Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Diving into "Float"

“Float” is an upcoming exhibit of photographs in Winter Haven by one of my favorite emerging Florida artists, my brother James Kilby. I admit I am biased, but I truly believe he is extremely talented and I am excited to see him finally get this show of his fine art off the ground. James has taught me a great deal about photography and I am better at what I do because of his patient teaching.

Slide of young James at Silver Springs

James, an Aquarian, has always loved the water. I have early memories of him taking swimming lessons in Gainesville, the kind where they take toddlers and simply throw them in the water. In high school he made the the trek from Gainesville to the Atlantic to surf and as an adult in Central Florida he took up wake boarding and later wake skating. He moved to Winter Haven from Orlando to live in a community surrounded by a chain of lakes. It seems natural that his first body of solo work prominently features water. The meaning of "Float" is not superficial and to understand the statement the artist is making, takes delving below the surface a bit. That was my intent with this Q&A:

Q: I remember dad taking a photography class and turning our bathroom into a darkroom. The black and white images he took are some of my favorite family photos. Do you think his interest in photography had anything to do with you becoming a photographer?

A: Dad’s interest in photography certainly shaped mine. I was told as a child not to play with his darkroom equipment hidden in the bathroom, so of course I’d lock the door and pull it all out. I was also very interested in projecting slides and the impact an image could have when it was magnified and projected – most everyone did it at the time. As well the parents sent me as a child to a summer class at the museum where I did very well. But it was a teacher in high school who really taught me the core foundations.

Even in land-locked Gainesville, James found water.
Photo from our father's "Black and White" photography period.

Q: When did you first decide to go back to school to photography full time? Not many people have the guts to quit a good job with full benefits to become a full-time student - were you nervous going back to school at an older age?

A: I had seen “American Beauty", "Office Space", and "True Stories” in the span of one week and realized how discontent I was with corporate America and that I had no real excuse not to pursue photography. Truth be told, I was more nervous about having to retake the math classes more than anything else.

Q: Where else has your work been shown?

A: My work has been shown: Southeast Museum of Photography (Daytona), Gallery 17 (Daytona), Ormond Museum and Memorial Gardens (Ormond), Stetson Fine Arts Gallery (Deland), Art Haus (Port Orange), Nude Nite (Orlando), and several now defunct galleries in metro Orlando.

Q: I know that the work in this show is a reaction to the growth going on in Winter Haven and how it effects the lakes there, could you elaborate on this?

A: All my friends swim and recreate in Lake Summit in Winter Haven. It’s where we gather and it is the starting point for many long wonderful days up and down the Winter Haven Chain of lakes. The water quality has become bad just three lakes up on Lake Shipp. They have posted no swimming signs due to run-off entering the lake. The next lake over (Lake Lulu) is the only buffer right now between Lake Shipp and Lake Summitt and it is the site of the new mega strip mall which will have a huge impact on Lake Lulu. After that is Lake Eloise and then Lake Summit – so what is going to stop the spoilage? Are we going to be the change that saves these lakes or is Winter Haven doomed to be the next Leesburg?
(Note the Harris chain of Lakes in Leesburg has been contaminated from Lake Apopka.)

Before and after: Winter Haven's iconic Citrus Showcase
building is demolished to build a shopping plaza
Top image from State Archives of Florida. Bottom image courtesy of Stacey Reid.

Q: I know that my perspective about the environment has been strongly shaped by living on a lake, in fact I consider myself a tree-hugging environmentalist from my own lakefront living experience. What do you think shaped your view of the environment?

A: My view of the environment was shaped by growing up near the woods, spending my childhood along the St Johns River, and a desire to always reside near water. Currently I reside on Lake Ned which is a body of work I continue to work on. Sadly it too is now in trouble as aquatic weeds like hydrilla have changed the lake’s fragile balance.

Lake Ned

Q: What is your favorite place in Florida?

A: My favorite stretch of Florida is A1A from Ormond Beach to St. Augustine. My favorite town is St. Augustine but I have favorite spots all over – with such a diverse state, it is hard to pick.

Q: How did you select the models in “Float”?

A: I pulled my models from all over the place. I did a casting, I used friends of friends, and relied on some old favorites that I thought were right for the project.

Q: Some of the images have a gracefulness to them, while others are more gritty. Was that deliberate or just something that occurred organically?

A: Before I shot each model I asked them all the same question. “If you could change one thing in your life and not resist that change but float gracefully towards it – what would that look like?” Now the great thing about this project is that once they were in the water they could not hear anything but the sound of their own thoughts – they were never directed so what you get is their response to that question. I would show them the work prior to committing to it so they knew what they were in for.

