Christopher Still, whose paintings can be seen in the Governor’s Mansion and Smithsonian Institute, has earned acclaim throughout his career for the way in which he takes Florida landscapes and depicts them in styles more often reserved for “higher” subject matter, such as historic European architecture. Still’s dedication to Florida through his art has earned him an induction into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, as well as a commission from the Florida House of Representatives to create 10 paintings that tell the history of the state.
Still is fluent in Floridian. He has spent much of his career trying to capture what makes Florida distinctly beautiful in his paintings, and believes this uniqueness is something that more Floridians should embrace. “35, 40 years ago, I had a very difficult time making that transition to people seeing the Florida landscape painted in ways they didn’t think of their own – we have a self-esteem problem where we don’t think of our own subject matter as being worthy of important art.”
A notable highlight of his career is when he was commissioned to paint a portrait of former Florida Governor Lawton Chiles. While Governor Chiles sat for the portrait, Still had to ask him to keep from fidgeting, until he realizes that the governor had important business to attend to. “I was looking at him and he kept moving a little bit. And I was saying, ‘You’ve got to move your head back.’ Kind of correcting him. Someone came over and whispered in his ear and he said, ‘I don’t know, let me ask Chris if it’s okay to take a break.’ And he said to me, ‘Is it okay if I take a phone call from the President of the United States?’”
(Photo credit for featured image: Holly Lynne Photography)
Examples of Christopher Still’s work:
Portrait of Governor Lawton Chiles
One of the 10 murals created for the Florida House of Representatives
Chris Cate:Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian Podcast featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors.
I’m your host Chris Cate and in this episode created by SalterMitchellPR I talk to Christopher Still a member of the Florida Artists Hall of Fame and the artist in residence for the Florida Legislature. In our conversation we talk about the portrait he did for Governor Chiles, about creating ten murals for the Florida House of Representatives, and about his process that so beautifully tells Florida’s story in his paintings. We also discuss Florida museums and our state’s art community as a whole.
And you can hear it all right now. Chris, thanks so much for being on the show. I love your artwork because it not only looks amazing, it does an outstanding job telling Florida’s story. So what is it about Florida that keeps inspiring you to paint it?
Christopher Still:Well, I mean I’m a Florida-born child and part of my experience is really deep-rooted in spending a lot of time outdoors. I have a very deep love for it. I think from day one, from my earliest years, I saw a divide between Florida being portrayed in a commercial way and the beauty that I knew that I was experiencing. So my whole path was for the longest time trying to figure out how to portray that, how to get the tools to portray that.
Chris Cate:Is that really why you for the most part, from what I’ve seen, stuck to painting Florida as opposed to scenes of Venice or Paris, but to really stay true to Florida?
Christopher Still:Getting there, getting to the point that I am painting Florida was a long path because I was picked up by artists and actually moved to Italy and work for artists under the Vatican, and lived in Europe. A lot of my training comes from there. Initially when I first came back to Florida, after school and studies, the Floridians were flocking to buy my paintings of Europe. It was in the early years. It’s funny for people to say now your work’s so popular because it’s of Florida. Well, 40 years ago, 35, 40 years ago I had a very difficult time making that transition to people seeing the Florida landscape painted in ways they didn’t think of their own – We have a self esteem problem where we don’t think of our own subject matter as being worthy of important art.
And so, a lot of the collectors at that time who were Floridian were flying over to Europe to buy European art. It was an interesting transition to trying to get across that it’s not what you paint but how you paint it. And things are painted better that you love.
Chris Cate:Yeah. Absolutely. I read that you painted a mural for a restaurant when you were in second grade and sold your first painting at 14. Is that right?
Christopher Still:Yeah. I benefited from growing up in a retirement community where there were a lot of important professional artists who were around who put me in classes almost immediately with other adults, because there weren’t a lot of art classes for children. I had artists, my Dad, my Mom, my great-grandmother, were … I saw a lot of paintings, so I was out in the park showing my art when I was in second grade. Pretty much at that point was already pretty serious about what I was doing.
Chris Cate:Is there a painting that you consider to be your big break, that really elevated your career?
Christopher Still:Well, again there was that rough transition to moving back here and trying to say, What just happened? I had studied with all these American painters and had a lot contemporary influences. I had been working under artists who were working in 17th and 16th century ways of painting. And I thought this is the time to get to work on those things that I’ve always wanted to do. And I began composing paintings, subject matters that were very common to us. The thing I think of first is an Eckerd Drugs plastic bait bucket, a speckled trout, a blue crab stringer and shrimp that I was painting in a Dutch Renaissance fashion.
