There’s a reason Juan Ponce de Leon named Florida after the Spanish word for flower.
When he landed, they were everywhere.
Local artists Leslie Wentzell, Dolores Lowery and Linda Matela were three of 500 artists chosen from across the state of Florida to participate in Miami artist, Xavier Cortada’s, living garden exhibit, aptly named FLOR500.
The participatory art, nature and history project was designed to commemorate Florida’s quincentennial. The project gave viewers a glimpse of what the state’s landscape was like 500 years ago.
For historical accuracy the organizers of the exhibit worked with scientists to identify 500 native wildflowers that were around when de Leon landed. The selection was divided into eight regions and represents each of the state's 67 counties.
The Region One gallery, which contained entrants in Northwest Florida, has been on exhibit in Tallahassee at the 621 Gallery, the Bay County Library and most recently, the Amelia Center Gallery at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City.
Lowery owns and operates the Seagrass Gallery out of The Grove in Mexico Beach and was one of the first artists to enter the participatory exhibition.
She heard about the project through the Society of Expressive Artists (SEA) and submitted a work of art for consideration. A month letter she gained her acceptance letter and was provided a list of not-chosen flowers to choose from for the gallery.
Wentzell, operator of The Artery studio in Port St. Joe heard about the project through the Gulf Alliance for Local Arts (GALA) and said she found the idea intriguing, especially since there was no free for artists, a rare thing when it comes to exhibits.
Each artist was to create a work of art of a flower from their region. Though Lowery could have chosen a bud from further North, the decision was simple once she saw that Adam’s Needle was an available option.
“I wanted to do a flower native to the Forgotten Coast,” she said. “I wanted it to be representative of where I live.”
Lowery had photographed the Yucca plant on St. Joe Bay a year prior just after a rainstorm. The plant was in full bloom and prime to be immortalized in her photo-encaustic style that creates a three-dimensional look with the use of pigmented wax.
Wentzell considered several flowers before she chose the Flowering Dogwood.
She said that she uses a lot of natural references in her sculptures and leaves tend to show up in a lot of pieces.
The timing for the FLOR500 was perfect since she had been working on a plate series that featured raised, three-dimensional oak leaves and decided to use a similar approach for the dogwood. She crafted three separate plates before she chose and submitted her favorite.
Linda Matela is a watercolorist and teacher at The Artery. After being accepted for the project she chose the Whitetop Pitcher Plant.
“It was my first choice because of its weirdness,” said Matela. “Can you imagine seeing this flower in the wild?”
All images of the flowers submitted become public domain and available as teaching tools to anyone interested in Florida’s native flora.
“The goal of the exhibit was to enhance awareness of wildflowers and get people to plant them,” said Lowery.
The gallery at the Amelia Center ran through the second week in September and the works were returned to the artists for further display.
Lowery plans to offer her Adam’s Needle for sale starting on Sept. 19 while Wentzell plans put her Dogwood sculpture into a gallery to continue sharing it with the arts community.
Lowery praised Cortada for using the project to build awareness for wildflowers.
“He does this to do good in the community and state,” she said. “I really admire him.”
Inspired by one of Cortada’s projects at the exhibit, Lowery plans to carry the project forward through a piece she will create for the Mexico Beach Art and Wine Fest on Oct. 12.
She will paint a 40-inch wide wildflower and then cut it into 100 one-inch squares. Each square can be purchased for one dollar and will contain original art along with a bag of wildflower seeds.
Funds raised through the project will be donated to the Mexico Beach Special Events Committee.
With success of the FLOR500, Wentzell hopes to see more outside-the-box art exhibits take place in the area.
“I was really excited that it wasn’t limited to two-dimensional art,” said Wentzell. “The work didn’t need to be realistic and it made for a much more exciting exhibit.”
Cortada is an Artist-in-Residence with the Office of Engaged Creativity at Florida International University.
The concept for FLOR500 is a culmination of his life experiences. As a boy in Puerto Rico, he visited Ponce de Leon’s home, has created art projects based around the Fountain of Youth, and sees the explorer as one of the most important men in Florida’s history.
It’s not a coincidence that the project utilized flowers that were around when Ponce de Leon landed near St. Augustine in 1513.
“I wanted everyone to get a sense of how important a moment was in history,” said Cortada. “We’re giving the state an anniversary present.”
At the Amelia Center, Cortada launched the gallery, gave a speech, planted a wildflower garden and spoke with college students to motivate them to think creatively and innovate in their own creations.
The artist said that the experience was wonderful and he enjoyed seeing artists engaged in conversations about pieces outside their normal disciplines.
In addition to his accomplishments with the FLOR500, Cortada has created a series of banners that hang at the CERN facility in Geneva, Switzerland, over the spot where the Higgs boson particle was discovered using the Large Hadron Collider.
Photographs of each FLOR500 flower painting, along with plant details and artist biographies can be seen online at www.FLOR500.com.