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'Aripeka Jim' Rosenquist left a lasting impression in coastal community

James Rosenquist discusses some of his artistic concepts in his Aripeka Studio in 2008. He bought a home in Aripeka in 1976.
James Rosenquist discusses some of his artistic concepts in his Aripeka Studio in 2008. He bought a home in Aripeka in 1976.
Published Apr. 6, 2017

ARIPEKA — In the late 1970s, a guy who said he was building a house in Aripeka started stopping by Norfleet Fish Camp, a neighborhood store and social hub.

The youthful-looking middle-aged man, who introduced himself as Jim Rosenquist, loved to fish, said longtime store owner Carl Norfleet. He bought milk and beer, talked community news and mentioned in passing that he was an artist, though not in a way that suggested Norfleet should recognize his name.

"I got to know and like Jim a whole lot before I realized he was an internationally famous painter," Norfleet said. "It was like he was just Aripeka Jim when he was in Aripeka. No airs at all."

Mr. Rosenquist, who died last week at age 83, was in fact very famous — almost certainly the only Aripeka resident to ever merit a full-length feature obituary in the New York Times.

According to the story, he was one of the pioneers of the 1960s pop art movement, the first artist to "import the giant-scale, broadly painted representational pictures from outdoor advertising into the realm of fine art."

He lived a glamorous life, splitting his time between Florida and New York, flying off to exhibits of his work in Paris, Moscow and Basel, Switzerland.

MORE ABOUT JAMES ROSENQUIST:

James Rosenquist, who elevated the Tampa Bay art world, dead at 83

James Rosenquist, artist and Aripeka resident, shares life experiences

For James Rosenquist, it's the art of the big idea

He took famous guests such as actor Michael York to his favorite dive restaurants in Spring Hill and attracted assistants and other artists to Aripeka — people who changed its culture and, as environmental activists, fought drastic changes to its natural landscape.

But Mr. Rosenquist came by his knowledge of advertising art honestly, working as a billboard painter first in his native Midwest and then in New York City. And he also brought that side of himself to this tiny coastal community on the Hernando-Pasco county line, his primary residence for more than 30 years.

He was a proud former union member and "small 'd' democrat," said his longtime secretary, Beverly Coe of Spring Hill.

He loved to tinker with his collection of aggressively styled cars from the 1950s and '60s, the lines of which mirrored the boldness of his breakthrough paintings.

He dressed in paint-smeared jeans and black T-shirts and flannel shirts. He put in full days in his studio, as if he were still punching a clock, and in the evening liked to reward himself with boat trips on the Gulf of Mexico and a few Heinekens.

Before his health began to decline about five years ago, after he contracted the tick-borne disease Rocky Mountain spotted fever, "he was the strongest man I've ever known," Coe said.

"If he had not gotten that disease, he would be downstairs right now, painting. . . . The guy was like Popeye."

Mr. Rosenquist started visiting Florida regularly in 1971 because of his association with the University of South Florida's Graphicstudio.

He worked out of a studio in Ybor City, and stayed in Tampa for several months while his son, John, and first wife, Lily, recovered from a serious car wreck. He is also survived by his second wife, Mimi Thompson, and their daughter, Lily Rosenquist.

Michael Harrigan, a longtime curator of his work, said Mr. Rosenquist bought his property in Aripeka in 1976, built a house and blended seamlessly into what was then a far more isolated community.

Leslie Neumann, an artist who moved to Aripeka in 1989 to be with her husband, former Rosenquist assistant Dan Stack, said, "Dan had these great stories of driving up to Aripeka in the early days. It was all two-lane roads, and when you got out it was so dark you could walk into a tree."

Though Mr. Rosenquist is best known for his early work, he continued to sell paintings produced on his trademark grand scale, including a 130-foot-long mural exhibited in Basel in 2006, said Kevin Hemstreet, 52, an assistant since 1990.

Mr. Rosenquist, Hemstreet said, used techniques borrowed from his work on billboards, first painting smaller versions of planned works that acted "like road maps."

Hemstreet and other assistants then stretched large canvasses on wooden frames, coated them with primer and marked them with a grid pattern to guide Rosenquist as he created the full-sized work.

"He'd get a good breakfast in the morning, and he'd go out to the studio and paint for until 5 or 6 in the evening, then go out on the boat and relax," Hemstreet said.

Florida was a powerful, if indirect, influence on his work, Harrigan said. The shards of images featured in some of his later paintings were modeled partly on palmetto fronds, and "he always talked about the Florida light," Harrigan said.

Mr. Rosenquist also considered the trips on the gulf essential for recharging his creative energy, Harrigan said.

"No question he had a real love for that area — loved the landscape and the water, just loved it," he said.

What was relaxing to Mr. Rosenquist could be harrowing for friends and co-workers, said the painter Steve McCallum, a former assistant.

McCallum remembers being on a boat, after dark, with Mr. Rosenquist navigating after consuming several beers. Sure enough, McCallum said, it ran aground. On another trip, a cookout on an island in the gulf, Mr. Rosenquist started the fire with a flare gun and a pool of gasoline.

"When you left in the evening, he'd always say, 'We'll do something tomorrow, even if it's wrong,' " McCallum said.

"I had fun with him, no two ways about it."

Mr. Rosenquist was resilient enough that he rebounded from a 2009 fire along the Hernando coast that spread and destroyed his Aripeka home and studio, including a vast collection of prints and several large paintings, among them the mural exhibited in Basel.

Even after his long illness, his death came a shock to friends and will create a huge void among the employees he treated "like family," Coe said.

And though he wasn't as well known among locals as he was among art fans in New York, his death will also leave a big void in Aripeka, Hemstreet said.

"I think people will learn in years to come what a jewel of a painter they had in Jim."

Contact Dan DeWitt at ddewitt@tampabay.com. Follow @ddewitttimes.