And I just got so thoroughly excited about it. I saw it as a turning point for me because I kind of viewed, I could stay in the Northeast, continuing American tradition. I could work in Europe, continue to recreate things that had been done in the past. Or Florida was this brand new subject matter that was wide open where I can employ techniques from hundreds of years together that had never really … so it was an exciting new, brand new thing for me. But anyway.
Chris Cate:Were there any other artists at that same time that you felt were trying to do the same thing, to try to really bring Florida to the forefront as a subject matter?
Christopher Still:Not at the time. I wasn’t even yet aware of the painters that had come down to St. Augustine back in the 1890s that were going out into the landscape. I had not really seen paintings being done, painted with the type of … What I had seen was maybe works by Moran in it, Winslow Homer, that had come down and really were painting things in exciting ways. Like the Gulf Stream. Homer with the figure adrift that was just beautifully painted and also seemed to hit home for me. In the contemporary scene I didn’t see that going on at the time. There’s more now.
Chris Cate:How were you approached to do the portrait for Governor Chiles and how much direction were you given about how to work different parts of his life into it?
Christopher Still:Governor Chiles and I had met years before. When he passed through Tarpon Springs he would visit my studio and we discussed … He was restoring a double dog trot cabin and we were talking about those things. And it was while one of my paintings was on display at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee that Mrs. Chiles came to talk, and said that she liked my work. I had presented to her because I don’t particularly like doing portraits. I said I would love to paint Governor Chiles. And she said, Well I didn’t think you did portraits. I said, I don’t, but would paint him because he’s a Florida icon.
And so there was no direction given. She said, Well, You’re hired. I had based that painting on the Van Eyck Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini painting where there’s this royal wedding and in the mirror is a reflection of things that are in it. And I in my own little world was looking at Florida going through its own renaissance. The governor was my opportunity to paint royalty. That’s was developing as my style to have visual symbols of things laced throughout the painting. I don’t do portraits very often because, of course, that system of painting just takes so inordinately long time to do that it very difficult for me to be able to afford to do official portraits. So I don’t do those.
Chris Cate:How long does it take to do something like that? For instance the Governor Chile’s painting? How long did that take to do?
Christopher Still:Well, there’s some funny stories about that. Most major figures which you see in the past, they had to put the person’s clothes on a mannequin so they could render all of that out because no busy person can sit long enough for an artist. So I used to follow him around through the day and draw him in his office while he was working, and then occasionally early in the morning or late in the afternoon we would have scheduled a sitting for a brief period of time. And there was one time where he was posing and I get wrapped up in what I’m doing and often forget the station of the person that I’m painting. I was looking at him and he kept moving a little bit. And I was saying, You’ve got to move your head back. Kind of correcting him. Someone came over and whispered in his ear and he said, I don’t know. Let me ask Chris if it’s okay to take a break. And he said to me, Is it okay if I take a phone call from the President of the United States? But anyway, he was a very kind man.
Chris Cate:And the work you did for the Florida House of Representatives seems to be on a whole other level in regards to Florida history. How did you approach that job of creating 10 paintings that cover basically 500 years?
Christopher Still:Well, in a certain way I was looking … Really kudos need to go to then House Speaker Thrasher who was wanting to elevate the decorum of the room. It used to be there was thick glass that isolated the legislators from the gallery, and unless you were pressing the microphone the public couldn’t hear what was going on on the floor. So oftentimes the legislators were just speaking and talking while other people were talking. So he removed the glass and he wanted to make the room have this elevated feeling of responsibility.
My concept for that was to make windows that would surround the legislators, that would have these people throughout history looking at them, observing them, watching them as they go about the state’s business. That they’re not only being watched by the public above but they’re being watched by all the people who sacrifices have led to where we are. That took an enormous amount of time to do that work.
Chris Cate:They turned out so well. Is there any piece of Florida history that you really enjoyed including in those paintings?
Christopher Still:I think some of my favorite experiences for me to paint was one of the underwater coral reef paintings. I with some friends engineered a paint box that could hook to scuba tanks that I could maintain the pressure in it to have my hand in a glove with lights on it to paint underwater. And so I got access with a marine biologist named Randy Reynolds to live and work on Carysfort Reef Lighthouse off of Key Largo. We would live out there and I would have a mooring buoy and go down and paint for about three or four hours at a time doing studies.
