Christopher Still, an artist renowned for painting portals to the past, has once again created a work of art to celebrate Florida's unique place in history.
On Wednesday, his winning submission to the statewide Viva Florida 500 poster contest was unveiled during a ceremony in Tallahassee. Viva Florida 500 is the name of the state's quincentennial celebration to commemorate Juan Ponce de Leon's east coast Florida landing in 1513, when he named the land La Florida for its lush landscapes.
In a stunning departure from his usual technique, Still created the poster without ever picking up a paintbrush.
It's a computer creation — a pixel-perfect layering of images plucked from photos of his earlier paintings, including some of the large-scale murals that hang in the Florida House chambers.
"It saved a lot of time," said Still, 51, who lives in Tarpon Springs and has a studio here. "It's a purposeful merging of some of my best work that took many years to make."
The contest, sponsored by the Florida Humanities Council and the Florida Department of State's Division of Cultural Affairs, was open to all Florida artists who are full-time residents.
Sandy Shaughnessy, Florida's cultural affairs director, said the state received 58 submissions. A committee selected five finalists, whose entries were posted on a website for a public vote.
"There were 3,816 votes, and Christopher won by 1,847, so it was pretty much a decisive victory," she said. "He's one of the best artists in the country, and I think what people loved about it is that he merged history — from 1513 all the way to the space shuttle — into one image."
Viva Florida 500 will mark 500 years of the peninsula's history, beginning with Ponce de Leon's landing.
"It's the first documented landing of Europeans in what would eventually become the United States," she said. "Most people think it was actually the Pilgrims. It's important information that we need to share."
The 18- by 24-inch posters will be distributed to Florida libraries and schools, where they will be used as an educational tool. They will also be utilized in materials to promote Viva Florida 500 next year on a national and international scale. The Florida Department of State is partnering with other organizations for a series of commemorative events in 2013.
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While Ponce de Leon's landing seeded the foundation for a new country, it spelled trouble for the American Indians, whose numbers declined rapidly after the Europeans began arriving. Their depopulation was primarily due to exposure to new diseases and a series of conflicts, including the Seminole Wars.
Still wanted to be sensitive to that fact when creating this piece.
"To say that Florida was 'discovered' holds great weight with the Native American people," he said. "I wanted this to be an attempt at healing those wounds. I wanted to say, 'We are all Florida,' so I treaded very lightly when placing Susie next to Ponce de Leon."
"Susie" is Susie Henry of Tampa, a Seminole who modeled for one of Still's paintings, now owned by a private collector living in Naples.
In the composition, Still places her at the forefront, her left arm and elbow extending beyond the frame, creating a three-dimensional look. Her earrings and bracelet are made up of a sequence of Florida state seals.
Henry hasn't seen Still's poster yet — she doesn't have a computer. But she does have an opinion.
"We aren't too crazy about Ponce de Leon, and we don't like to celebrate Columbus Day either," she said. "They tried to change our way of life and force their religion on us. But we think of Chris as family, and I'm confident that whatever he did, he did it in an awesome way."
Another image in the poster is that of Ponce de Leon holding a glass of water from the legendary Fountain of Youth in his left hand. In his right, he grasps the 23-star flag raised in 1821 when Florida became a U.S. territory. British, French and Spanish flags are also present in the poster. In the background, the space shuttle Discovery ascends into a blue sky.
It's been a good month for Still, who has racked up numerous awards over the years and whose works appear in the Smithsonian Institution and other prestigious museums.
On March 9, he was designated artist in residence of the Florida Legislature. His paintings are best described as old masters-style, with lighter, more realistic colors.
As contest winner, Still received a $2,500 honorarium, but two days later he wasn't sure of the amount and hadn't yet opened the envelope containing the check.
Simply put, it wasn't about the money.
"I just always see myself in service to the state of Florida. I love it very deeply," he said. "The beauty and depth of what Florida is — its natural beauty and its history — is often not appreciated, and I want to help change that."