Seeing the St. Johns River through artists' eyes

“The Ocklawaha River from Colby's Landing” by Margaret “Peggy” Watts of Ocala is one of the images featured in “Florida's American Heritage River: Images from the St. Johns Region.”

Courtesy of the University Press of Florida
Published: Saturday, January 9, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 2:37 p.m.

A favorite spot for romantic-minded dining patrons is the Blackwater Inn in Astor on the eastern edge of the Ocala National Forest.


‘Images from the St. Johns Region'

Who: Gary Monroe and Mallory O'Connor, authors of the book; presented by Friends of the Ocala Public Library
When: 2 p.m. Jan. 17
Where: Marion County Public Library Headquarters, 2720 E. Silver Springs Blvd., Ocala
Cost: Free
Information: 671-8551

Positioned on the western bank of the St. Johns River, the restaurant features a floor-to-ceiling glass wall overlooking the river; diners often while away a meal and more simply watching the waterway just beyond the window.

Perhaps they wonder: Where has it been? Where is it going? What tales does it have to tell?

Gary Monroe, a photographer and fine arts instructor at Daytona State College, wondered also.

“It was 15 years ago,” he says, “when I realized what an untapped resource we have here.”

His idea, he says, was to chronicle the life of a river - a 310-mile northward-flowing course designated 12 years ago as one of just 14 American Heritage Rivers - through the eyes of those who've lived in it, on it, beside it, around it.

“To delve into our share of its collective history,” as he puts it.

The result of this quest is “Florida's American Heritage River: Images from the St. Johns Region,” published last year by the University Press of Florida.

Monroe and his collaborator, Mallory O'Connor, are scheduled to talk about their process of collecting hundreds of images and artifacts of river history and pulling the river's story from them at 2 p.m. Jan. 17 in a session sponsored by the Friends of the Ocala Public Library at the Marion County Public Library Headquarters on East Silver Springs Boulevard.

“It‘s a very important river to us,” says Frances Kolonia, the Friends' program chairman who set up the gathering open to anyone with an interest in the culture and heritage of the St. Johns. Some of the artists whose work appears in the book, including Ocala's Peggy Watts and Gainesville's Kate Barnes, also will be part of the program.

Adds Dennis Lloyd, director of sales and marketing for University Press of Florida: “The St. Johns is important not only because it is the only designated American Heritage River in Florida, but because it is both a major transportation route and a source of great creative inspiration.

“Mallory and Gary have captured the way this river and this region have lived and continue to live in our hearts, minds and imaginations. Reading the book reminds us all that a trip to a museum-worthy spectacle can be as close as our back doors.”

More than a coffee-table book, “Images from the St. Johns Region” has few actual photos among the 200-plus color plates in the 384-page book. “Maybe two,” Monroe says. “It's almost all relics, and painting and sculptures artists have created, that reflect on the river experience.”

It also is history, a retelling of the common experience. Yet, notes O'Connor, “Everyone who looks at the river sees something different.”

In their preface, Monroe and O'Connor write: “More than mirroring culture, the work of the artists represented in this book mirrors environments, both physical and ideological. These artists have responded to both a sense of place and a sense of cultural identity, and those factors have determined the style and content of their creations.”

One painting - sunset over the St. Johns crafted 120 years ago by Martin Johnson Heade - evokes, they write, “a vision of paradise that pre-dates the disappointing realities of crowded beaches and thoughtless development. To surrender to the allure of these images is to leave reality behind and enter the world of the imagination, the realm of myth. And it is through myth that we can best appreciate the impact that artists have had on the development of Florida's visual mythology - a mythology in which the St. Johns River has played a major role.”

Other items range widely, including an original 1564 Jacques Le Moyne drawing of Timucuan Indians meeting French explorers, quiltwork of citrus and turpentine industries, a Silver Springs TV tray, a photograph of lightning over downtown Jacksonville, a wooden alligator letter-opener, the once-ubiquitous Silver Springs mileage meter, and lots of paintings and drawings of settings along the river's course.

“I don't know how we did it,” Monroe adds. “It was the ultimate treasure hunt. We found things in high-end museums to thrift stores and yard sales.

“If one looks hard enough, you'd be surprised what you can find.”

While the book touches on the river's 10,000-year history, much of its focus is on the past couple hundred.

From the mid-1800s, the river and its tributaries, including the Ocklawaha River, were the primary route to points south and southwest. “The St. Johns was the I-95 of its day,” Monroe says - perhaps a reason why river-based tourism receives at least two chapters.

Once they'd collected more than 400 examples of river art, that's when they let the collection do the talking - with “word of mouth and a lot of research,” notes Monroe.

“We let the images lead us,” says O'Connor. “What they were telling us about how people saw the river.”

Contact Rick Allen at

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top