Q: Most of the work is processed in cool, de-saturated tones that give the models a surreal almost ghastly appearance. Others are processed in warmer tones that make the water look almost muddy. What determined how you processed the images?

A: The images were processed by mood. I would take my experience of shooting them and process the images on how I felt they would do with the impermanence in their lives. I did however take total artistic license in this selection.

Q: I know you have been working on this collection of images for some time, what inspired you?

A: “Float” like many projects was born out of another one – a mixed media piece I did called “Swing Set Release” in which I attached a vintage slip to balloons and let it float away. I shot that at the same spot where I did all of the shooting for float. In the back of my mind were some images I had seen by an illustrator/painter that I liked named Jeannie Maddox… though my work is in no way like hers.

Q: If there is one impression or feeling you wanted the audience to come away with from the show, what would it be?

A: If you walk away feeling anything from looking at this work, then I did my job. That to me is art – anything that makes you feel something. No matter what!

Q: Do you have a favorite image?

A: My favorite shot is of my ballet dancer friend Becky and it is just a simple shot of her head breaking the surface of the water. When I saw that image it looked to me what I had been after all along.

Q: Who are your favorite artists/influences?

A: The big influences in my life are Steve Beaudet, Shayne Soderstrom, and Freddie Dejesus. Famous artists I admire include David Lynch, David Byrne, Gregory Crewdson, Robert Rauschenburg, and Edward Hopper.

Edward Hopper 1882-1967, New York Interior, ca. 1921.

Q: What are you going to do next?

A: My next body of work is currently evolving but it will again be very Polk County. I had done a shoot with a band at night in the orange grooves and loved the studio look that the nighttime gave me – mixed with the organic feel of the trees. Here’s a hint – “Tomato Workers Fasting in Front of Publix Headquarters”…

From the Float press release:
Tapping the Vine
of Winter Haven is proud to feature the first solo show of Florida artist James Grant Kilby. The exhibit, featuring emotive fine art photography, will run from 20 April until 20 July 2012. A free reception will be held with the artist on 20 April 2012 at seven PM. The opening will feature live entertainment and food.

Float is Kilby’s new body of work shot on Winter Haven’s Lake Summit in the shadow of the newly opened theme park, Legoland Florida. Kilby uses this backdrop to represent the precarious balance of the lake’s eco-system and foreshadow the detrimental environmental impact of development being made on this historic chain of lakes. Themes of impermanence and its effect on the human condition runs as a common thread through out the work. The concept of how we all deal with change as humans is a central theme.

James Grant Kilby is an industrious commercial photographer/artist that relocated to Winter Haven in 2005. A graduate of the Southeastern Center for Photographic Studies and former employee of the Southeastern Museum of Photography, Kilby has exhibited in galleries and museums in Central Florida and the East Coast.

Unless noted, all work © 2012 James Grant Kilby

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Newt Perry, Mermaids, and Glen Springs?

"One whole day at Glen Springs cost a dime and for that dime we were given a wire basket for our sandwich and shoes. Then with the number of your basket pinned to the front of your bathing suit and having waded through a shallow foot bath of bleach, we would fly out into the sunshine and into the cold waters of Glen Springs. Glen Springs is a natural spring of crystal clear water that abundantly fed three large swimming pools all located in an oak hammock. Each pool accommodated a different age group, the "baby" pool, the "middle" or halfway pool, you know, the awkward age, somewhere between a baby and a teenager, and then the "teenyboppers" pool. Under the sidewalks that separated each pool were passageways that allowed the water to flow evenly. We would take a breath, duck and disappear through these tunnels and into the next pool. It was magic. I was nine so I was halfway and never brave enough to cross that sacred line and into the big pool for the "cool" teenagers. My sister, Rodney, was in this group and she said it was a hang out. One day Nanan, my Grandmother, picked me up for the Sunday afternoon water show at Glen Springs. Rodney said Mother and Daddy never went. We sat on temporary stands across from a huge glass underwater exhibition tank. Then here they came, pairs of long legs, choreographed and with pointed toes, the synchronized swimmers appeared. They were magnificent all in white bathing suits. If you were a synchronized swimmer, you got a free Jansen bathing suit. They peeled off, one at a time, diving, circling, and seemingly effortless, sticking a leg high up in the air and with toes still pointed and always with a smile, vanished slowly beneath the water.

