Martha Hartman is an expert storyteller with a memory that stretches back to Sarasota’s early bohemian days; a time when the town was populated by circus performers and cavorting artists.
“The townspeople regarded us as a bunch of freaks,” Hartman laughs. “We loved every second of it.”
At 89, the painter — a North Sarasota resident who still works out of her back lanai and goes by “Marty” — is as animated today as she was back then.
She can recall the costumes she wore and with whom she socialized at the roaring Beaux Arts Balls, the annual fundraising soiree that was hosted every year by the Sarasota Art Association, an organization that in its infancy was the only arts organization in town.
“It was the social event of the year,” she says of the dazzling parties that took place first at the Mira Mar Auditorium and later the Sarasota Times building. “There was no ballet or opera then. We had The Players and the circus.”
Like many longtime Sarasotans, Hartman witnessed the city’s transformation from an offbeat arts community to a slick arts mecca. Except, in her time she was more than just a witness — she was a pioneer.
In 1946, when she was 23 years old, Hartman cashed in her war bonds, left her hometown of Winter Park and moved to Sarasota to enroll in what was then called the Ringling School of Art.
As impressive as the college is today, it was equally impressive then.
Hartman’s classmates — Judy Axe, George Kaiser and Syd Solomon, to name a few — were to become some of the area’s most high-profile artists.
Within a year of arriving at Ringling, she would meet her husband, the late artist William Hartman, a handsome G.I. who was 15 years her junior.
Her girlfriends would balk at the love affair. Axe would tell her she was throwing away her chance to make it as an artist in New York.
Little did they know, Hartman would thrive in Sarasota.
Not long after getting married, the couple opened a gallery in downtown Sarasota. The Seventh Street Gallery, which would later be renamed to the Hartman Gallery and Studio, was a hot spot in town for a rotating cast of established artists.
It was the first art gallery in town and the headquarters for the Florida Artist Group, as well as a school for burgeoning artists.
In 1953, the gallery was responsible for launching The Petticoat Painters, the oldest continuously exhibiting women’s art group in the United States. Hartman is still a member of the organization.
“After all these years I still call them ‘my girls,’” Hartman says of the 20-member group that has become one of her greatest claims to fame. “I scold them sometimes. I want them to be better and original. I want it so you can walk in a room and in a sea of paintings say, ‘That’s by Donna. That’s by Sue. That’s by Marty Hartman.’”
IF YOU GO
Art Center Sarasota presents two new exhibits Jan. 19 to March 10. “Artists Who Made Sarasota Famous” and “The Story of the Sarasota Art Association 1926 — 1966” will be held in Gallery 1 and Gallery 2, respectively. The exhibit includes photographs, memorabilia and work by more than 40 artists who came on the scene at the start of the Sarasota Art Association, including Syd Solomon, Eric von Schmidt, Ben Stahl, John Armstrong, Jerry Farnsworth, Judy Axe, Beth Arthur, Robert Chase, George Fox and Martha and William Hartman. An opening reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Jan. 19, at Art Center Sarasota. For more information, call 365-2032 or visit artsarasota.org.