Jo-Ann Sanborn Paints the Everglades

January 5, 2016

During every season, artist Jo-Ann Sanborn often drives through the Florida Everglades looking for a spot that “speaks to her,” she says in a local televised interview in 2012. When she finds her spot, she makes a rough sketch of it on a canvas and returns to her painting studio on San Marco Island. The Everglades’s environment is formed by its particular geology, and Sanborn’s paintings capture the uniqueness of the ecosystem created by it; more humid in the summers than in the winters, the Everglades is a vast marshland comprised of “rivers of grass,” as such is its defamiliarizing, transevaporative atmosphere where rock and water ceaselessly merge.

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The Everglades is a subtropical marsh and coastal mangrove in Southern Florida. Spanish cartographers named the area between the Mexican Gulf and the Atlantic ocean the “Lake of the Holy Spirit”— a title that doesn’t quite emphasize the Everglades’s more earthy qualities— as it can be a hostile but beautiful environment. buggy, hot, and wet, it is inhospitable for the less accustomed traveler. The marshland rests on a patchwork of geologic formations, and the highly absorptive Miami Limestone and Fort Thompson Limestone have a greater substratum presence. As a sedimentary rock, Limestone’s porosity combined with its moisture-locked climate produces a unique hydrophytic vegetation.

The Everglade’s testy climate offers only brief recordings of any chosen vista. The paintings that come out of this process might be considered coloristic: honey yellow speckling Sanborn’s canvases are pronounced by heavy grays and blues, causing the colors to pulse irregularly, and sometimes to a single beat. The gray-slated openness of her paintings, particularly that of Autumn Arrangement, produces a calming, pacifying effect. On the other hand, Breezy exhibits long, gangly, brushstrokes resembling the stems of palm trees. Golden afternoon light pinkens these stems on some canvases, while in others they blend into the gray skies.

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The trees of the Everglades, also known as hardwood hammocks, grow in soil that is less hydrophytic (lower water concentration) than the deeper sloughs. This soil is on higher elevations called cays surrounded by moats of water. As her artist statement mentions, Sanborn is “awed by the simple dignity of a sable palm in dancing light:”  royal palms, cypresses, gumbo limos, cabbage palmettos, and mangroves become the indigenous subjects of Sanborn’s paintings.

The artist’s technique of leaving her chosen site to then finish the piece at her studio is born from the Everglade’s prickly disposition. Its temperament doesn’t register on Sanborn’s canvases, though, which evoke tranquil feelings more akin to Cezanne watercolors.  And like a Cezanne, the edges of Sanborn’s canvases are just as animated as their center, evoking an all-over openness to her works.

Sanborn’s paint handling is primarily about feeling, rather than accuracy: she plays with the light in each painting, conjuring gestural patches of grass and river water in a layering, combinatorial fashion, until the right colors and shapes present themselves. “You respond completely to the canvas itself, and what it needs; it sort of has a life of its own at that point,” the artist explains.

Sanborn’s work might be considered Impressionistic, in that she creates her landscapes with a genuine viewpoint in mind. Her work tends to evoke a sense of peacefulness, though she takes allegiance with neither painting school of Impressionism or Tonalism. These movements overlapped stylistically in America, despite the rivalries, but tended to avoid overt collaborative efforts. Sanborn’s work seems a hybrid of these movements. Is Sanborn an impressionist who uses Tonalist colors and blurred forms, or is she a Tonalist who acquiesces to the Impressionistic tendency for flatness, abetted by a lack of a varnished top coat?

Acrylic paint, Sanborn’s medium of choice, is ideal for conveying a sense of flatness, as it is a plastic polymer, which results in much less fleshy and sensuous, depth-inducing color, like that of oil paint. In truth, Sanborn’s work reveals ambiguous distinctions between these previous artistic movements, and beckons for new interpretations. 

A sense of urgency is inherent in Sanborn’s work as she is one of very few artists to paint the Everglades. Considering the difficulties of painting in a waterlogged climate, painters like Sanborn are necessarily explorers; hence Winslow Homer made a stint of paintings in these tropics, and so did John James Audubon while illustrating Florida’s blue herons. No Impressionist, Realist, Naturalist or Tonalist movement particularly thrived in this region though, except for the kitsch Highwaymen of the fifties, who made highlighter-neon paintings of a very different mettle. But as far as any serious reconceptualization of the Everglades, Sanborn who did make these paintings in the seventies, is part of an Impressionist revival perhaps all of her own.

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Sanborn’s paintings are also an attempt at bringing awareness to, in order to preserve, the Everglades’s flora and fauna; the Everglades have been reduced by 50% over the last century due to flawed public policy and household misunderstandings of its fragile ecosystem.

A german couple who collects Sanborn’s work told her when they drive through the Everglades, they now see it through the artist’s eyes. Sanborn captures and translates her experiences of the Floridian landscape through plein air painting and memory. She creates a painting experience for her viewers that shifts how the world of the Everglades is perceived. Placing one of Sanborn’s landscapes in their breakfast nook, the couple noticed that “the painting would change with the light…” they said. “But last week we went to Miami and when we were going across, we realized that the Everglades looked to us in an entirely new way. We saw your painting. We saw the light. We saw the beauty of the landscape and we were just so excited.”

Works Cited

U.S. Geological Survey (1999). “Florida Everglades.” Circular 1182 U.S. Geological Survey. Retrieved 2008-03-14. Online.

Everglades: “Lake of the Holy Spirit” “Old Florida Maps”.  <scholar.library.miami.edu> Retrieved 2008-08-22. Online.

“Jo-Ann Sanborn.” Expressions. WGCU, PBS 3. Bonita Springs, 2012-12-03. Television.

The Everglades. Wikipedia. Retrieved 2015-12-29. <http://cool.conservation-us.org/jaic/ articles/jaic32-02-004.html> Online.

Swedish American Works from the Hillstrom Collection, Resource Library: Traditional Fine Arts Organization, 2009. <http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/9aa/9aa267.htm> Online.

Cooper, Helen, A. Winslow Homer Watercolors. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987. Print.

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