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Artist brings Florida life to canvas

In places like Aripeka, Mayo and the Everglades, the subjects of Neil Adamson's paintings flourish.

Along the Santa Fe River, the 6 a.m. screech of a great blue heron has sparked Adamson's creativity. So has the porous hull of a boat sinking into the sand on an isolated Cedar Key beach.

For more than a quarter-century, Adamson has painted Florida's wildlife and the unpolished boats and buildings that surround it. "Some call me a wildlife artist," Adamson said recently at his South Pasadena home. "I consider myself a Florida artist."

Adamson spends rolls of film to produce the photographs that become the seeds of his work. "You work from a photograph, but you've got to observe on location," the bluejean-clad artist said.

When he creates at his home studio, Adamson is flanked by snapshots, with more photos blanketing the floor with bits of nature. "I've taken sticks and bark from locations back home to study before painting," said Adamson, 61.

On a 30-by-40 illustration board, the acrylic-watercolor artist first draws his subject and foreground. Depending on the detail, he may use a brush or a pencil.

Adamson selects for his subject the darkest colors among the five or six on his palette. "I want the subject to leap out," he said.

Then, he creates an aura. "My backgrounds are misty, foggy and soft," Adamson said. "I'm a painter of moods."

Numerous books and magazines have featured his work. More than 170 award ribbons and plaques cover a wall in his studio. "The awards are just frosting on the cake," he says.

Galleries in Florida, Louisiana, Connecticut and New York have exhibited his work. His paintings decorate offices and private collections in Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Canada, Germany and Sweden.

One Adamson work sold for $7,000. Most sell for $550 to $2,200. Comedian Jonathan Winters owns an Adamson painting.

"Adamson is today's Audubon," said Susanne Russell, owner of Susanne's Gallery in St. Petersburg, comparing Adamson to Haitian-born American wildlife artist John James Audubon.

Years ago, his sister's oil paints were taboo for a 6-year-old Adamson, but he was always intrigued by their smell. At age 12, Adamson moved with his parents from Manchester, Conn., to Pinellas Park in 1950. He became a St. Petersburg firefighter 11 years later, serving for 23 years. During that time, Adamson studied drafting and was a commercial artist and painter. He is self-taught through years of book study and private work.

In 1984, a client asked Adamson for more than 50 paintings. Working part time, the work would take more than two years. When he fell behind with other art requests, Adamson phoned his wife, Phyllis, his best critic.

"How about I come home at noon?" Adamson recalled saying. That day, at age 46, Adamson retired from the fire department to pursue art exclusively.

Adamson credits a favorable 1972 Times review as his first break. His 1975 work, Salt Water Astors, gained him national recognition.

James T. Ayers remembers Adamson painting Sand Key's vanishing landscape 26 years ago. "He saw it coming," the certified public accountant said at a recent art show in St. Petersburg, where nearly 75 visitors came to view Adamson's work. "Now Sand Key's like Miami."

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