Splash of Sarasota at Gallerie 909

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Six Sarasota artists will be making a big splash in St. Pete.

The Splash of Sarasota exhibit will open at Gallerie 909 on Sept. 12, from 5-9 p.m. and will feature the work of artists Todd Berrien, Arthur Dillard, Major Gladden, Barbara Mask, Jean McMurren and Eleanor Merritt. An artists’ talk is scheduled for 7 p.m.

The styles, subjects and themes of the works vary from artist to artist, though they sometimes seem to find a common ground.

Taking in the art of Eleanor Merritt is like delving into a mystical and mythical world. Her aptly named “Whispering Spirits” features ethereal images of faces and forms that materialize out of an atmosphere of seemingly shifting colors. It is one of her “Black Paintings” series, of which the artist notes: “Instead of working up the image on a blank white canvas or paper, I have begun to use black as a background for my images. Somehow working on and into black allows me to feel a deeper warmth between the colors I use.”

Her gripping “Revelations of Goddesses” series depicts strong female images, as in “Golden Goddess,” “Ancestral Dream Dance” and “Blue Lady Blue Dreams.”

“My style is very personal, my images very introspective,” Merritt explained. “My style has changed in over 60 years of painting as I have matured and followed many themes—abstract, mixed media, symbolic references to ethnic cultures, spiritual figures, goddesses. Goddesses are magical and powerful. I have always celebrated the female figure in my paintings.”

Merritt has garnered many accolades for her artwork including the Sarasota Arts Council Arts Leadership Award, Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award and the Sarasota County Commission’s Women of Impact Award. Her art has been the centerpiece of numerous one-woman exhibits around the state and country. But she was only five years old when she knew she wanted to be an artist.

“I was always drawing, copying pictures from books, doodling,” she said. “I was fortunate to have had parents who encouraged me to explore my talents and my creativity. Teachers throughout elementary school and secondary school helped me to perfect my skills.”

Merritt would go on to major in fine arts in college and graduate school. Artists that she admires include Faith Ringgold—who impressed Merritt with her use of fabrics and quilts so much that it motivated Merritt to use fabrics in many of her paintings — and Lois Mailou Jones, who illustrated through her lifetime the transitions that artists take as they mature.

“I was thrilled to have exhibited with her in a show in Tampa years ago,” Merritt said.

The most rewarding aspect about picking up the paintbrush, Merritt said, is that you are free to explore your thoughts.

“Your inner mind is free and the image emerges from the use of inks, collage, any materials you wish to use to create a moment, a thought, an image that comes from you,” she said. “An image that nobody else can create. It is empowering.”

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Barbara Mask is also intrigued by the female form, as it is a recurring theme in her work.

“I have done a number of paintings with African women as subjects,” she said.

Mask explained that she loves the costumes, and some of her subjects are caught in everyday moments, such as an African woman carrying a jug while smiling or others wearing traditional headdresses and merely looking pensive or wistful. She has even done elaborate and colorful African masks, some complete with feathers and jewels. Her work also includes portraits and collages, which also usually depict females, such as island women in a Caribbean market. She describes her style for the most part as figurative art.

“It illustrates my feelings of growing up black,” Mask said, “and memories from childhood.”

For Mask, the journey is the most fulfilling aspect of painting.

“Just the process of doing it is the most rewarding thing,” she attested, “being involved in producing a piece of art.”

Mask and her husband lived in New York City for 30 years, and moved to Sarasota in 1991. Since that time Mask said the artistic community of the west Florida city has evolved.

“When we came there was quite an artistic community even then, 25 years ago, but I do think it’s grown,” she said. “There are quite a few galleries.”

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When artist Arthur Dillard first found himself drawn to the art world as a youngster, many naysayers told him that it’d be difficult to make a living as an artist.  He went to college for engineering but never put down the paintbrush.

“I did engineering for 20 years and painted every day,” Dillard said.

It paid off for him as he ultimately decided to leave his high-stress career and turn his full attention to his artwork. Dillard, 66, has been earning a living as an artist for the last 20 years.

“I put five kids through college as an artist!” he asserted.

Dillard’s themes and subjects are expansive, as he depicts such varied scenes as rural workers planting tobacco, people performing a river baptism and an old veteran saluting a fighter plane flying by.

Some of his works focus on serene childhood moments, as in the poignant “Waiting On Nana and Papa,” where two small children look expectantly out a large window and in “Precious Memories,” where a young girl pulls a yellow petal from a flower.

Other pieces feature African-American political figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama while his numerous sports paintings depict iconic heroes like Chicago Bears great Walter Payton, Negro Leagues home run king Josh Gibson and Muhammad Ali in “What’s My Name?” as he is taunting Ernie Terrell in the ring. His watercolors are not transparent like so many others, Dillard said, adding that on some of his pieces he may have 20 coats of watercolor, which lend a singular vividness to the overall work.

“It is a lot different from your typical watercolor,” he said.

About 20 years ago Dillard, somewhat of a trailblazer, started tackling black and white watercolors. Up until six years ago he was the only person doing it at all, he said. Some of these works feature legendary musicians and singers captured in the moment of performing, such as Tina Turner, Muddy Waters and Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong.

“I’ve been teaching that monochromatic throughout the state and the country, so a few other people are trying to do it now,” Dillard explained, “but up until then I was the only person doing that style.”

Dillard loves to “see the stories” in people’s faces as they take in his paintings, as their interpretation can be totally different from his own, he said. But he finds that in his work, people can often find a common ground.

“A lot of my subject matters are things that I dealt with in my lifetime,” he pointed out, “but I find that everybody else, whether they be they black or white or whatever, or even from other countries, they identify with the some of the same subject matters and things.”

The unique works of Berrien, Gladden and McMurren round out the exhibit.

Gallerie 909 is located at 909 22nd St. S. For more information on Splash of Sarasota, visit gallerie909.com or call (727) 565-3930.

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