In the mid-1990s, photographer Gary Monroe traversed the state, discovering self-taught artists along the way. Nearly three decades later, their works are brought to light in a novel exhibition at the Boca Raton Museum of Art.
Ruby C. Williams, affectionately called “Miss Ruby,” has deep ties to her Bealsville community. Her great-grandmother Mary Reddick was one of 12 freed slaves who founded the town at the end of the Civil War in 1865.
They’re “Florida’s renegade artists,” photographer Gary Monroe says. Hidden away in the quiet of small towns, tucked down unassuming dirt roads, on the fringes of bustling cities—from Key West to Jacksonville to Pensacola and beyond—there was an untapped well of artistic talent, waiting, patiently, to be uncovered.
“I’ve long responded to this renegade art; it challenges traditional aesthetics,” Monroe says. “About 25 years ago, I thought to drive around the state to meet and photograph these artists, but the photographs begged for a narrative. So I wrote… and the more I saw, the more interested I became.” Encountering more than 60 artists along his route, he eventually published his tome Extraordinary Interpretations: Florida’s Self-Taught Artists. And now, the book and the artists inside are spotlighted through Boca Raton Museum of Art’s An Irresistible Urge to Create: The Monroe Family Collection of Florida Outsider Art. “I knew of this early passion of Gary’s with regard to the Florida outsider artists, and true to course, it has proven to be an important exhibition about a group of artists who deserve to be finally recognized,” says museum Executive Director Irvin Lippman.
“Untitled” by George Voronovsky
Among the 86 works and 44 Florida artists represented are Ruby C. Williams, aka Miss Ruby, a fixture in the historic African American community of Bealsville, located between Lakeland and Tampa; John Gerdes’ inlaid paintings, which in a coup d’oeil mimic marquetry; and Alyne Harris’ “haints,” or devilish characters. “It’s a blur in retrospect,” the photographer says of his curatorial journey. “It was before GPS and cell phones. I went through many folding maps and pockets full of quarters. It was by word-of-mouth and driving from Key West to Pensacola. There was no process—just an impetus.”
Artist Alyne Harris
Also seen within the artistic expression of the exhibition are many previously unseen works by George Voronovsky, whom Monroe met at the Colony Hotel in South Beach in 1978 after he returned to Florida following graduate school. “George lived in the Colony,” he recalls. “His room faced the ocean, and his windows were full of colored decorations. He was a memory painter, distilling his charmed childhood with watercolor painting during the final years of a life of hardship. We became close, and he and his artwork had a profound impact on me. The seed was planted.”
“Untitled” by Ruby C. Williams
With the culmination of his discoveries now on display, Monroe witnesses the thread that connects each of these individual artists: “Raw expression,” he says. “Nothing gets in their way.” He adds, “Their works address the idiosyncrasies of their private realities, for which there’s no public influences. The exhibition title, An Irresistible Urge to Create, sums it up well, and Irvin Lippman divined it.” 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton
Photography by: Gary Monroe