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Artist Christopher Still's 25th anniversary painting for Ruth Eckerd Hall to be on public display in November

TARPON SPRINGS

Christopher Still sat on his stool before the enormous canvas, paintbrush and palette in hand, dabbing infinitesimal white dots onto a ballerina's tulle skirt. He added a tiny line of blue to her leg, sheathed in pale pink tights.

Then he put down his brush, stood and said, "Well, folks, it's finished."

Still, 48, has worked for two years on the 7- by 14-foot painting, commissioned by Ruth Eckerd Hall for its 25th anniversary. That celebration was actually in 2008, which is when Still expected to complete it.

But he asked for, and got, permission to spend another year on it at no extra charge to them. (He does not discuss his fees.)

The expression on his face was complex: relief, pride, joy, sadness.

Even doubt.

Large-scale commissions, which have been his primary work for a number of years, are plenty of validation for Still, who grew up in Dunedin and now lives in Tarpon Springs with his family. His work is part of several museum collections and more validation came from a popular retrospective at Gulf Coast Museum of Art (now closed) earlier this year. He was named several weeks ago to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. And collectors have always lined up to buy his work, especially the dozens of smaller studies he now produces in conjunction with each commission. Those sales carry him financially during the year he typically researches a large work.

Still's paintings are loved for the way he honors the heritage of his home state. He uses old master techniques learned at the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which he attended under a full scholarship, and through studying in Europe. His paintings elevate the Florida landscape to the epic status 19th century artists such as Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt gave to their vistas in the Northeast and West. Still's most famous works are panels tracing Florida's history that hang in the Capitol in Tallahassee.

Attention to detail, bordering on obsessive, has long been a hallmark of Still's paintings and the new work, An Evening To Remember, is no exception. People seeing it in the lobby of Ruth Eckerd Hall will be unaware that everything they see has several layers of meaning and compositional nuance.

But the content of the painting is a departure from his usual subject matter; it's an interior scene with no landscape references. It's all about Ruth Eckerd Hall, a narrative mostly of the people associated with it over the years. Still painted it from the stage's vantage point, where he spent a year in a small black box sketching during performances.

The canvas is divided into diagonals interrupted by the stage's vertical curtains. The stage is occupied by a group of students from the hall's Marsha P. Hoffman Performing Arts Institute who are costumed to replicate the nine performers used in the hall's logo. Their positions are reversed in the painting because we're looking at them from the stage. They're in their correct order for the painting's audience.

The audience itself is the most impressive logistical element with 1,220 individuals, 900 of whom are specific, recognizable people either with an association with the hall or with the artist. They're grouped purposefully. Those most delineated have been the most active with the organization and sit in the front rows. A group near the center were performers during the inaugural season or, in William Shakespeare's case, had a play presented. In a section of semidarkness under the spotlights is "the choir," those who have died, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, from whose design the architecture of Ruth Eckerd Hall is derived, and Robert Rauschenberg, who donated art for fundraisers. Employees are scattered through one area and if they all stood up (which they don't), they would form "25th." He placed friends and loved ones in the crowd, too: his first art teacher, for example, and loyal collectors.

None of these people were supposed to have been in the painting. Still's contract with Ruth Eckerd Hall, signed several years ago, states that he wouldn't take requests for any specific portrait even if a donor was willing to pay for it.

"I looked back in history to paintings commissioned by groups," he said. "Like Rembrandt's The Night Watch. Everyone in that painting was upset and it was put away for years."

But Still, who prefers to paint from life, needed models for the audience. So he and leaders of Ruth Eckerd Hall invited hundreds of people to the hall two years ago for a photograph while making no promises to paint anyone true to their likeness. He was interested in getting a variety of reactions and activities: someone's sleeping; someone's shouting bravo; someone's taking a stealth photo. Most are laughing, smiling, clapping.

His feelings about the portraits changed going into the second year. He had begun the painting, based on a similarly sized drawing tacked to one of his studio walls that gave him a sense of the hall's architectural logistics. In the drawing, all the seats are empty.

"Every one of those seats has a name on the back," he said. "Everyone gave a gift in loving memory."

They began looking like gravestones to Still.

Some of the people he had photographed for the audience died. Louis B. Sloan, Still's mentor, died. Still flew through a terrible storm and thought he might die, too. Then came the worst.

"My wife, Kelly, almost died after she delivered our baby," he said.

While his wife was in a hospital room, he was downstairs having an epiphany of sorts.

"There was a huge donor wall and I saw that the names of the founders were predominantly the same as those who gave to the hall. For them, coming into the hall was like life, the same way they felt about the hospital."

Still saw a power in identifying specific individuals, living or dead, who had helped create "this temple of life."

He had to paint 25 people every day for a year-and-a-half to get them all in. If you look closely, you see the suggestion of faces rising above the "choir" into the light, the spirits of the hall as Still calls them.

One of the hardest elements to capture was that lighting, dramatic, artificially generated and so different from the natural illumination of landscape painting. The main sources are two large projections behind the audience and three from above the stage in red, blue and yellow that, when merged, become what we see as white, a trick to the eye. All converge most directly on the ballerina, who is surrounded by subtly refracted prisms of those combine colors as a shower of "snow" descends.

"The audience always seemed to gasp and find so much delight in special effects, like that snow," Still said. "They know it's fake but it's that willing suspension of disbelief."

Two of the most important people in the painting are almost obscured by the backstage darkness. Ruth Eckerd, for whom the hall is named stands with her husband, Jack, who surprised her with the grand gesture in 1983. He made a fortune through an eponymous chain of drugstores that were mostly sold to CVS. He died in 2004 and she in 2006. By that time their name had become far more familiar in philanthropic circles as generous patrons. They're painted in the same clothes they wore the night the hall opened, lent by the Eckerd family.

Despite his relief, his readiness to say goodbye to all the faces he has lived with every day for months, living and dead, Still doesn't really want to be finished with this painting.

He wonders, as always, if people will like it. If collectors will again buy his studies even though they're Degas-like dancers rather than landscapes.

For the first time in many years, he doesn't have the security of a commission waiting for him. The project fell through, another economic victim.

He thinks he'll spend a year back outdoors, answering only to his own vision. He has ideas. They are, of course, complex.

Or maybe he'll paint just one tree, again and again.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

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To see Still's new work

The painting An Evening To Remember will be unveiled to the public at a free event Nov. 8 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater. (727) 712-2760.

Artist Christopher Still's 25th anniversary painting for Ruth Eckerd Hall to be on public display in November 10/10/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 10, 2009 5:30am]

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