Myth inspires artistic wellspring

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The Gainesville Sun

March 28, 2013

By Tyler Francischine

The Conquistadors were after it. Alexander the Great hunted for it. Even Donald Duck joined the search for the sweetest of all elixirs. As long as humans are born, age, and die, there will be a search for the antidote to aging and death: the Fountain of Youth. Gainesville’s newest art exhibition aims to explore this theme and its rich historical past.

“The Quest for the Fountain of Youth in Florida History, Mythology and Art” features 62 original works from contemporary Florida artists. The exhibition, which opens Friday, will be shown at both the Thomas Center Main Gallery and the Doris Bardon Community Cultural Center.

Exhibition curator Mallory O’Connor says the project, which she’s worked on for five years, is especially relevant this year as 2013 marks the 500th anniversary of explorer Juan Ponce de Leon’s arrival and naming of La Florida.

“The mythology of the Fountain of Youth has been a wide-spread phenomenon,” she says. “As we move toward the quincentennial of Ponce’s landing on Florida, I wanted to investigate how the Fountain story has been attached to Florida’s identity.”

She asked Florida artists to use the Fountain myth as an inspiration, and she received paintings, sculptures, ceramic pieces, glass art, installations and performance pieces. She says the artists focused on five topics, including the myths of the Fountain, the history of its followers, the myth’s cultural implications for Floridians, the geology of Florida and its status as a Garden of Eden, and the myth’s relevance in contemporary culture.

“Visitors are going to be delighted and amazed,” she says. “It’s very thought-provoking. These artists have come up with creative visions of what the Fountain means. I want people to think, ‘What does this legend mean to me? And what does it mean to Florida?’”

The 60-plus artists include such Gainesville contributors as Eleanor Blair, Peter Carolin, Anne Gilroy and Linda Pence as well as others from around the state including Xavier Cortada from Miami, Jake Fernandez from Bradenton and Heidi Edwards from St. Augustine.

Gainesville artist Margaret Tolbert is displaying a painting that depicts the well at Silver Glen springs. She says the Florida springs serve as a literal and poetic metaphor for renewal and the Fountain of Youth.

“Entering the springs and immersion in the waters has a miraculous effect,” she says. “I overheard one kid say before he dove into Royal Springs, ‘When you go in the springs, it’s like you start your life over.’”

Artist Annie Pais is displaying an oil painting of Gilchrist Blue Springs. She says her work is part of a bigger movement to spread awareness about the poor state of the area springs and the need for government intervention.

“These beautiful fountains of youth are so valuable and so precious and unique to our part of the world, and the state is letting them degrade,” she says.

Cortada, whose mixed media installation is titled “Prime: Residual Fountain of Youth,” will be doing an in-person performance with his installation at the Thomas Center on May 2 at 5:30 p.m.

Russell Etling, the city of Gainesville’s cultural affairs programs coordinator, worked with O’Connor to organize the exhibition and says the Fountain of Youth myth is a useful way to explain Florida’s appeal to outsiders. People of all ages are attracted to Florida, with its swaying palms and lapping oceans, for its seeming ability to renew and rejuvenate its inhabitants.

“For generations, people have come to Florida to be revived and to stay young. Though there may not be a real fountain, the region itself has many healing properties,” he says.

O’Connor says this myth, which has been documented by ancient Greek historian Herodotus, is especially relevant today, as advances in science and technology enable us to get ever closer to achieving physical immortality.

“Florida is an epicenter for this culture of youthfulness,” she says. “People want to look younger than they are. They dye their hair, they use Botox. It’s an artificial Fountain of Youth — using technological processes to make us feel more youthful.”

Etling says this exhibition may garner results similar to those the Fountain itself.

“Art galleries are places of contemplation and inspiration,” he says. “When viewers see the extraordinary artwork of this exhibition, they will be in fact rejuvenated themselves.”

The opening reception, which is part of Artwalk from 7-10 p.m. Friday, will feature a special appearance from Ponce de Leon himself.

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