Christopher Still — A Sunshine State of Mind
You don’t get more Florida than Christopher M. Still. The artist’s depictions of Florida wildlife and landscapes reveal a photo-realist mastery that earned him a spot in the Smithsonian as well as an induction in the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.
A Clearwater native, Still studied in Florence and received a full scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts. He has even been immortalized in one of Jeff Klinkenberg’s books. The famed Floridian author is a personal friend.
Still took some time to answer questions about how Florida has influenced him both creatively and personally.
This month, Creative Pinellas is examining what how artists imbue a sense of place in their works. Given your subjects and the fact that you’re a Florida native — who, no doubt, grew up around a lot of commercialism, tourism and development — at which point in your life did you you realize your calling to capture our state’s natural beauty and quieter pastimes? What influences your choices in how you capture your surroundings?
“Growing up in the Tampa Bay area I spent most of my childhood outside. I got up in the morning and often didn’t come home till the streetlights came on. My favorite things to do growing up were fishing and drawing. Since I was a young child I loved the old masters. I would spend hours looking at the work of Rembrandt and other Dutch painters. As I became a teenager I felt drawn to paint the place that I loved with the fine art skills of the old masters. I wanted my paintings to communicate that, our home, Tampa Bay, the fish we catch, the food we eat, the sunsets we watch – these are our treasures.”
Is it true you grew up in the Dunedin area? What was your childhood like?
“I was born in Clearwater at Morton Plant Hospital and went to San Jose Elementary School, as well as Dunedin Middle and High School. I was drum major in the Scottish marching band. My mother and father were very talented and creative, and someone was always making something. My father was a history teacher at Clearwater High School and he loved sharing Florida history. Our family also loved the beach and fishing. I moved to Philadelphia in 1979 to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and then apprenticed with fresco painters in Italy. I returned to Florida in 1985 and early on I taught classes at the Dunedin Fine Art Center where I had taken classes as a child. Many of my students from those classes are still some of my best friends and patrons to this day. The Dunedin Fine Art Center is truly one of Tampa Bay’s treasures and has always been important to the development of the arts in Pinellas County. I have lived in Tarpon Springs since 1989 and it has a rich history in the arts, with several professional artists calling it home. I love the way it has preserved its history and culture. Its active working waterfront and appreciation for its Greek heritage and tradition of sponge diving brings art and culture alive in so many ways. Tarpon Arts does an amazing job of bringing wonderful performing arts programs to Tarpon Springs. Its new director, Diane Wood, is doing an amazing job of continuing the legacy of retired director Kathleen Monahan.”
You’ve trained and received acclaim in other places; earned awards for outstanding accomplishment in painting, a European Travel Fellowship, and the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for outstanding accomplishment in Fine Art. What was it about Florida you missed most besides your family?
“Whenever I travel I always miss the people of Florida and its natural beauty. I believe we live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. You can see a sunset in many places but this is where it feels like home – the color of the water, and the way our waves come in to the shore, the way the clouds build in the summer – there’s just nothing else like it.”
Your paintings are stunningly realistic. Could you tell us a little about how you honed your technique?
“Someone once said I was a ‘modern master’ – in that I have taken some of the techniques of the old masters but also I have learned from the unique use of light and color of the impressionists and their emphasis on painting outdoors and combined that with the freedom of modern times to create something uniquely my own. I believe strongly in the importance of developing a good foundation in drawing and art techniques with a thorough knowledge of my materials to insure the longevity of the work I create. I use photography in a limited way but I go to great lengths to paint from life and to immerse myself in the subject matter I am working on.”
Congratulations on having your works commissioned by so many esteemed institutions and being named to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. Could you share with us a memorable experience of seeing your works hung somewhere prominent such as the Smithsonian or the Governor’s Mansion?
“It was a great honor in 2013 to unveil my painting “La Florida” at the Governor’s Mansion. It was created for the 500th Anniversary of Ponce de Leon naming Florida which for many was a controversial celebration as of course the arrival of Europeans was not something the first Floridians – the Native Americans would find cause for celebration. Governor Scott and his wife, Anne, and the mansion curator Carol Beck were most gracious in working with me. I created a triptych, a three-paneled piece with a modern day Floridian Susie Henry in her traditional Seminole dress on one side and Ponce de Leon on the other side framing a still life filled with artifacts representing five hundred years of Florida history. I was very proud to have my work celebrate our complex heritage in the Governor’s Mansion.
What’s involved with being a resident artist for the Florida Legislature?
“In 2002 I completed 10 paintings for the House of Representatives in Tallahassee that tell our Florida story. I volunteer my time with Cultural Affairs and the Department of Education to develop resources for teachers to use the paintings to teach Florida history in their classrooms. I also volunteer my time to work with the staff in the capital as needed to develop programs and resources that support these paintings.”
I imagine you’d be a great tour guide for friends visiting from out of state…. What are some of your personal favorite locales?
“There are so many beautiful places to go in Tampa Bay, but I love my home in Tarpon Springs. If I had a guest visit for one day I would probably have them come to my house where we might sit on the porch a little while and talk over the day and then walk to the sponge docks. After enjoying the scenery of our working waterfront I would take them to see my friends the Russell Family at Rusty Bellies. This family owned restaurant does everything from catch the seafood, help cook the seafood and then run the seafood market Pelican Point next store. It doesn’t get more fresh or family owned. Then I would take them snorkeling in the grass flats at Fred Howard Park. Hopefully we could stay long enough to watch the sunset with Anclote Key lighthouse visible in the distance. For me that is a perfect day in Tampa Bay.”