Artists on a mission to preserve nature

By Esther Hammer
Tampa Tribune correspondent
January 4, 2010

   Tampa - The dwindling light of late afternoon plays on a pond in Dover, when suddenly a large flock of ibis comes home to its sanctuary in the tall grasses and trees growing along the banks.
   Standing on a dirt road nearby, Tampa artist Taylor Ikin snaps a photo.  Using the picture only as a reference, back in her studio she translates her memory of that experience into an evocative watercolor painting where the ibis once again and forever return to their home in the rushes.
   It's a passion she's nurtured for 35 years.
   "I have always been an environment recorder," she said.  "I like being close to the land, going out in the woods.  My comfort zone is native."
   Whether watching otters from a canoe in Cockroach Bay or having her shoe sucked off her foot on the mucky path of a forested wetland, Ikin is wild about nature.
   That's something she shares with another Tampa artist, photographer and painter Lorraine Genovar.
   Artists have similar goals.
   Working separately and in different styles, both artists are fervently documenting what they see as the treasure of Florida's grasslands, wetlands and forests, many of which are disappearing.
   During a recent trek into a forested wetland in Dover, Ikin marveled at the cinnamon ferns along the path, the little ground orchid further back and finally - the thing she had been searching for - a pair of nesting eagles.
   "They are a feast for the eyes," Ikin said.  "It's absolutely mind-blowing to see them, and it's just glorious that they have a spot here to call their own."
   Ikin took several photographs of the eagles and their forest home.  Back in her studio, those photos will be her reference for one or more paintings that will become part of a collection of about 40 of paintings Ikin has created in the last two years for an exhibit that opens Jan. 15 at the Dunedin Fine Arts Center.
   "It's an environmentally sensitive show that relates to places throughout Florida that are fragile, that haven't been over-developed yet and shouldn't be," Ikin said.  "Places like Cedar Key, Aropeka and several rivers in Ocala - places of such beauty that they need to stay just as they are."
   And every painting has a story.
   In "Eagle's Forest," the focus is the spring-fed creek running through the Dover wetlands near the eagles' nest. Golds and reds dance among the foliage and the water is a slurry of blues and greens.
   "When I came out here before, it was the dry season and this was the only place that had water," she said.  "I always love moving water and I love to paint water - there's so much life in it.  So I was drawn to this spot.  And I want to take the viewer back to experiencing what I was experiencing there."
   One of Ikin's paintings called "Heart of the Hillsborough" hangs in a public hallway at the offices of the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department.  John Brill, spokesman for the department, says it provides educational opportunities.
   "When people see the beautiful paintings their next question is usually, 'Where is that?'" he said.  "You get to explain how it was preserved.  We tell them how we (the department) purchase some lands and keep them protected so that they will always be there in the public domain for people's use."
   Genovar, a St. Petersburg native and a fourth-generation Floridian, has been finding and photographing what Florida has to offer for more than 35 years.
   Like Ikin, she is especially drawn to spots that include water.
   "Most of them are somewhat remote, so I spend a lot of time in a boat," Genovar said in a recent telephone interview.  But she also likes to hike and do just about anything if it involves nature in Florida.
   "I will wait in the blistering heat for hours waiting for the light to change to get that perfect shot," she said.  "It's a lot of time for a few photos, but I love the outdoors so to me it's all good."
   Genovar shoots on location and then develops the black-and-white image in a darkroom.  She adds richness and texture by painting it with oils.  Her technique utilizes several processes that are no longer practiced in this age of digital photography.
   "It's a dying art depicting a dying landscape," Genovar said, half-jokingly.
   Conservation goals grew.
   Although she didn't start out with an environmental mission, one has evolved.
   "As an artist I want to make art that is relevant and meaningful," she said.  "I know if I don't go out and document these things now, they won't be there someday.  So in that sense it is my mission. I also feel (my work) has a legacy in that so much of this will be gone one day."
   Some of it is already gone.
   "Like the Boot Ranch area of Pinellas County.  It used to be pristine wetland and now it's shopping centers and development," she said.  "That was really my first 'Wow!' moment, where I hadn't been there in a while and went back, having taken photos of that at one point in time, and it was just gone."
   She's looking now for places she hasn't seen.
   "At this point, it's filling in the blanks - what don't I have that is a true Florida image," she said.  And she may move a little bit away from the water.
   "Now I'm starting to think about other things, like cows under a tree, because that, too, is Florida history."
   Genovar and Ikin, as well as other environment-conscious artists, contribute to preservation by providing a visual record of what has been saved or what needs to be saved.
   "In any conservation effort you need every possible means of expression," said R. Lynn Whitelaw, director of the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs.
   "You're trying to get people to look at the natural resources you have.  We tend to get caught up in our urban world and forget that we live in a beautiful natural setting that has coastal properties, cypress domes, waterways, woodland - a unique natural environment.  We need visual reminders.  Artists provide that."

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