I think the thing was when they had first advertised the commission for the murals they said this was going to be a national landmark, price to be discussed after the artist is determined. I of course thought this commission is speaking to me. This is what I’ve been waiting to do my whole life. And so when I went in and I found out what the budget was … At the time the budget was about what one of my paintings was going for on the private market. So I said to Speaker Thrasher that there’s just no way. These could be complicated. They’re going to have to be simple versions of whatever. And I would have to have his help to open up Florida collections and museums and get support around the state to get items that I needed after accepting that commission.
And on my way to the airport I thought, How can you be given such an opportunity? You’ve been waiting for it your whole life. Why would you do it simpler? Why would you do it faster? By the turn of the first year when the project was supposed to be finished and the funding was exhausted I only had two of the ten paintings finished. So we went through a lot of my patrons, bought studies and things, and that helped to pay for the project. And then of course the speaker had to go to the next speaker who was Speaker Feeney and then to Speaker Byrd, because the project was going on, to have their okay and support for me continuing to work on something.
And for me it was just the exciting … I had all kinds of experiences because I had that access across the state. To be painting in the coral reefs, to go to NASA and go into the Space Shuttle, to be in Mims to see Harry Moore’s residence, to speak with cattlemen. It really made history come alive for me.
Chris Cate:What makes a good scene for a painting of Florida? When you’re going to these different places what do you look for that catches your eye?
Christopher Still:The biggest thing I have to do is be careful not to be … It sounds funny but to be careful not to be looking for something because it so often makes you miss something that has never been painted before. A lot of the motivation of the very best paintings and scenes that I’ve had is just purely by going out and being open to experiencing what I’m seeing. It’s often an emotional response. I spent a month or two months on Apalachicola Bay just circling a family, following the oil spill. It was just one morning where the light, the conditions, the shapes were just at a certain way that I saw what it was that I wanted to paint. And it took nearly four years for me to recreate just that one experience.
Chris Cate:Do you take a picture, or do you just have that mental image in your head?
Christopher Still:I do everything. Photography is an incredibly good tool and, at the same time, I often say to people, If photography made better paintings then we should be doing much better paintings than were done in the past. And that’s not always happening. So in that case, I’ll take pictures, I’ll draw, I’ll sketch. I have a paint box that I take out with me to do color sketches. Once I’d found out what pose I wanted to do I went to the boat on a trailer and did drawings of it so that I would get a feeling of the shape, of the object.
It’s often difficult. What works in a photograph doesn’t always … You have to have a lot of specific, very intentional color changes to make things move in space and feel the texture and depth of something. It takes working from life to really make that happen. Sometimes that’s just not possible, to bring a cow in the studio. However, like in the house murals, I found a taxidermied cow in a steak restaurant in Hanes City and brought the taxidermied head into the studio. So when possible I try to work from life as much as I can.
Chris Cate:You mentioned earlier that when you were really getting started that Florida artists weren’t really inward looking at our state. How would you characterize Florida art scene today? Do you interact very often with other Florida artists?
Christopher Still:I do. I’m not quite sure what the art scene is because artists for the most part are not, we’re not necessarily team players. You’re doing personal experiences. You’re reacting to things. The best thing you can try to do to do original artwork is to not be swept away with a trend. Because of course if there is a trend there’s nothing more sure that that is not going to be something of great influence because if it’s a trend then it’s already been done.
The Florida art world has a tough time. The museums suffer with the attendance. They have a lot of financial challenges. And so the focus a lot of times goes on whatever will fund an exhibit. It’s hard to see where Florida has a real clear influence in that way. Art Basel down in Miami certainly has a very strong presence in the art world and pretty much as you walk around throughout the work being exhibited you can just see it’s all over the map. It’s as individual as people are individual.
Chris Cate:When you’re talking about museums made me think portraits, you can see the images online so easy that people may have less incentive to go to museums which I can see leading to the decline in attendance. In your opinion what-
Christopher Still:Well, we had an interesting phenomenon happen. I’ve certainly had a lot of museum directors come here and visit and we’ve discussed these things. I opened by studio maybe three years ago, or four years ago, and we were shocked that we had well over 500 people a day coming to the studio for two or three months. As much as I would like to think that it is my work that was propelling that, which part of it was that, I think it’s more the fact that my work is lifting up the place in which these individuals live. And Florida, again, Florida often suffers from a little bit of a self esteem problem that it’s trying to chase after looking like or being like someplace else. And it hasn’t fully discovered what is great about itself.
