Pirates were early and ardent fans of the northwest coast of Florida whose shallow bays made convenient staging areas for raids on Spanish ships and hideouts for counting and burying treasure. The Great Northwest, as the area is now known, was for generations the Forgotten Coast, occasionally “discovered” by military men whether during Andrew Jackson’s campaigns, the Civil War blockades, or the World War II training bases established in the area. More recently, the area’s beautiful beaches and low population density have led to the development of weekend and retirement beach home communities. Between the rogue seafarers and the more refined coastal dwellers were the Florida crackers.
In retrospect, “back then” causes were nobler, women were stronger, and men more dedicated. Today, by contrast, tens of thousands of advertising messages are a daily reminder that our modern conveniences, products, and services are bought with the loss of simplicity and sincerity. This notion at least begins to explain the phenomenal sales of Fiesta ware dishes and everything in Restoration Hardware stores.
Tallahassee artist Mary Adore Coloney (pronounced: colony) taps into that same longing we call nostalgia in her award-winning style of painting she calls “prismatic realism.” Her subjects are culled from Florida’s rural and coastal roots; rustic, rugged, and strong, they are captured in a single moment, rendered in a bright, duo-chromatic scheme, and accented with native flora and fauna. Although her subject matter is from another time, her handling of the material, the colors she chooses, and the touch of fantasy she invokes convey a sense of rebirth and hope that makes her work original and fresh.
Mary Adore, as her friends call her, carries that rare appellation of native Floridian, and a fifth generation one on both sides of her family at that. Her mother was an amateur art restorer and first exposed Mary Adore to her craft. One of Mary Adore’s first projects was a 16th century Dutch masterwork on wood panel; right after she started working she realized what it was and wisely stopped. She began her formal studies with a Florida State University fine arts professor when she was only twelve, spending her childhood summers crabbing and fishing on Alligator Point on the Apalachicola Bay; it is easy to imagine her returning to her professor each fall with gulf coast sand still between her toes. After studying in Florence, Italy, and then the Newcomb School of Art at Tulane University, she returned to Tallahassee and has been working there ever since.
Coloney’s paintings are intended to slow the viewer down, to gaze instead of glance; they are an invitation to stay awhile, like a porch swing on a sultry afternoon. The canvases show the real Florida: the birds and mammals, the sky and water, the plants and the people. Although her color choices are generally intuitive, all of her Florida-themed paintings use a yellow-toned background. Coloney begins a work by covering the canvas with a pearlescent underglaze. It gives a subtle shimmer throughout the painting, showing through the thin, successive layers of metallic acrylics that variously appear translucent and opaque, depending on the viewing angle. Contrary to common practice, she starts with the lightest parts of the painting first and subsequently adds layers of the same color to achieve darker tones.
Characteristic of her style is Shrimping off Apalachicola (shown at the top of article) for which the National Oil and Acrylic Painters Society awarded Coloney its “Most Innovative Painting” award during Exhibit 2000. The sky is a cloudless yellow field under which two fishermen strain, muscles taut, to pull in a lucrative catch. The water and the dramatis personae are rendered in shades of turquoise and the texture of the painting is that of an old photograph greatly enlarged. After a few moment’s viewing, the mind reinterprets these contrasting colors, and then the eye accepts them as a new black-and-white only sharper and with more feeling, providing a “sensory uplift” as the artist describes it.
“It’s hard to make a painting about Florida without introducing nature,” she says. “There are fragile parts of it that most newcomers don’t see.” Her paintings include an extrinsic part that is related to, but exists outside of, the main subject, a border on which are painted full-color plants and animals that often extend into the “black-and-white” portion. In Boiling Cane Syrup, a delicately rendered, fully colored owl swoops down through the body of the painting to land on a board with a skull on it, but it could just as well continue to the hieretic line of mice in the border.
Sometimes the relationship between these two parts is not obvious. For example, in Aunt Memory, a limpkin–a native Florida bird that resembles a heron–features prominently; in the border is an apple snail. Few would recognize that the latter is the only thing eaten by the former, a wonderful example of the irony of nature: the predator is entirely dependent upon the continued existence of the prey.
Mary Adore insists she is not an activist. The people and places, even the professions, portrayed in her Prismatic Realism paintings are mostly just memories. Nostalgia is at heart a longing; that yellow is so prominent a color in her work is telling, as it is a staple of age. Think about an old letter plucked from a drawer at Grandma’s house or teeth through which have passed a lifetime of coffee and tobacco. But her yellows are bold and youthful shades, without the rust and mold of pessimism. She is a painter of “complimentary contrasts” and in that is freshness and renewal. It is the optimist who works in the medium of the new black-and-white.
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