- Just Above the Water: Florida Folk Art
Florida's highest point is Britten Hill in the Panhandle's Lakewood community. At an elevation of 345 feet, this hill literally is just above the water—a phrase that serves as a metonym for Florida and as an apt title for Kristin Congdon and Tina Bucuvalas's beautiful book on the state's folk arts. The arts that they have carefully and insightfully documented are shaped by the experiences of almost 18,000,000 people who live between the saltwaters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Coast. The experience of [End Page 331] living in a state with 1,197 miles of coastline is represented in many of the folk arts. Congdon and Bucuvalas have created an accessible and vibrant portrait of some of the most talented artists who all live just above Florida's water.
Following Michael Owen Jones's valuable foreword, the book consists of three main parts. Part 1 is an overview of Florida's geography, demographics, and artistic traditions, and it also includes a foray into definitional issues pertaining to folk arts in Florida. Part 2 is a compilation of finely crafted essays on seventy-five of Florida's most important folk artists. The volume concludes with eighty-one full-color plates of artists and artwork, many taken by the acclaimed photographer Bud Lee. His photographs display a distinctive look that makes the last section of the book feel like it belongs on a coffee table in one of the state's sun porches. Lee's photographs are also presented in halftones throughout the text, along with the photographs of many additional field-workers who have completed numerous folklife studies in Florida. Many of these other photographs are of high quality, but some display problems with focus, composition, and lighting.
The collaboration between a professional photographer and two excellent folklorists is but one partnership that characterizes much of Congdon and Bucuvalas's book. Bucuvalas was Florida's state folklorist, and Congdon is a professor of film and philosophy at the University of Central Florida. Their project blurs the dichotomy between public and academic folklorist, with Bucuvalas working in public sector folklore and Congdon working from an academic base of art education and folklore studies. Their merger of academic and public folklore results in a rich and inspiring presentation of important folk arts within Florida, and their research, presentation, and interpretation of folk arts are models for folklorists working in other states. They also are concerned about other dichotomies, and much of the text addresses divisions between folk and fine art, self-taught versus academically-trained artists, outsider art versus community-based expressive culture, and folklore and popular culture.
The overview of Florida's folklife as it relates to the peninsula's land and people is especially strong. Through the seventy-five portraits, Congdon and Bucuvalas provide an excellent context for understanding the range of diversity in Florida. The authors give a convincing explanation for including time-honored traditional arts, such as Jimmie O'Toole's Seminole patchwork and Carrine Porter's colorful quilt-making, with more recent artistic, even idiosyncratic, expressions such as Stanley Pappio's folk sculpture and Mary Proctor's bicycle wheel tower. Throughout the book, they develop this type of presentation by including folk arts that are seen as reflecting community-based cultural traditions such as Joe Elmore's woodcarving, Lucreaty Clark and Alfonso Jenning's splint oak basketry, and Llewellyn Roberts's Trinidadian carnival mask making, along with seemingly unique forms of folk art expression such as Cardell Evans's crafting of sculpted masks from old car hoods and Alyne Harris's folk painting. The approach merges two distinct orientations. The first is a focus on arts related to a cohesive social base, and it is characteristic of many folklorists' approaches. The second is related to the appeal of arts that are not usually seen as "traditional" but reflect aesthetic values and genres...