Christopher Still is beloved for his Old Master technique in historical, genre and landscape paintings, all celebrating Florida. When they are exhibited in museums, they draw large crowds, and 10 murals that hang in the Capitol are a big draw for tourists visiting Tallahassee.
But museum exhibitions are infrequent and many of his paintings are bought by private collectors so they're rarely accessible to the public. Still is changing that. Beginning Nov. 29 and continuing through Jan. 25, he will open his studio to the public Thursdays through Saturdays (except for Thanksgiving Day).
That accessibility is made possible by another change for Still. He recently completed a renovation of his Tarpon Springs studio, enlarging it from 900 square feet to 3,000 square feet. It's still a working studio but he has transformed it into a spacious gallery space that provides a backdrop for his work.
The building's early history is sketchy.
"It was built around 1910," he said, "and the Pea Vine Railroad tracks ran next to it so it was probably a carriage house for storage and loading."
It was a dry cleaners in the 1950s and was about to be demolished when Still bought it in 1989. He chipped plaster off the brick wall in front, cleaned it up, knocked out interior walls to create a studio space and moved in. The original studio is now the front gallery connected to a second gallery by old 9-foot pocket doors he found at a salvage yard in Philadelphia, where he was visiting his alma mater, the renowned Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Having so many paintings on view also will give more people insight into Still's painstaking, sometimes obsessive, process. Visitors will be able to see the smaller preparatory works he creates and uses for reference.
Still takes several years to finish a major work. His most recent is La Florida, a triptych that represents 500 years of Florida's history beginning with Ponce de León's arrival in 1513. The central panel is a still life flanked by portraits of de León and a female Seminole Indian. The main element of the still life (which also has a few animals) is an enormous silver punch bowl from the Governor's Mansion that commemorated the launching of the Navy ship USS Florida in 1911. It's filled with and surrounded by an index of famous and obscure representatives of our state: an alligator, fish and shellfish, shells, fruits, flowers, a slice of key lime pie. Not only is everything exquisitely rendered, the painting is embedded with details and references that many viewers will miss but are examples of Still's perfectionism.
Around the rim of the punch bowl, he has painted scenes from his famous murals in the Florida House chambers, distorted by the rim's curve. In the surface of the silver teapot is a reflection of his family. A clock in the foreground is one of the more obscure items; it was a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette to the Florida family who looked after property he was given after the American Revolution in gratitude for his service. Notice the time is set at 3:27. Not coincidentally, de León first sighted Florida on March 27. Also not coincidentally, Still signed his painting on March 27, 2013 at the Ponce de León Hotel in St. Augustine, now part of Flagler College. Still arranged to have a handler at the St. Augustine farm pose an alligator for Still to paint from life. The alligator, he said, was exhausted after the hourslong session. In the portrait of de León, the cross he's wearing is a replica of the cross in the Spanish church where he was baptized. When Still visited it, relatives of the Spanish explorer gave him a container of earth from the surrounding land. He mixed it with pigments to paint the cross. The background of the woman's portrait is a reproduction of the cell where Osceola was held in St. Augustine. An early map of Florida, barely visible, is painted on the wall.
Those are just some examples, and a video in which the artist discusses the painting will be shown on continuous loop during gallery hours.
La Florida has been sold to a private collector but dozens of other paintings will be for sale. Most are the studies, which can be as detailed and well-worked as the larger works they reference. All are recent and include a series he did on coastal Florida after the 2010 oil spill and a new group that relate to another Spanish explorer, Don Francisco Maria Celi, who sailed from Cuba in 1757, explored the Hillsborough River and drew one of the first known maps of Tampa Bay. Still visited Cuba for a month to research Celi and explored the Hillsborough River, so there are wonderful paintings of both subjects.
He has impressive new major works, too. Come What May revisits his Gulf Coast series with another perspective on a family harvesting oysters on Apalachicola Bay he first painted several years ago. In the newer one, the father, mother and two sons are in near silhouette as they sail into the sun, which is almost blindingly reflected on the water. The first painting, And My Fathers Before Me, which was shown at Ocala's Appleton Museum in 2011, was excellent. This new one is even better.
In the past, Still has sold his paintings during an invitation-only evening event at a large rented venue such as Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater or the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in St. Petersburg.
"For the past 20 years," he said, "the show was only open for three hours. It was compelling for me to have paintings I had worked on for two to three years shown for more than three hours."
And to have people see them even if they could not afford to buy one. The paintings range from about $6,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many will be sold during preview for his regular collectors, but the good news for the rest of us is that they will remain at the gallery for all to view until January. See them while you can.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.