What a show! Nanan said nothing. Next came the big event I had been waiting for, Rodney dove into the glass tank, sat gracefully on a stool, sucked a little air from a long hose, and ate a banana and drank an RC cola. Now, you talk about a show. Nanan then asked, "Is that Rodney? What is she doing? and Why?" She just didn't get it. Nanan didn't understand. Rodney was a star, Queen of Glen Spring for a day and I was her little sister. This was about as good as it got and all for a dime."

- Wayne Bishop Jamieson
This was an oral history that artist and activist Margaret Tolbert posted on Facebook. I was surprised to hear of the aquatic show at Gainesville's Glen Springs – it seemed like a strange juxtaposition. Today's Glen Springs is a series of aging pools amid a thickly wooded area flanked by the Elks Lodge on one side and a condo on the other. It's not easy to visualize the spring as a public swimming hole where Gainesvillians in great numbers came to swim, socialize and see underwater mermaids!

Photo from UF Digital Collections

But I found more evidence in a book by Tim Hollis called "Glass Bottom Boats & Mermaid Tails: Florida's Tourist Springs." In a chapter about Weeki Wachee, Hollis describes what the legendary Newt Perry did after creating the mermaid show at the aforementioned spring:

"Perry was always looking for the next big thing, and the tank in which Nancy Tribble had cavorted in had given hm a new idea.

He had an even larger tank constructed: twenty-two feet long, eight feet wide, and deep enough to install an underwater kitchen. Then he loaded this contraption onto a flatbed truck and took it on the road to state fairs, shopping center openings, and other such venues, basically re-creating his established underwater stunts for the masses.

'Breakfast with the Neptune's' eventually left the nomadic life and settled at Florida's Glen(n) Springs, where the audience was seated on one side of the springs and the giant tank was set up on the opposite bank so tourists could watch the performance."

Newt Perry carrying Nancy Tribble wearing her tail to the tank in Tampa

The tank used for the promotion of "Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid"
may have been the inspiration for the underwater show
that visited Glen Springs

So is it possible that the mermaid tank at Glen Springs was Perry's traveling aquatic show? I asked Tim Hollis and he didn't recall where that information had come from, as "Mermaid Tails" was published in 2006. I could find nothing online to connect the two, but I did find an image in the Florida State Archives of "Newt Perry's Aquatic Theatre" outside the Matanzas Theater in St. Augustine. Is it possible a similar tank was used at the Gainesville spring?

This 1951 image shows Newt Perry's Aquatic Theatre at the St. Augustine
premier of Distant Drums, a movie filmed in Florida

Newt Perry was an icon in underwater performing in Florida. Perry started his aquatic career teaching swimming at Silver Springs in Ocala. According to Lu Vickers in "Weeki Wachee: City of Mermaids", it was Perry who invited a young Ross Allen to move to Ocala and start his reptile Institute at Silver Springs. While at Silver Springs, Perry perfected the art of the underwater photo op. By re-creating everyday scenes while underwater, such as eating bananas, he soon caught the attention of filmmaker Grantland Rice. Soon Silver Springs became known as a mecca for underwater photography and it became the location for several Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weismuller. Perry and Allen often acted as stunt doubles for Weissmuller.

16-year old Newt Perry swimming underwater for Grantland Rice's
first underwater film at Silver Springs
Newt Perry, Johnny Sheffield, and Johnny Weissmuller
during filming of "Tarzan Finds a Son" at Silver Springs

Ross Allen wrestles an alligator at Silver Springs

From Silver Springs Perry went to Wakulla Springs near Tallahasee, which was then owned by Ed Ball, one of the most powerful men in Florida at the time. At Wakulla, Perry honed his underwater performance techniques, including using a breathing hose to stay submerged for longer periods of time.

Next Perry teamed with Walton Hall Smith and leased the property surrounding an obscure spring in Hernando County from the City of St. Petersburg. Building an underwater seating area that looked directly into the deepest part of the spring, Newton trained synchronized swimmers from St. Petersburg to be his performers. Those performers eventually became the legendary mermaids of Weeki Wachee.

Perry fishing from an underwater air trap at Wakulla Springs

Perry with mermaids in training at Weeki Wachee

Mermaids perform the underwater banana-eating trick made famous by Perry

Perry coaching Ann Blyth during the filming of "Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid" at Weeki Wachee

Mermaids at Aquarena Springs in Texas from

After the traveling "Breakfast with the Neptunes" Perry created an underwater show at a spring-based attraction called Aquarena in Texas. In 1951 he returned to Florida where he resumed his original occupation as a swimming instructor. Perry, a member of the Florida Hall of Fame, died in Ocala in 1987 at the age of 79.

