Artists Acres

It Is Creating That Has Kept Me Alive
Written by Karen S. Parker, Sarasota Herald-Tribune FL 2/10/02   
Artist Lois Bartlett Tracy may be 100 years old and legally blind, but she isn't about to let a little thing like that keep her from writing about art and her life as a painter.

When at 98 she could no longer see to paint and her hands were too weak to grasp a brush, Tracy turned her attention to writing about the exciting life she has led, publishing her work in magazines. But Tracy, whose work hangs in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., is best known as one of the pioneers of modern art.

"I think I see better now that I'm blind," said Tracy, who lives in Englewood and is one of the first American abstract painters. "But it's awful hard not to be able to paint anymore. I still see things and feel things, but I can't express them in paintings.

"So now I think about stories I want to tell. When I couldn't see colors anymore, I started writing. I've had a wonderful life and I want to leave something for the next person who comes along."

That life began on Dec. 9, 1901, in Jackson, Mich. She was one of five children born to James Elwood and Nellie Allen Bartlett. Although she has always thought of herself as a Southerner, Tracy and her family didn't come to Florida until around 1915. The family first settled in Lakeland, then Tampa, before moving to Venice, where her father began buying up land, much of it beachfront, which at that time was considered mostly worthless.
"Our father gave all his children waterfront lots that ran from the Gulf to the Bay," said Tracy. "I sold mine for $300. Back then you had to have a boat to get to the beach and when you got there, there was nothing but sand and rattlesnakes. I used to wonder why in the world anyone would want to live out on the beach.   "But my father was very farsighted. He foresaw the time when the coast would be developed from Sarasota to Englewood. At one point he owned most of north Manasota Key and Caspersen Beach."

As a young woman, Tracy briefly attended Florida College for Women (now part of Florida State University) before transferring to Michigan State College.   "In 1921, the only degree I could study for at Florida College was home economics; painting was not taught," she said. "That was terrible because I wanted to study art and I wasn't a homemaker. At Michigan my painting teacher just let me work on my own and encouraged me."
Tracy showed early signs of being a free spirit. Rebelling against the 1920s-era social conventions, she bobbed her long blond hair and began wearing pants. This was scandalous behavior for the period, and it was the beginning of Tracy's identity as an artist and free-thinking social pioneer. Even her ambition to become an artist was discouraged by the attitudes of the time.

"I had always wanted to paint, even as a child,"

she said. "There was a museum we used to visit in Chicago. I couldn't wait to get there so I could look at the paintings. There was one in particular with thick paint that I really liked. I was looking at it and felt something go through me. I knew right then I was going to be a painter. I was only about 7 or 8 years old. But when I first began painting, I signed my paintings as Bartlett, because I found it difficult to be taken seriously as a woman painter.

"If I used my name, Lois, my paintings were hung behind a door or up high. But if I used Bartlett or later Bartlett Tracy, my work was hung in a good spot and I did very well."

In 1923 Tracy married for the first time and gave birth to her first son, Don Walker. While the marriage didn't last long, her career as an artist was beginning to take off.

Tracy returned to Sarasota from Michigan a couple of years later and began painting in earnest. Her subjects were usually realistic landscapes.
"In 1926 there was nothing for artists in Sarasota," said Tracy. "We had no place to paint. We were a small group of about two dozen artists. At that time my father owned the Venice Myakka Motel and we used to come down there. I used it as a gallery for my work."  So with Hilton Leech and Loran Wilford, Tracy started the Sarasota Art Association. "We had a vision for a local artist colony. Together we'd all drive out to Myakka -- it wasn't a park back then. Another painter, Eldon Rowland, would also come along. We always took a shovel and a big board because we always got stuck in the sand," she said.

"One time we were camping in this place we called the treetops. We looked down and as far as you could see, there were thousands of black snakes crawling along the ground. They came like a great black wave, crawling down to the lake. After that we were afraid to go down to the lake."
Following her divorce, Tracy decided to return to school, this time to Rollins College in the Orlando area.

It was while studying at Rollins that she she met the love of her life and future husband, Harry "Bus" Tracy.   "The first time I met Bus I was lying in bed with my baby at my mother's cottage in Daytona Beach," said a smiling Tracy. "My brother used to invite all his friends over for the weekend at the beach. Bus walked in and served me breakfast in bed. The first thing I thought when I saw him was that he had a big nose. But I grew to love big noses."   They married in 1931.

"Those were the Depression years and no one had any money. I painted pictures of palm trees and sold them to tourists for $5 a tree. If there were three trees in the painting, I sold the painting for $15."

In 1932, Lois and Bus moved back to Venice and ran the Venice Myakka Hotel for her father. It not only provided an income, but it also became their home and her gallery and studio.

"We used to take our guests out to the Carlton Ranch to hunt and ride horses. We'd also come down to Englewood to shoot quail. Sometimes I would ride out to the ranch in the morning and go riding with the cowboys as they herded the range cattle. They would leave me in a hammock where I would paint all day. Then they'd pick me up at the end of the day."

Painting in the woods was not without its hazards.   One day, while she was focused on her painting, a huge rattlesnake standing on its tail in front of her easel reared up high enough so that its eyes were level with hers (she stands barely 5 feet tall).   "When I realized what was just about 8 inches from my head, I saw that he was looking at my painting," said Tracy. "He looked as if he were studying it. Then slowly he let himself down and crawled away. He must have been at least 8 feet long."

In 1939, a series of jungle paintings she exhibited in the Florida pavilion at the New York World's Fair won a gold medal for Best Oil Collection. That recognition won her an invitation to exhibit her work in the Heckster Building in New York City. She also began exhibiting her work at Grace Pickett's gallery in the city. Pickett later became her agent.

