Preserving moments in nature

By Ron Matus
St. Petersburg Times
May 2, 2003


For Taylor Ikin, painting watercolor landscapes of Hillsborough County is an act of conservation.

   In 1971, Taylor Ikin was a newlywed in a new home on the Caribbean island of Antigua.  Neighbors were glugging gin and lime before lunch and dancing to steel drums on sugary beaches.
   Ikin, then in her early 30s, was bored.
   A friend invited her to join a painting group.
   "I said, 'Well, I can't paint,' " Ikin recalled recently.  And she said, 'It doesn't matter ... All we do is smoke cigarettes and drink coffee.' "
   Ikin's neighbors continued to imbibe and inhale.  But Ikin found a more powerful buzz.
   Today, the Sunset Park resident makes a living as a watercolor artist, with nature-based paintings scheduled for exhibits next year in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.
   Her latest effort: a work in progress called the Hillsborough Collection.  When it's finished later this year, it will include more than 30 depictions of wetlands in Hillsborough County - and a conservation message.
   "If they want to say, 'nice paintings,' okay," Ikin said front her home studio.  "But what I want them to get out of it is a sense of what we have in Hillsborough County."
   In a way, painting itself is an act of conservation, Ikin said.
   When she stumbles into a "God-given moment," her first thought is to capture it on canvas, "to make it real and hold it," she said.
   Ikin, now making her second stint living in South Tampa, is the classic late bloomer.
   Until Antigua, she didn't realize she had artistic potential.
   Once, as a Teenage, she sat on the banks of a river near Norfolk, Va.  A friend handed her a piece of chalk and said, "Lets sketch."
   "So l drew what I thought didn't look too bad, a house across the river," Ikin said in an accent that belies those Norfolk roots.  "And she looked at it and said, 'Ahh, come on, don't ever do that again.  Stick with needlepoint."'
   Ikin heeded the advice.
   For the next decade and a half, her artistic range extended as far as drawing Snoopy on her children's Easter eggs and doing decoupage.
   In 1961, she moved to Tampa.  She and her family were living in Hyde Park when her first husband, John Gray, died of leukemia.
   Some time later, a friend suggested they visit the Caribbean for the summer.  In Antigua, Ikin met Neville Ikin, an Australian who worked as an accountant for a sugar factory.  They married 10 days later and remained married 22 years, until his death in 1993.
   Ikin's romance with painting blossomed quickly, too.  In the beginning, her instructor steered her toward oil paints.  But Ikin gave it up after three weeks.
   "I was having to paint in my bedroom at the time, and you don't keep a happy marriage if it smells like turpentine," she said.
   She switched to watercolor and never looked back.
   Ikin learned fast.  She painted every day.  Soon, she was selling her work - scenes of palms, beaches, shorelines - to tourists.
   "Once I started, I had to do it," she said.  "It's a drive."
   Ikin still paints every day, but now her clients are arts patrons and corporations.
   Her focus on the environment comes naturally, she said.
   In Virginia as a teenager, she rode horses through woods and pasture.  In the West Indies, she watched barges bring drinking water during a drought.
   "We ran out of water," Ikin said.  "The whole country."
   Experiences like that made her appreciate Florida's natural wonders, she said.
   Last year, Hillsborough County commissioned her to paint a scene from the Alafia River.  The county water department put the image on posters.
   Now, Ikin is painting scenes from other county conservation lands.
   Every few weeks, she drives her champagne-colored Mercury Sable to remote spots along the Hillsborough River, Cockroach Bay and other natural areas.  From there, county officials escort her into some of Tampa Bay's last remaining wilderness.
   Some of these areas are off limits to the public, which is another reason to paint them, Ikin said.  With the paintings, people can "get a feel for it and realize" what we're trying to do," she said.
   So far, she has finished 10 paintings.  When the series is done, she'll hit the road.
   Exhibits are scheduled next year at the Capitol Gallery in Tallahassee, the Florida House in Washington, D.C., and in ether museums around the state.
   The Hillsborough series "showcases our county beautifully," said Jan Stein who coordinates the county's Public Art program, which has purchased two of Ikin's works.  Stein says the series is Ikin's "blockbuster."
   Ikin calls her work "interpretive."  She doesn't aim to recreate the landscape as much as convey the feelings it inspires
   "I don't think God minds if I rearrange things," she said.
   In one painting, roseate spoonbills float across an expanse of marsh.  Plants, water and sky merge in swirls of blue, pink, green and yellow.
   In another, Gator on the Hillsborough, splashes of green, brown, yellow and orange tie river, bank and trees to a lone gator in the center of the scene.
   Ikin creates with "a definite playfulness," said Robert Rowen, owner of Nuance Galleries on S. Dale Mabry Highway.  "She throws stuff and sees what happens"
   The impressionistic result is able to capture the lushness of Florida's landscape in ways that photographs or more reality-based work often do not, Rower said.
   Ikin doesn't have to travel into Hillsborough's hinterlands to find natural beauty.
   In January, she was walking along Dundee Creek, a sliver of a stream that flows behind her home, when she was struck by the moment.
   The morning sun came "roaring through the trees," lighting up leaves and water as if the place was "wrapped in diamonds", Ikin said.
   She couldn't let it get away.
   Now Dundee Creek hangs in her studio.

Ron Matus can be reached at (727) 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com.

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