Tarpon Springs Artist Captures Floridian Culture and History
by MARY TOOTHMAN
Christopher Still’s art serves many purposes.
It is a teacher. It is a visual history. It has imagination; sometimes there are 3-D depictions. There are puzzles and mysteries. Most of all, though, the works of art have heart.
When a person can combine their passions and make a career out of it, it can be a wonderful thing. Chris Still has mixed his fierce love and loyalty for the state of Florida with his passion for his art — and it has been a great match.
Born in 1961 at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, Christopher— a proud Florida Cracker — is married to Kelly Still, who manages the art studio. The couple has four daughters.
Tarpon Springs has been the family’s home for nearly 30 years. Christopher has utilized his talent and interest in Florida’s history to document what is essentially a painted love story — from the caveman days up through the space shuttle launches. Still has completed a wide range of work, and his niche is clearly historic scenes with amazing detail and descriptions accompanying the paintings.
Many artists are asked to tackle specific projects, often resulting in work that reflects the wishes of the buyer and the specific talents of the artist. But one request made of Still stands out as one-of-a-kind: Ten murals commissioned by the Florida House of Representatives depicting Florida’s historic and natural beauty.
Florida got quite a deal. The House of Representatives paid $150,000 for the first eight paintings, about what Still was getting for one painting at the time. Then they paid $60,000 for the final two paintings. Still had to raise an additional $125,000 on his own, often selling small paintings of artifacts in the murals.He was paid $210,000 for the 10 murals. By comparison, Still’s single paintings can bring in anywhere from $650,000 to $800,000.
“I basically covered my expenses,” Still said of the nearly four years spent painting the murals. “But what a wonderful experience. It was an effort, but I enjoyed every minute.”
We were lucky enough to talk with Still about his artwork.
CFAN: The nature of your art makes it clear you love Florida. How did your affection for the Sunshine State develop, and why?
Still: Thank you, that means a lot. I have always loved to draw. The only thing I have ever loved as much as drawing was fishing. So growing up in the Tampa Bay area, I was always outside, exploring the woods, swimming at the beach or fishing off a causeway. And my parents loved history and nature. My dad was a history teacher at Clearwater High School, and my mom was always taking us to the beach for picnics. They were both very creative people. I feel like we live in such a very special place. It can be so beautiful, and its history and people are so interesting.
CFAN: How did the idea of doing murals for the House of Representatives come about?
Still: In 1999, John Thrasher was the Speaker of the House of Representatives. He led a renovation of the House Chambers that was to include artwork. They did a call to artists, and I was chosen. After working in Europe and finishing art school, I had returned to Florida and was doing a series of large paintings featuring the history of the state. I followed the cattlemen one year, and learned about the early pioneers. Another year I spent time with the Seminoles. Another year, I was working with the fishermen and spongers. Growing up, I watched my father create murals depicting Florida history with his high school students. And so when the call to artists came for the Florida House of Representatives, I felt like I had spent my whole life preparing for that project. I wanted to paint the beauty and history of Florida with the fine art skills I developed working in Europe. I wanted our great state depicted with the respect and dignity it deserved.
CFAN: Your murals are so unique — 3-D, optical illusions, hidden images — and those detailed, lengthy historic descriptions must be time-consuming. Do you feel the inspiration for this creativity comes from your love of Florida, or would it be the way you approach most subject matter?
Still: As an artist, I am always looking at the world in new ways. Sometimes my goal is to create works of great art that are simply beautiful and capture the feeling of a time and place. With my larger public projects, such as the House of Representatives, I call those types of paintings my ‘story paintings.’ I want to create a visual story that can’t be told with one photograph or in a few sentences. Great original works of art can help share the legacy of a place in a very unique way, so that stories can survive for generations. With my story paintings, I talk to many, many people — historians, cattlemen, and citrus farmers — and then I find symbols for their stories and I put them together in a painting composed in a beautiful way so that it would still be enjoyable even if you didn’t know any of the stories. And it creates this wonderful tradition where new generations learn the stories, and pass them on using the painting as a guide to remember who we are as Floridians.
CFAN: Since the murals cover Florida’s history from prehistoric times through space shuttle days, do you intend to continue to update with more murals as more of Florida’s history unfolds?
Still: Well, that is a very good question. I would certainly be honored to be asked. At one point there was talk about doing something for the Senate Chambers. If that happens, maybe someone will give me a call. I’m currently working on a project for AdventHealth North Pinellas — the hospital In Tarpon Springs. I am creating a story painting about our beautiful and historic city. I also have had an ongoing love with where our food comes from in Florida and the many hardworking people who bring it to us. I currently have large preliminary charcoal drawings up in my studio of people picking citrus and strawberries, and a fisherman catching shrimp at night. I am very proud to be a Floridian, and I am very grateful to spend my life creating paintings about my home state.
CFAN: Much of your audience is schoolchildren and the Florida representatives. Do you have any plans to expand the exposure?
Still: Well, I think that’s a great idea. Not sure the best way to help that happen. I am an artist. and I feel like the best thing for me to do is focus on painting. I have thought it would be wonderful if someday the Ringling Museum of Art or another major museum might be interested in exhibiting the House of Representative paintings for the public to see — but of course that is not up to me. Also, the South Florida State College Museum of Art and Culture in Avon Park has reproductions of the House of Representatives murals on display, and they also have two of my early originals.
CFAN: Is it true you wanted the 120 representatives to view the murals, and felt that was important? Why?
Still: It was very much speaker Thrasher’s vision that the renovated chamber would help the representatives appreciate the importance of the decisions they were making and the sense of duty and honor that went with such important decisions. I believe the paintings help representatives learn our history and appreciate who we are and what is important to us as Floridians.
CFAN: Do you regret doing the murals for those prices? It doesn’t sound as if your motive was monetary. Why is that?
Still: I was absolutely not motivated by money. I felt a sense of responsibility and duty to tell the story of our great state. I had felt that I trained my whole life to do that project and it was very important to me that it was done right. Things that look like they take a long time to make, take a long time to make. I’m very thankful and blessed to have many wonderful patrons that have supported what I do over the years and none of this would be possible without them.