Monday, September 22, 2008

Creation of a Painting

The Storm: 1928 Remembered

To commemorate the 80th anniversary of the frightening 1928 hurricane that hit the Lake Okeechobee and Palm Beach County, Florida area, which was the second largest natural disaster in United States history, the Historical Society of Palm Beach County created a temporary exhibit (September 16, 2008 through January 16, 2009) at the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum in downtown West Palm Beach, Florida. During this devastating storm, a giant wave crashed through the southern levee of Lake Okeechobee and traveled south for 40 miles, flooding everything in its path, wiping out houses and buildings , and taking the lives of more than 3,000 people who lived there.

What does an 8-foot wall of water look like?The call to artists was to submit samples of their work if interested in creating this painting.

I was honored to have been chosen to create the painting, 4 feet wide and 8 feet high, showing what an 8-foot wall of water would look like, carrying objects caught up in the shallows of Lake Okeechobee as it broke through large sections of the lake’s 5-foot levee, and as it traveled south for 40 miles.

The painting was to be educational, initially to be exhibited at the History Museum, mounted above a diorama of Lake Okeechobee, for 5 months, and then would be in a traveling exhibit to several additional venues after it left the museum; therefore, it could not be too fragile. Florida 4th graders would view the exhibit on field trips to the museum as part of their education in Florida history. Given the choice of doing the painting on canvas or plywood, I chose to use a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of ¼” birch plywood so it would be sturdy enough for the traveling exhibit.

My research was done by using the internet to read the history of the storm and view many photos of the devastation, find images of objects I wanted to depict, scanning images and changing and sizing them in Photoshop, looking through magazines and photos for images,drawing images of objects,watching a TV program on rouge waves which utilized software to show how a wave would look, photographing that wave, and watching the movies A Perfect Storm and Their Eyes were Watching God. There were many conversations with friends and family about objects that might be in the wave and the correct proportions of those objects against an 8-foot tall painting with 18 inches of sky and 6-1/2 feet of wave.

Parameters of the project were that the top 18 inches of image should be a dark and foreboding sky, with the remaining area to be 6-1/2 feet of wave. The sky was to be similar to that shown in the movie, Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The first challenge was to decide how large the various objects picked up by the wind and water should be, given that I was painting an 8-foot high wave within a 6-1/2-foot high space. After many conversations with my husband, Jerry, about this issue, we settled on the size of the rowboat. (The painting only shows part of the rowboat, since the whole boat would have taken up so much space.) Size of the objects played a big part in what was shown—each object had to be something that could have actually been in Lake Okeechobee or the surrounding area, must have existed in 1928, and could have been picked up by the water movement and the wind.

Since the painting was to be in an educational exhibit, I wanted it to be interesting to children, as well as adults. My first choice for a child’s toy was a Seminole Indian doll, but it would have been so small, I decided to use the red wagon. All of the creatures—a bass, a green turtle, Scarlet King Snake, and a tree frog—are found in Lake Okeechobee. The row boat, galvanized bucket, and piece of corrugated tin roofing are items that were in use in 1928.

After deciding on possible objects, I painted a reduced size working sketch (12” x 24”) showing the sky and wave, and cut out pictures of objects in the correct proportions and taped them onto the canvas, creating a collage. This was a great tool, since it allowed me to move the objects around to get the best composition. I then took a digital photograph and submitted it to the Historical Society for approval before proceeding with the actual painting. After a couple of tries, they accepted my sketch, and I started the painting.

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First step – sanding the plywood smooth. Next - three coats of gesso were applied to each side of the plywood, alternating sides, each allowed to dry completely and sanded smooth before applying the next coat. This was done to create a painting surface and to keep the board from warping.

Sanding between coats of gesso.
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I marked off 18 inches from the top for the sky area with blue painter’s tape, and applied a wash of thinned purple paint to get rid of the white surface.

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The sky was painted first. Then the main sky colors were painted onto canvas squares and sent to Steve Erdmann, Curator of Collections and Exhibits for the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, so that he could have the wall where the painting was to be mounted painted in a shade to go with the sky .

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The man-made objects I chose to include in the painting as being picked up by the wind and wave were each researched for authenticity to the time period of 1928. I used the internet, books from the library, and magazines to research each object. Since I love antiques and history, this was fun for me.

Working on the painting.
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Making progress........
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The tin used on roofs in 1928 was corrugated—not the wider panels used on metal roofs today. The first child’s wooden wagon actually was made in 1917, and little red steel wagons were first sold in 1927. Buckets weren’t made of plastic in 1928—they were galvanized metal. My original ideafor the snake was a cottonmouth, but it’s coloring was too close to that of the log, so I used the more colorful scarlet king snake.

(Click on photo to enlarge)

In tropical storm Fay this summer, we lost a couple of banana trees from our back yard—I used one of those as my model for the tree.

Here’s the final painting before
it was delivered to the History
Museum in West Palm Beach
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At the Exhibit…………

The finished painting
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On the wall at the left is an actual depth marker used at Lake Okeechobee. It is positioned to mark the wave in the painting at 8 feet. Below the painting is a diorama showing the shape of Lake Okeechobee in 1928 with dark areas to show the flooding.

Plaque mounted on the wall at the right side of the painting
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The exhibit room.
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Read more about the storm and the Richard and Pat Johnson History Museum at . The rotating header will show The Storm: 1928 Remembered - Featured Exhibition. Click there OR enter rotating exhibits gallery into the search box.

The exhibit is on display September 16, 2008 through January 16, 2009. The museum is located at 300 North Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach, Florida, and is open Tuesday – Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday: 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.


About Me

Name: Betty Laur
Location: Palm Beach Gardens, Florida

I'm an artist in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. I was chosen by the Palm Beach County Historical Society to create a painting for an exhibit commeorating the 1928 hurricane, depicting the 8-foot high wave which traveled 40 miles south and created flooding and massive devastation.