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River trek takes to life on canvas

Thousands, thousands of strokes.

It took artist Keith Martin Johns and his wife, Linda, 13 days to canoe down the Suwannee River last month _ nearly two weeks of plunging paddle into water for 11 hours a day. They swatted yellow flies, glided by gators and occasionally lugged the 17-foot craft when the water was low.

Now Johns has traded his paddle for a paintbrush, and his latest strokes have re-created the river he and Linda navigated. Beginning Sunday and running through Aug. 31, a series of acrylic and watercolor paintings depicting the Suwannee will be on display at Florida Heritage Art Gallery at 21 N Safford Ave., which the Johnses own.

"It's one of the last great examples of Old Man River," said Johns, 43, who grew up in Tarpon Springs. He eventually plans to paint 25 Florida rivers. The trip down the Suwannee was good preparation, he said.

Along with dehydrated food and their sleeping bags, the couple packed paints, brushes and easels into their canoe. But after dropping in the water around Fargo, Ga., they paddled a few days before putting brush to canvas.

Inspiration came from the morning light, and from the lush glow left by a rainstorm. Johns realized that rather than searching for something dazzling, he should capture nature around him.

"It has caused me to see things differently," he said. "There is beauty in insignificance."

The Johnses ended the trip with the beginnings of six paintings. The show will contain 20. While Keith Martin Johns' name is on the works, Linda Johns helps with his paintings, he said. She also runs the administrative side of the gallery.

Vibrant yet simple and as detailed as photographs, the works include pieces called Slow Move and Rock Bluff that show the river and its banks. There are no people, no animals, just the water and the giant elm, birch or cypress trees bowing over it, their gnarled roots clutching the exposed banks.

"The banks became real significant," said Johns, who chose last month for the trip because he wanted to see the banks as well as the river they flank. "There is nothing in nature that is not beautiful."

But around Live Oak, the trip "became unfun," Johns said. The river became wider and more heavily traveled, and they had to watch out for the wakes of motorboats and water scooters.

"They didn't give us any respect in the canoe," he said. "Occasionally, a person or two would slow down when they went by you."

But by then the Johnses had lost their intimate relationship with the Suwannee. "It was everybody's," he said.

The trip afforded them a rare view of the 217-mile river, with its natural springs and still, quiet spots. Capturing it on canvas, Keith Martin Johns said, glorifies the river's creator.

"I've always been an artist," said Johns. "It was a God-given talent. I really believe that art is the expression of the soul."

If you go

The Suwannee River Excursion Art Exhibition, which opens Sunday, will continue through Aug. 31. The exhibition will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday at the Florida Heritage Art Gallery, 21 N Safford Ave. in Tarpon Springs. Admission is free.