. And it was closer than South America."

Libby, 68, is an expert on the Vickers Collection. He even edited a beautiful coffee-table book, Celebrating Florida: Works of Art From the Vickers Collection, in 1996.

"The Vickerses have a truly magnificent collection of works," Libby says.

The retired director of the Daytona museum, Libby also happens to be an expert on the paintings owned by the Browns. As an adviser, he has helped put into print two lush coffee-table books featuring their collection, Reflections I and II.

"If you had gone into a store 20 years ago and asked for an art book about Florida, the clerk would have apologized," Libby says. "There were no such books. The art was out there, but very few people knew about it, or were interested enough to acquire it into one collection."

And now there are a couple of couples.

• • •

Hyatt Brown, born in Orlando in 1937, was the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives in 1978. He is also the chief operating officer of Brown & Brown, among the state's largest insurance companies. His high-energy spouse, Cici, is from Boston. The art lover in the family, she served as a docent at the Daytona museum for decades and encouraged her husband to collect American art. When they saw what the Vickerses were accomplishing, they narrowed their focus from America to Florida.

The Vickerses, as the first serious Florida art collectors, had a 10-year jump on the Browns. But the Browns, who also have considerable resources, were hardly discouraged. They hired consultants to buy what the Vickerses had passed up. They put the word out: "Wanted. Historic Florida paintings. Please call."

Their telephone rang.

Like the Vickerses, the Browns purchased their own Winslow Homer. The New Englander had visited Florida for decades starting in 1886 and made a stop in west-central Florida, where he painted a watercolor of Tampa Bay.

They bought their own Moran and Herzog and Louis Comfort Tiffany, their own Ernest Lawson, Waldo Pierce and George Inness Jr. They bought a prized painting that had hung above Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' fireplace at Cross Creek; the illustrator, N.C. Wyeth, had created Dance of the Whooping Cranes for a special edition of The Yearling.

They found a painting by Thomas Hart Benton, famous for highly stylized murals that often captured American life in the Midwest.

"There was a history of him visiting Florida," Cici Brown says. "But nobody could find a painting."

Finished in 1927, Benton called it Negro and the Alligator. As an African-American man strolls down to the water to fill his pail, he is startled by something large and reptilian basking on the bank.

If it wasn't painted in Florida, it should have been.

• • •

In Jacksonville, Sam and Robbie Vickers live in the suburbs, in an exclusive neighborhood, where two-story Georgian architecture homes are Old South graceful, with moss-draped oak trees in the front yard and cypress trees in the back. Even the squirrels are polite.

Sam and Robbie moved here when their previous home, in the beautiful community of Mandarin, ran out of wall space in 1991. Who gets to step through the front door now? Art museum members. Art professors. Historians. VIPs over the years have included Gov. Bob Graham, Sen. Bill Nelson and even musician Jimmy Buffett.

Christopher Still, the Tarpon Springs artist known for the 10 intricate murals he created for the Florida House of Representatives, is a frequent visitor.

"When I go into the Vickerses' home I cry," Still says.

He's serious. The Vickerses have noticed his wet eyes.

"It's just such an amazing, inspiring collection of work," Still says.

It's hard not to be overwhelmed. When your knees buckle, there aren't many places to sit, since even the chairs tend to host masterpieces.

One large room is dedicated to 19th century art. That's where the Vickerses display their Thomas Moran, known for his celebrated paintings of the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone. Turns out he loved Florida, too.

Sam Vickers was born in 1937 in Miami. Robbie, a talented painter in her own right, was born in Palm Beach in 1940. They met in college and have been married 55 years. Robbie has heard all the stories about Sam's youth in paradise. Barefoot boys shimmied up palm trees and threw down coconuts. Boys who weren't swimming in Biscayne Bay were hiding in the caves at the famous Venetian Pool in Coral Gables. He has a soft spot for paintings that connect him to his past, which is why he owns a painting of the Venetian Pool.

The den, with its high ceilings, served as a "trophy room" to the previous homeowner, a big-game hunter. It is now a trophy room of a different sort, the place where the Vickerses display 20th century masterpieces.

In the winter of 1903, Winslow Homer sailed from New York to Key West, then jumped a steamer to Citrus County's Homosassa River to fly fish for largemouth bass. Later he made a watercolor depicting his memorable fishing trip. Considered one of Homer's great works, it hangs in the trophy room.

Above it, interestingly, is an experimental watercolor by an artist who was unknown at the time.

When he about 20, Andrew Wyeth accompanied his dad, the illustrator N.C. Wyeth, to Florida. While N.C. was painting pictures for The Yearling (the Vickerses own the iconic Jody and his Deer, by the way) Andrew headed for the coast and whipped up a one-of-a-kind watercolor of the beach.

How much is an Andrew Wyeth painting worth? Sam Vickers won't tell you the vulgar details.

• • •

I follow the Vickerses up the staircase, notice a cluster of pencil drawings and try not to faint. They were completed more than a century ago by George Catlin, perhaps the most famous artist to ever depict American Indians. The Vickerses own his studies of Seminole warriors, which included Osceola.

Walking on, we enter a bedroom dedicated to African-American life in Florida from slavery to the Jazz Age. Next the Vickerses usher me into a bedroom filled with paintings from the glory days when Sarasota was the winter circus capital of the world.

Jerry Farnsworth painted a haunting portrait of the legendary lion tamer known as Madame Kovar in 1944. Five years later, Mary Kovar Schafer, known for her fearlessness, climbed into Sultan's cage without her trademark whip. As her children watched, Sultan pounced and fatally bit through her spinal cord.

Looking at the painting, Robbie breaks into a spooky folk song she learned as a child.

"Don't go in them lions' cage tonight, Mother," she sings. "Them lions are ferocious and they bite. And in their angry fits, they could tear you all to bits. So don't go in them lions' cage tonight."

Over the decades the Vickerses have loaned paintings to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Gallery in Washington. A few years ago, they lent Madame Kovar to the Harn in Gainesville for a circus art exhibition.

The phone rang one evening as the Vickerses were reading. Robbie answered and frantically waved to Sam to pick up the other phone. On the line was Madame Kovar's adult grandchild.

"Hang on a minute," the grandchild said. "I'm going to let you talk to my mother."

So they spoke to Mary Schafer, who had been 14 when she saw her mother slain by the ferocious Sultan. Mary had never seen the Madame Kovar painting before. It brought back to her so many memories, good and bad.

"You never know how a painting is going to touch somebody else," Sam Vickers says.

"That's for sure," Robbie says.

For the umpteenth time, a shiver goes up my spine.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8727.

Florida's history, beauty found in Sam and Robbie Vickers definitive collection of artworks 09/08/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 8, 2012 4:30am]

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