A cool-colored watercolor features a bait, tackle and sandwich shop tucked behind a row of palm trees lining the side of a bridge overpass. A man with a fishing pole walks by, about to be passed by an older model car. The scene looks vaguely familiar, but hints of a different era. The portrayed spot is actually what we now know as the burger staple New Pass Grill and Bait Shop at Ken Thompson Parkway.
Back in the 1950s, the small buildings in the painting were located on the southeast wall of the New Pass Bridge, up the hill from where the New Pass Grill now sits. Back then, Sarasotans knew it as “Dan Byrd’s Fish Camp,” or more simply, “Byrd’s,” and some called it “Daisy’s Place” because it was famous for Daisy’s hamburgers.
William Hartman knows all about it because he grew up here. And his father, also named William Hartman, is the late artist who painted the snapshot of old-time Sarasota.
It’s just one story depicted in the 24 paintings in the upcoming “Gulf Coast Heritage” exhibit opening Dec. 5 at the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast.
Larry Stults, president of the board of Sarasota Bay Watch (a supporter of The Conservation Foundation) got the idea for the exhibit after attending other exhibits hosted by the Conservation Foundation. His late grandfather, who coincidentally is also named Larry Stults, was an artist and family friend of the senior William Hartman. In fact, the two used to paint together.
So, Stults approached the younger Hartman about putting together an exhibit that displayed both of their heritages.
Fifty-five-year-old Larry Stults is a retired biotechnology patent attorney who grew up in Sarasota. After working in mid-Atlantic states for 25 years, he moved back to the area in 2006.
William Hartman is an art collector/framer and owner of William Hartman Gallery. The 66-year-old grew up in Sarasota, and he’s an active collector of photography and artwork featuring earlier Florida. He also has a collection of work by Wilfrid Berg, his father’s childhood friend and painting contemporary, which will also be in the exhibit.
Despite the fact that the senior Hartman and Stults were good friends and painting comrades, the younger generations didn’t know each other as children. In fact, in 1970 when Hartman opened his framing business, one of the first pieces he framed was a piece of Stults’ grandfather’s work. Stults’ grandfather gave it to him as a high school graduation present. Stults remembers taking it to the gallery to have it framed, one of the first times he and Hartman met.
And even though the two men never met as children (they’re 10 years apart), they both grew up exploring the same cottage and waters on Cabbage Key, a remote island located north of Captiva Island, off the coast of Cape Coral. Stults’ grandfather kept an inn there after retiring from a commercial art career, during which he illustrated ads for Coca-Cola and magazine covers for publications such as The Saturday Evening Post.
On a whim, he bought a place on Cabbage Key that he operated as an inn and studio from 1944 to 1969. In those times, the only visitors were seasonal ones, and the children had to take a boat to a one-room schoolhouse. Back then, Stults and Hartman explain, most artists on the Gulf Coast knew of each other because they’d take art classes together or paint together — it was a tight-knit artist community.
“During the slow months, when raccoons, mosquitoes and the Stultses were the only inhabitants (of Cabbage Key), my family would go down and spend several days,” says Hartman. “The adults would paint, and I would fish off the dock.”
Stults fondly remembers his grandfather letting him drive the same pre-World War II boat called “Sandspur” that was used to pick up the Hartmans from the mainland. A lot of his memories relate to that boat.
“My grandmother would have these big meals…. A big roast or turkey, and all the fixings she’d set on the engine box and then we’d anchor by the bird rookery,” Stults says.
It was this life on the island that inspired him to serve with the Sarasota Bay Watch, the co-presenter of the exhibit, today.
“It was really rustic, untouched, beautiful and rugged,” Stults says of his childhood influence. “That shaped me a lot.”
That same Gulf Coast childhood led Hartman to develop a natural interest in Old Florida. He collects art and photography of the post-World War II good old days, and his affinity for art reflects on his family’s involvement in the community.
His parents operated The William and Martha Hartman Gallery art school and exhibition space. It was located below the world-renowned Sarasota artist Syd Solomon’s art school at 1216 First St., the previous home of the Ceviche restaurant downtown.
Hartman’s father ended up in Sarasota after the war. Upon his return home to Muskegon, Mich., following his service, he and his hometown buddy, Berg, decided they wanted to attend an art school. They had heard of a little art school in Sarasota. So, they hooked up the elder Hartman’s travel trailer, headed to Sarasota, and immediately parked the trailer on the Whittaker Bayou and signed up for classes at Ringling College.
Growing as painters together, they often painted the same subjects, used similar styles and even became interested in watercolors together. They were “co-conspirators” in art, as Hartman says. The duo painted together up until the end of their days.
As contemporaries, there are many similarities in the three artists’ paintings. They each explore life on the water, working on the water, landscapes surrounding their lives and how much his life revolved around the environment. They depict a time that’s hard to imagine for many young Floridians, and even Florida transplants today. Hartman and Stults say the exhibit aims to teach viewers about what it was like, and to explore a shared heritage with the artists.
“The more we know about where we came from, the greater desire to preserve it,” says Hartman.
IF YOU GO
Gulf Coast Heritage
When: Opening reception 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5, runs through Feb. 28. Viewing hours are from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Where: The Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast, 400 Palmetto Ave., Osprey
Info: Call 918-2100 or visit Conservationfoundation.com
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