Flower Power

There is more than meets the eye in a landscape painting by Jim Draper. At first glance, his work seems destined for the lobby of a fancy hotel or the entryway of a multimillion-dollar home in Ponte Vedra Beach.

If you dig deeper — get to know Draper as a man and as an artist — you find that he’s an environmentalist with strong views on land use and water responsibility. While some landscape painters are simply parking an easel in front of a palm tree or at the edge of a marsh, Draper is taking daylong — sometimes even weeklong — treks into the Everglades or down the Suwannee River to find his subject matter.

“I like the natural experience,” Draper says as he sinks into a blue leather couch in his 2,500-square-foot studio in CoRK Arts District, a collection of warehouse spaces on Rosselle and King streets in Riverside. “I can’t stand motor engine noises. Sometimes I hike, sometimes I camp and sometimes I kayak or canoe.”

For two decades, Draper’s been a driving force in the local art scene. He’s taught everywhere from the University of North Florida to Flagler College and he’s shown work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts, Stellers Galleries and Coastal Living Design House in Virginia Beach, Va.

“Jim is finally receiving the accolades that he has earned through decades of producing great art and honing his craft,” says local artist and landscape painter Paul Ladnier. “In time, he will be recognized as one of the great artists of nature. When looking at Jim’s paintings, it is easy to see links to the great nature artists of the past such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and Frederic Edwin Church.

“Jim is more than an important local artist. Through his teaching, community outreach and countless exhibitions, he has helped to define and shape art and artists in Jacksonville for decades. As witnessed by the honor of a one-man exhibition at the Cummer Museum — one of a few artists so honored — he is certainly an important regional artist who is on the cusp of national recognition and more.”

Draper’s latest exhibition, “Feast of Flowers,” is on display beginning Dec. 18 at The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. The museum’s chief curator Holly Keris curated the solo show, which features oil paintings based on flora, fauna and landscape endemic to Florida.

“The museum has long believed in the transformational impact landscape can have on individuals and the environment can have on the community,” Keris explains. “Jim’s work allows us to combine our passions for both art and the landscape in a single experience for our visitors. It is a perfect fit for The Cummer.”

“Feast of Flowers” is a nod to the 500th anniversary of the naming of Florida. On Easter Sunday, April 2, 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon set out to find an island called Bimini. After getting lost and drifting into the Gulf Stream, the expedition party stumbled upon an uncharted land, somewhere along the eastern shore of present-day Florida. Ponce de Leon named the land “Pasqua de Florida,” which translated from the Spanish means “Feast of Flowers.”

“These paintings are about my attitudes toward consumption of Florida land,” Draper says as he flips through a pile of finished canvases in his studio. “I am not celebrating colonialism in any form. There is no direct evidence of human interaction with nature in these pieces.”

According to a description of the exhibit on Draper’s website: “While acknowledging the history of the Spanish, we employ this phrase [Feast of Flowers] as a point of departure on a journey to explore the idea of nature as a consumable and vulnerable resource … in order to explore and discover new ways of understanding Florida’s history, environmental aesthetics and our place within the natural order.”

In conjunction with the exhibition, Draper has spearheaded a digital publication that seeks to explain Florida’s unique environmental and social landscape. The book, available Dec. 12, features a unique collection of voices, including environmental writer Bill Belleville, UNF philosophy department chair and professor Hans-Herbert Kögler and environment advocate Karen Ahlers.

“My piece focuses on the lives of four women and the impacts the Cross Florida Barge Canal and the destruction of the Ocklawaha River has caused them,” explains Neil Armingeon, who headed the St. Johns Riverkeeper from 2003 to 2012 and is a contributor to the publication. “Florida’s environment is on the brink. Jim’s work — this exhibit — shows all of us what we have left and what we stand to lose if we don’t say ‘enough is enough.’ ”

Born in 1953 in Kosciusko, Miss., a small town in the middle of the state that boasts such diverse natives as Oprah Winfrey and blues musician Charlie Musselwhite, Draper describes his childhood as “privileged” and “pleasant.” He was the youngest of three siblings in a family that owned a department store in town. They lived like many did in the “Old South” — without a lot of conversation or showing of emotion.

“Being artistic in rural Mississippi doesn’t get you a lot,” Draper explains of drawing and painting during his formative years. “There weren’t any art classes in school and there wasn’t that idea of being creative.”

Draper’s family didn’t encourage or discourage him becoming an artist. He graduated from high school at age 17 and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in drawing and painting from the University of Mississippi and a Master of Fine Arts in painting from the University of Georgia. All throughout college, Draper worked various landscaping jobs — learning about irrigation and botany and rendering design drawings.

In 1991, after living in South Carolina for a few years, Draper moved to Jacksonville with his wife, who took a job at the public library, and their two children. Though he was painting on the side, Draper returned to his roots in retail — or “shit jobs” as he likes to call them — to help make ends meet for the family of four. He remembers, “I soon realized that I’d rather be killing chickens for a living than working in retail.”

So in January 1995, Draper quit his day job and spent nearly a decade teaching art classes at local colleges. He also started painting. A lot. “You know the Bostwick Building downtown?” Draper asks. “The one you can see going over the Main Street Bridge that has a jaguar painted on it? It’s probably my most well-known piece.”

In 1995, just before the Jacksonville Jaguars began their first season, the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce commissioned Draper and artist Anne Banas to paint a jaguar-themed piece to cover up the deteriorating Bostwick Building as an aesthetically pleasing entryway to the downtown area. Draper, who says he couldn’t care less about football, received a lot of publicity from the project.

Over the past seven years, Draper has been making and selling paintings fulltime. His work, which currently sells for about $8,000 a piece, has been snatched up by companies like Baptist Medical Center South, the Jacksonville and Beaches Tourist Development Commission, CNB National Bank, Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and the Radisson Hotel in Aruba.

“Pursuing art manifests itself in a lot of different ways,” Draper says of his philosophy on the craft. “I think art is more of an idea. One thing about art is that it’s work. I think there’s a really hard physical aspect to it.”

Fellow local landscape artist Allison Watson has known Draper for about 18 years. “We have a lot in common,” Watson says. “We’ve gone out to various rivers and lakes to take photographs together. He’s always had a very high standard [for his art] and a great sense of community. You have to love what you paint in order to do it well, and with Draper, it comes from the heart, from emotion and passion.”

Whether he’s trekking through the Ocala National Forest, Okefenokee Swamp, Suwannee River, Waccasassa Bay Preserve State Park or the subtropical wetlands of the Everglades, Draper takes thousands of photographs looking for the perfect shot to inspire his next painting. “I use photography as a reference,” he says. “Not as an end, but as a means to an end.”

Over the years, Draper’s art has changed thematically, but he has remained strong in iconography. His “Healing Palms” series from the mid-’90s was based on the idea that a palm tree — or any other item — can become an object of devotion. “I think the idea of religion is fascinating,” says Draper. “My work is about confronting an iconic image.”

“Jim has the unique ability to show Florida’s landscapes in a way that touches people,” Armingeon explains of his good friend. “Once the public understands the beauty and the majesty of our lands and waters, it’s easier to convince them we need to speak up against their destruction.

“I’ve always believed that, in general, society views artists and environmentalists as two unnecessary occupations. Jim Draper is at the crossroads of that misconception. Rather than be defeated by ignorance, he battles to show why, without the arts and a healthy environment, our lives, like our waters, are impaired, lessened.”

Conceptually, Draper has been working on “Feast of Flowers” for more than two years. Physically, he’s been working on the show daily for a year-and-a-half — 40 to 60 hours a week. More than a dozen canvases line the sheet-rocked wall at the artist’s studio at CoRK. It’s only a few weeks before the opening at the Cummer and Draper’s busy finishing up both the paintings and the digital publication. The interactive PDF is directed by Staci Bu Shea and designed by Summer Wood.

The exhibit features 40 original works of native Florida flora and fauna on large panels. Wispy white tarflowers grace a 48-inch-by-48-inch canvas. Two large purple passion flowers pop from another canvas, and Monarch butterflies flutter amid beach grass in a scene at NaNa, a dune at American Beach, the historically African-American beach on Amelia Island.

“The different panels reference an idea or a specific place or even an emotion,” Draper explains, walking from canvas to canvas. “The experience of nature is experiential. It’s not coming from a scenic point of view.”

Armingeon says it’s Draper’s upbringing that has made him so passionate about protecting the Florida landscape that he spends his life painting. “Our backgrounds are very similar. We grew up geographically close, with me in Alabama and he in Mississippi,” Armingeon explains. “We remember old Florida before it was destroyed by development and greed. For two children of the inland South, Florida represented something magical, exotic and wondrous.”

After flipping through the remaining canvases for his upcoming “Feast of Flowers” exhibit, Draper takes a moment to summarize the past two years he’s spent on this project. “I think the main message is that Florida has such a significant environment, and it’s been significantly abused over the years. We all need to understand what an incredibly unique place this is.”