And artists are struggling to figure out what Florida is. I often have people say to me, You portray old Florida. You portray these very romantic versions of Florida. And it’s like, well, when I’m out in a strawberry field with people picking strawberries there’s a very dramatic, a very beautiful dramatic thing that’s going on that we’re perhaps not aware of. That might seem like it’s something from the past, but every time you go in the grocery store and you pick up an orange or you pick up a strawberry there’s people behind that.
It’s where do you spend your time. I’m out working on shrimp boats. It’s definitely a modern drama that’s going on with these people trying to survive in a modern world and using age old ways of farming and fishing. I don’t know.
Chris Cate:That definitely makes sense. I want to transition now to the four questions that I ask every guest at the end. The first being, Who is a Florida leader that you admire? It could be someone from the past or someone current today.
Christopher Still:I used to call John Thrasher my pope. To come up with a commission to lift up Florida art and to try to do that within the lawmaking body of Tallahassee was certainly an incredible step. And now as I’ve grown to know him over the years and see him leading FSU, the man has incredible dimension and love for Florida. He would be one.
I’d have to say a lot of my heroes are people you would never have heard of, which are like the oyster fishing family that’s out in Apalachicola, the Evans. Another person, one of them would be Mike [Chisholm 00:28:49]. It’s a developer who’s deciding to restore a historic building and just wants to make his buildings LEED certified and tries to press on into the future but do things that lift Florida up. Anyway.
Chris Cate:Yeah. Those are all great examples. What person, place or thing in Florida do you think deserves more attention?
Christopher Still:Well, you know, I was in an orange grove recently and the orange grove manager said to me, I feel like people have forgotten that we’re here. I had some friends who are in the fishing business and they just lost a friend of theirs with Maria. The first mate was lost in the gulf. We sit down and we love our shrimp and we love our grouper nuggets, and there’s this huge population of people that really are going to great lengths to bring us those things. That’s juxtaposed, they have to fill their boats with diesel fuel, that all of us are using gas to get there. Florida is always struggling on the question of off-shore drilling and all these different things.
I think it’s a very critical thing that we re-think this terminology that often divides several groups. There’s a lot of divisive thinking going on. As soon as you use a certain term it sounds like … If you’re an environmentalist then you’re against development. If you’re a developer, you’re against … that’s part of where I was lifting up Mike Chisholm. There’s a real critical necessity to make sure that our farmers, our fishermen, that our life support of the things that we enjoy here, the beauty of our beaches that keep bringing our tourists here. That we responsibly go after making sure that we protect these things. And I know that’s a difficult subject. I don’t know that we can keep proceeding with such development, have our population grow to such lengths that we don’t devote more attention to the environment itself.
Chris Cate:Yeah. I totally agree. Third question on this list is, Where is a favorite Florida place for you to visit?
Christopher Still:It’s funny. I moved to Tarpon Springs about almost 30 years ago and I still feel like I’m on vacation. Probably my favorite place is to walk with my family from our house down to the sponge docks in Tarpon and sit at the back of Rusty Bellies on the Anclote River and eat shrimp caught by Jack and have a Blue Moon beer and watch the sponge diving boat go up the river while the sun’s setting. So that’s an easy one for me to answer. I love being out in nature everywhere but just that combination of that beautiful sight and food is one of my favorite places to go.
Chris Cate:That’s great. Last question on this list. Do you have a favorite Florida sports team?
Christopher Still:I’d have to say FSU. My daughter went there. My Dad got his doctorate there. I was very blessed that they gave me an honorary doctorate recently. I had not been to many football games but had in that time period grown to love going to those games. So, yeah. So it’s the Seminoles.
Chris Cate:Well, good. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk today. I think our listeners are really going to enjoy hearing everything that you’ve shared.
Christopher Still:Well, thank you. I appreciate you reaching out.
Chris Cate:Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. If you aren’t subscribed to the podcast yet, I hope you’ll look us up and subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app, like Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or Google Play Music. If you leave a review that would be great too. Thanks to my team at SalterMitchellPR for making this podcast possible. If you need help telling your Florida story we’ve got you covered. We offer issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. We also have our own in-house creative and research teams. Look us up at SalterMitchellPR.com for more information. You can also find more information about the Fluent in Floridian podcast at fluentinfloridian.com. Have a great day.