For me, Perry was a pioneer who helped create the fascinating tourist landscape of Florida in the mid-twentieth century. His influence continues to this day at Weeki Wachee where employees of what is now a state park, carry on the tradition of underwater performance. The possibility that his traveling aquatic show may have stopped in my hometown at the little spring near where I went to high school, is extremely exciting to me. Was there greatness at Glen Springs? Perhaps...

UPDATED 2/18/20
I found these articles describing the "Breakfast with the Neptunes" show at the Florida State Fair, as well as an article that conclusively links Newt Perry to Glen Springs. All from 1953.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Holy water, sacred ground

Captain Karen, the pilot of the boat tours at the Rally for the River on the Ocklawaha River, offered to take me to see what happens to Rodman Pool during draw down. This event only happens once ever 4 years, and photos I'd seen left me very intrigued. As bad as I wanted to see it, the prospect of spending about 5 hours of my precious weekend in my car left me teetering between staying home all weekend or driving up to the Kenwood Landing just north of the Ocala National Forest. I was also intrigued with the opportunity to see traces of the springs that would soon be flooded under tons of water again. But when Captain Karen sent me this video link, showing Blue Spring before it was drowned by the dam, I decided I needed to see it.

The drive up to Putnam County alone was noteworthy as I saw a herd of antelope (who knew you could hunt exotic animals in Florida?), a pair of bald eagles and a snake. It foreshadowed a day of amazing sights. Soon after I arrived, Captain Karen drove up with her boat and soon we were underway on the canal part of the reservoir. Immediately I was struck by the volume of birds, as hundreds or perhaps thousands of coots filled the water. As we plowed forward, a huge flock of White Pelicans flew in front of the boat and landed on an island to our right. These "islands" were really just exposed parts of the reservoir bottom consisting of 47 years of rotten aquatic plant vegetation. That is reason for the draw down – to rid the pool of undesirable aquatic vegetation. The pelicans were shadowed by dozens of Great Egrets and I wondered if they thought the pelicans would help them find an easy meal.

double click on images for photo gallery

Decaying aquatic vegetation

Soon we were in the channel of the old river, as the course can be recognized by exposed tree trunks sticking up like ribs where the river bank used to be. Mostly cypress and palm trunks, this surreal environment is like a graveyard with each stump a tombstone for a beautiful tree that was drowned under acres of water. The stumps have a melancholy beauty, markers of centuries of nature that were destroyed in an instant by man. The trunks are bleached by the water and on closer examination, full of holes that create interesting textures and shapes. Periodically a huge cypress stump emerges, reminiscent of the base of the Senator, Central Florida's iconic tree that recently fell victim to arson. Loggers went through and cut the the larger trees so most of the cypress stumps are smaller.

We made our way to where Blue Spring used to be, and struggled to see the spring – these are the last days of the draw down and the water level had already risen according to Captain Karen. Near the water's edge a huge gator pushed himself into the water, eliminating any urges I might have of jumping in the water to find the spring head. We found traces of other springs too – I'd heard there are countless springs in the area, but no one knows exactly how many as they have all been submerged underwater since 1964.

Palm tree roots beneath the water near where Blue Spring bubbles up

This is the water's edge near Blue Spring and the reason why I stayed on the boat!

Also lost to the water are Native American shell middens, some smashed flat by huge crushers that leveled the ground in advance of the barge canal that was never completed. We stopped at one mucky spot that Capt. Karen believed to be a shell midden and tromped through the thick sludge in rubber boots. The fertile organic soil here would make a great base for re-growth should the dam ever be knocked down and the river allowed to return to its natural course. In this "crushed" part of the old river, the river banks re-emerge and large alligators sun themselves around every bend. We also spotted Wood Storks, Ibis, Kingfishers, and Bald Eagles in great abundance. I would compare the amount of wildlife present here to the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge. Captain Karen believes that if the river were restored it could become a draw for eco-tourism and bird watching. I will attest that that there was no time the entire day that there was not a bird in sight. From a visual perspective, the pool at draw down is one of the most fascinating places I've been to in Florida. It is almost sensory overload as every stump is unique and has its own inherent beauty. I suspect, however that the views here would be even more spectacular, should the river one day be allowed to return to its natural course on a permanent basis.

Footprints in the muck

Note the secondary roots where the Cypress Tree tried to survive
after the water level was raised

Note: Captain Karen is a licensed captain and will be doing a limited number of tours of the Ocklawaha's main tributary, the Silver River in incoming weeks. If you are interested contact her through her website: