The art of picturing Florida
How Samuel and Roberta Vickers’ transformative gift could change how generations envision our state
By Jacki Levine
Samuel Vickers laughs as he recounts the day his wife, Roberta, better known as Robbie, took one particular painting down from the art-filled walls of their riverside Jacksonville home and motored it over to the nearby Bolles School.
Not unusual for Robbie, who regularly carted off watercolors, oils and drawings to show the schoolchildren in her weekly art appreciation class. They called her the “Picture Lady.”
“I’d tell them about the artists. They loved to tell me what they thought about the painting; that always surprised me. If they answered the question at the end, they’d get a piece of candy.”
But on this particular day, Robbie’s selection, well… “She just about gave me a heart attack when I found out she had taken our Winslow Homer,” Sam recalls.
His nervousness may be forgiven, since the painting is the work of one of the foremost American artists of the 19th – or for that matter, any – century. Homer painted the watercolor, Foul Hooked Black Bass, in 1904 on the Homosassa River during one of his seven midwinter trips to the state, where he enjoyed the fishing.
“I took good care of it,” Robbie reassures her husband. “They loved it.’
The Vickers tell this story with the affectionate banter of the long-married couple they are – 64 years come December. But you can also hear hints of the responsibility they feel to share and safeguard the treasures of Florida art they have carefully collected over the last 40 years.
And perhaps, in doing so, protect their beloved Florida as well.
The Florida depicted in the couple’s collection – one of the world’s most extensive – might surprise a contemporary visitor, convinced the state’s history sprung to life around the time of Disney World, with as much depth and meaning as a plastic lawn flamingo.
Instead, with works spanning from the early- 1800s to the decade after World War II, the collection reflects what renowned artists of their day – many more accustomed to capturing inspiring New England landscapes or majestic western parks – saw when they arrived at this unfamiliar outpost:
A Florida wild, lush and diverse, with palms curving against a coppery sky, as Thomas Moran painted Fort George Island; a southernmost highway heading off into brilliant blue skies, as Ralston Crawford imagined the road to the Keys; the vibrant workaday chaos of a Chipley midwife’s backwoods cabin, as captured by Marguerite Zorach; acrobats suspended above a Saturday night crowd in Sarasota’s Ringling Hotel, in a dreamy image by Everett Shinn.
Some, like John Singer Sargent, spent relatively little time in the state. Here to paint a portrait of oil titan John D. Rockefeller at his winter home in Ormond Beach, he ventured south, creating unexpected watercolors of alligators and palmetto thickets on his way to the Deering estate in Miami. Others, like Martin Johnson Heade, found themselves at home in a St. Augustine artists’ colony set up by Henry Flagler in his Ponce de Leon Hotel.
“The story of the collection is about the state of Florida, how it grew, how it has been mismanaged in some ways…. We believe the collection is not just a collection of pictures, it’s a collection of Florida’s history. (We want people to see) all of what the state was at one time in its beauty, and then do everything in their power not to have any more loss,” says Sam Vickers, who, like Robbie, is a Florida native.
“People think of Florida as a beach and sunshine and the white sand and water. It’s so much more than that,” says Robbie. “The collection shows you that. It shows you what the artists saw. And one of the things the artists admired and were seeking was the light.”
Sam’s roots and memories run deep in Miami, where his family lived for generations. “I grew up in a Miami that was more like a village than a big city,” he says. He was there to witness the startling change when the military arrived during World War II, drawn by the promise of weather suitable for training all year round. “Everywhere you went there was nothing but servicemen. The Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Corps, they took over the hotels on Miami Beach,” Sam remembers. It was those servicemen and women, he says, with their fond memories of Florida who helped fuel the boom years of growth after the war.
Robbie was born a Floridian by chance – her mother relocated from Indiana to stay with family in Delray Beach while her father fought in World War II.
The two would later meet as teenagers in Macon, Georgia, where their fathers’ careers took them. Sam attended the University of South Carolina on a football scholarship and Robbie followed two years later. “When I graduated high school I told my parents I wasn’t going to college unless I could go to South Carolina,” says Robbie. They married soon after graduation.
It was of necessity, not in search of art, that first led the young couple to start poking around flea markets, estate sales, and junk stores, armed with little money, but an eye for quality.
“We didn’t have two nickels to rub together when we started our life together. But both our families were interested in antiques and older things, pictures and furniture, and we’d buy things that didn’t have much value in those days to furnish our first little house,” says Sam.
For the next 13 years, Sam worked at a large Orlando pulp and paper company, before moving to Jacksonville. “By this time,” Sam says, “I had developed some other interests in companies, we raised some money and bought a company in Jacksonville, then bought another company.” Today, his Design Containers, Inc. is the world leader in the supply of containers for roofing asphalt. In Jacksonville, the Vickers reared two daughters, Nancy and Helene, who remain there with their own families, and have six grandchildren.
The couple trace the beginnings of their Florida art journey to a trip to New York in 1980, when they chanced upon an 1884 aerial view of Jacksonville, which Sam Vickers suspects was painted from the vantage point of a dirigible.
“After that, Sam started researching how many of our important artists came to Florida and we started looking for them,” says Robbie. The hunt was aided by Sam’s frequent business travel around the country and world, which often involved stops in shops – both “junk” stores and galleries.
Sam Vickers kept scrupulously detailed records for each purchase, and assembled an extensive art library. And read and read.
“Mr. Vickers is not only a collector, but a scholar, a historian, one of the most astute students of the importance of Florida art anywhere,” says Gary R. Libby, who got to know the Vickers 25 years ago, as the then-director of the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences. The museum showcased the couple’s artworks in the “Celebrating Florida: Works of Art from the Vickers Collection,” exhibition marking the state’s sesquicentennial. Libby edited an accompanying book of art and essays from the collection.
“Sam was very cognizant of excellent works of art that had a soul and were not just decorative. He had in the back of his mind, consciously or unconsciously, characteristics he was looking for,” Libby says.
And Robbie brought her own natural artistic instincts to the pursuit. Neither she nor Sam had a background in art studies, but as a senior in high school, Robbie was a last-minute replacement for a young woman who dropped out of her older sister’s Wesleyan College art tour to New York.
“We went around to all the art museums, with the art professor. It was really the top drawer stuff. I couldn’t get over how I loved it. It opened my eyes,” she says.
And then, as the couple began collecting, something else happened:
“Along the way my wife got so interested, she became an artist herself,” says Sam.
“It was because of collecting,” Robbie agrees. “It has made me look at things, appreciate things more in depth than I ever did. ”
A legacy protected
The Vickers have long opened their home to art lovers, from fourth graders to fellow Florida art collectors like Jimmy Buffett. They’ve lent pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery in Washington D.C.
And as the collection grew in size and importance, the Vickers looked to the future, and their art legacy. With the same meticulousness they’ve brought to collecting, they sought the perfect permanent home for their collection – where the artwork would be widely seen and studied; protected and preserved, and kept together, as a visual history of the state.
“Of course, we wanted our collection to be something that everyone could see,” says Sam. “It’s never been seen widely. And the educational component is so important to us. People will study this collection for years to come. We think that’s important to the future, we didn’t want to see it broken up.”
And as much as it’s about art, it’s equally, if not more, about the state they love and the urgency they feel to preserve it.
“It would be our hope that people will see this, recognize we’ve got to take care of our resources or it will all be gone,” says Sam. “We have many pictures that are the only record of what once existed. So much of it is parking lots.”
Last year, they reached their decision: The 1,200- piece Vickers Collection – and its extensive library and supporting materials – would be donated to the University of Florida’s Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville.
What held sway? “I think the one word would be education,” says Sam Vickers. “It reigns superior over everything. The other thing is we certainly want it to be lasting. A lot of places may come and go, but we don’t think our flagship university is going anywhere.”
On a Monday morning this winter, movers arrived at the couple’s home overlooking the St. Johns River, and set about carefully removing each piece of art from its long-held place.
“We had almost 1,000 pieces either hanging or leaning against the walls in our house,” says Sam. “Plus more at our beach house and in storage.”
Five days later, the walls were nearly bare, and the Vickers Collection was headed to its new home and life in Gainesville.
In sheer numbers, the Vickers’ gift of Florida art – which includes works by such renowned artists as Homer, Sargent, Thomas Moran, Milton Avery, Andrew Wyeth (as well as his father, N.C.) and Martin Johnson Heade – is the largest single art collection ever donated to UF. Among the more than 700 artists represented are more than 128 women, boosting the Harn’s goal to include more female artists.
Lee Anne Chesterfield had just begun her tenure as director of the Harn the first time she paid Robbie and Sam Vickers a visit a few years ago. “That first visit was amazing and I’ve grown to love the collection in the years that I’ve been visiting Sam and Robbie since,” she says.
For the Harn Museum, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year, this gift of 1,200 artworks is nothing short of transformative.
“For starters,” says Chesterfield, “it more than doubles the Harn’s Modern Art Collection and adds a considerable number of new artists to our permanent collection including great American artists like Thomas Moran, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, and Andrew Wyeth.
“We are also very pleased and impressed by the number of women artists that have now joined our permanent collection.”
The Harn will share the Vickers gift, Chesterfield says, by way of a permanent gallery and a study center in a major new wing for which the museum is currently raising funds and as a resource to strengthen faculty collaboration, support teaching, enhance class tours and provide research projects for future study. “We already have interest from faculty – including the Honors College at UF – for courses this coming fall,” she says. “And there are three UF students that have paid internships this spring to study the collection.”
Along with the art, the Vickers have donated a potentially priceless resource for scholars. “We have the supporting data for every piece we’ve ever bought,” says Sam. “What we paid for it, where we got it, what the circumstances were, and then all the information on the artists. And it’s all historic about the state of Florida.”
Thanks to funding from a private foundation, the Harn will be digitizing more of its collection, says Chesterfield, opening it up to scholars around the world to study. “We can also share this wonderful resource with K-12 educators across Florida so they can use the Vickers collection in Florida history courses.”
Looking at Florida
While “transformative” is the word most often used to describe the gift as it relates to the Harn, its collections, and its stature, perhaps what might be most transformed is the way we – and generations to come – view Florida.
You can see this the moment you enter the inaugural exhibition,“A Florida Legacy: Gift of Samuel H. and Roberta T. Vickers,” on display at the Harn through August 1. One hundred and sixty two paintings and works on paper, just a fraction of the total collection, reflect a vision of the state that illuminates its history and diversity of terrain and people and way of life.
Dulce Román is the Harn’s chief curator and curator of modern art, and was tasked with putting together this exhibit. How do you choose among 1,200 pieces to create a flowing and cohesive narrative in fewer than 200?
“Taking in the collection once it arrived at the Harn and seeing so many beautiful Florida-themed images has been an eye-opening experience,” she says.
“There is so much to discover, from iconic views of Florida forests, beaches, and wetlands to scenes of town squares, city parks and popular destinations. My first impression as I was taking it all in, was the mind-boggling number of artists who were inspired by Florida and the immense variety of approaches by all of these artists,” says Román.
“We had to plan quickly once the paperwork was signed,” she says. “My thoughts started coming together about what were the most prominent themes. How might we visualize them?”
She chose six themes, each evoked by masterworks that offer a visual vantage point both familiar yet new: Florida Nature – terrain, landscapes, habitats; Florida History – historic St. Augustine, paintings and drawings of Seminole Leaders; Florida Landmarks– town squares and parks and forts; Florida Diversions – tourist sites and crowded beaches, race tracks, and people enjoying themselves; Florida Impressions – lively sketches created on the spot; and Florida Living – the varied way we live in Florida.
Each visitor will likely have his or her own visceral reaction to the artworks, either through memory or experience, lived or imagined. Turning a corner, there’s the iconic N.C. Wyeth illustration of a barefoot Jody and his fawn, Flag, for the 1939 edition of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling. Set in the woods of nearby Cross Creek, home to the author and just 21 miles from the Harn itself, seeing it feels like running into a childhood friend back home after years away. Steven Dohanos’ Trailer Park Garden, a Norman Rockwell-esque scene of domestic life carried out in a Bradenton tourist haven, evokes a nostalgia for those illusory simpler days of travel. Seminole Chief Osceola, resplendent in plumed headdress and breastplates, gazing pensively in a portrait by Robert John Curtis, shortly before the warrior’s death of tuberculosis in prison in 1838.
Each picture tells a story.
“Each time I walk through the new exhibition I see a painting in a new way and discover some surprise within a work that I’d never noticed before,” says Chesterfield.
Sharing, and passing on, a love of Florida art
The legacy of Florida-themed art is assured for generations, thanks in no small part to the pioneering work of Sam and Robbie Vickers. In fact, If you drive two hours from Gainesville, winding through the Ocala National Forest to Daytona Beach, you will come upon the 26,000-square-foot Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art on the campus of the Daytona Beach Museum of Art and Science, and what is said to be the world’s largest collection of Florida art, at some 2,700 pieces.
Cici and Hyatt Brown are known for their deep philanthropy, donating millions to the University of Florida, their alma mater, and Stetson University, as well as to numerous civic and charitable causes. Hyatt Brown, a native Floridian, is the chairman of Brown and Brown, the nation’s sixth-largest insurance brokerage, and a former Florida Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Gary Libby remembers the day the Ormond Beach couple visited the Vickers’ exhibition 25 years ago at the Daytona Beach museum.
“One of the most important things that happened was that Cici and Hyatt Brown came back after the opening and picked up the telephone and asked would it be possible to start collecting Florida materials,” says Libby. Twenty years later, in 2015, they opened their museum.
Hyatt Brown says he already had an abiding interest in history, and his wife was involved with Daytona’s art museum, but their fascination with Florida-themed art was awakened by their first view of the Vickers exhibition.
“I started looking at these paintings, and all of a sudden, Cici and I developed an intense interest in Florida paintings. I had a chance to talk to Sam Vickers about it, and I credit him, and I think Cici would, too, as being the trigger that propelled us into maniacal collecting. The impetus and the ‘aha’ moment was when the Vickers collection came to Daytona.”
The inspiration of the Sam and Robbie Vickers’ collection, and now the Browns’, has awakened in many an appreciation for a vision of the state they have rarely seen before. And for those who feel a connection to a Florida depicted in nuance and complexity rather than caricature and stereotype, the road between Gainesville and Daytona Beach is certainly one that will be frequently traveled.
Back on the St. Johns River, Sam and Robbie Vickers are slowly filling up their empty walls.
“We had a lot of empty space, but we’ve gradually gotten some things up,” says Sam. “We have family photos and we have some portraits and still lifes. They just aren’t a collection anymore.”
Among the masterworks in the current Harn exhibit is a portrait of Sam and Robbie Vickers at home by noted Florida artist Christopher Still. It’s a small but highly detailed oil, rich with objects of Florida history meaningful to the couple and their collection – a peeled orange, a first edition copy of The Yearling, and the 19th-century silver Florida Treaty coffee pot they have gifted to the Harn – in it, you can see faint reflections of the Vickers and the artist at work.
In the background, Sam and Robbie stand side by side in a blue-wallpapered room lined floor-to ceiling with the artwork of Florida. Robbie’s arm drapes around Sam’s waist, and together they intently study the painting Sam is holding, Thomas Moran’s Fort George Island.
The couple kept a giclee version of Still’s portrait, but the original will be, fittingly, part of the permanent Vickers Collection at the Harn.
Of the artwork that was once their constant companion in their home on the river, “We hated to give it up, but we saw it as going to a greater place,” says Sam Vickers.
“We’ll only enjoy it a while longer, but now, hopefully it will be enjoyed for generations. That will mean a lot to us.”
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