Tracy began to meet other New York artists, including photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his wife, the painter Georgia O'Keeffe.   "I got to know him quite well and often visited his gallery," said Tracy. "Stieglitz was always so dramatic. He wore a long black cape and was always acting up. I only met his wife once or twice after he died. She kept the gallery for a while. He was an extraordinary man and very supportive of art."

Running the hotel in Venice was great for Tracy and her husband during the prosperous winter season, but it was difficult to make ends meet in the summer. During a visit to Connecticut, the Tracys saw an ad in the New York Times for a large inn in the New Hampshire mountains near Lake Winnesquam. With less than $75 in their pockets, they drove up to the property and bought it that day for a $50 down payment and became innkeepers.

"Bus had a talent for creating beauty," said Tracy. "He would take famous historical hotels and restore them. He'd plant gardens and was a wonderful cook. He was not a painter, but in every other sense of the word, he was an artist."   The inn became a popular meeting spot for artists and musicians from New York City, and the Tracys established the Tall Timber Artist Colony there. She also helped organize the New Hampshire Art Association and was one of its first presidents.

"The move to New Hampshire had a profound impact on my painting," said Tracy. "Before that all I painted were jungles. I was meeting all different kinds of people. It was to be a turning point in my career."   By the early 1940s, World War II had begun and Tracy volunteered to monitor a tiny one-room radio outpost in Sanbornton, N.H., as part of the war effort. Her job from midnight to 6 a.m. was to listen to the radio in case local authorities needed to be alerted. She had two loaded revolvers handy and there were sturdy locks on the door. At night it was dark, lonely and frightening work.

"It was terrifying to be alone all night, but I began using the time to study physics, space and energy. One day I went out to paint an apple tree and instead of painting the tree, I drew the spaces between the branches. Now the painting stood for all kinds of apple trees, and that was a revelation to me."

One of her abstract paintings from this period, "Textural Space," was purchased in 1994 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tracy had begun to claim her place as one of the preeminent abstract artists of her time, and her paintings were beginning to sell for $24,000 and up.

Then, disaster struck. One morning Tracy, her husband and Nathan, her second son, awoke to find sparks flying out of the brooding house behind the inn where they raised chickens. Their barn caught fire, and then the inn did. They lost everything -- including all of her best paintings -- in the fire.
"After the fire it felt like all my arms and legs were gone," she said. "I lost all my work from the early Venice-Sarasota period. I still wake up at night and think about it."

The little family had nothing left, but within a week Bus was offered a job at the Steele Hill Mountaintop Inn in Virginia. They moved there, and Tracy sold real estate and taught art to make ends meet. And she painted lots of paintings.   During this period, Tracy began studying abstract art concepts from the famous abstractionist Hans Hoffman. Her work became completely abstract, and she began exhibiting her work in museums and galleries around the country. Over the years she has taught at several schools and universities and continued displaying her work in shows.

"I could never sit down and paint things the way they look," she said. "I wanted to paint the power of nature, not just a leaf. I wanted to paint dancing forms and the play of light. I had a strong brush stroke and used bold color."

Along the way she earned many honors, including "Who's Who in the World," Outstanding Educators of America and the National Association of Women Artists. She also found time to write three books on art concepts and painting principles.

"I was in a lot of New York shows during the 1950s," she said. "My paintings were selling very well, and each time I sold some I would travel around the world as far as the money would pay for. I went a lot of places."

In the 1960s, the Tracys moved back to Englewood and bought a block of property they named Artists Acres. They broke it into lots and sold them to their artist friends for $125, hoping to establish yet another artists' colony. They named the streets after artist's colors -- ochre, madder and alizarin.
"All of the artists who came are deceased now except for myself and Rose Brown who is 99," said Tracy. "She's a good friend. We still see each other occasionally."

Tracy's abstract painting style continued to evolve into the 1970s, '80s and '90s. Three paintings from her "Space Series" now hang in the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.

"The artist must see beyond the physical envelope of the world," said Tracy. "To the rhythms, the realities of the soul and cosmos. An artist must put himself or herself into every brush stroke."

In 1985, Harry died; she continues to miss his reassuring presence. "The wonderful thing about my husband is that he always put my painting first," said Tracy. "He always insisted I have a studio. "People would sometimes ask my husband if he was an artist and he would say, 'One in the family is enough.'"

Now she spends her days at her home in Artist Acres, surrounded by family and friends, dictating stories of her life and recording a remarkable career.
She is small and frail, with bright blue eyes that now only see shadows. Her translucent skin is drawn taut over fine bones, but she still looks lovely at 100. A sister, Lee Lasbury, who is 85, stops by daily to check on her and they chat about the old days over an afternoon cocktail.
"I look back and realize I have had a wonderful life," said Tracy. "There have been lots of adventures and good times and bad times. It's nice to know I'm a part of art history.

"I always felt that a day that went by without painting was a lost day. I have always had to paint just as I have to breathe. It is creating that has kept me alive."

What's being said about Lois Bartlett Tracy

"Her interest in interplanetary space is part of a philosophical approach to abstraction ... I think it's related to a certain kind of landscape painting that deals with scale. A lot of 20th-century landscape painting was predicated on engaging concepts of the sublime."

LOWERY SIMS, associate curator, Metropolitan Museum of Art

"A strong love of nature -- sensitivity of the forces of the universe -- an awareness of the quality of time: These are the things that have shaped Bartlett Tracy's career as an artist. Dedicated to her work as a painter and teacher, her accomplishments are many."

HILTON LEECH, co-founder of the Sarasota Art Association

"Through a courage that permits her to accept the tangible fabric of living and a deep affection and free flowing imagery that make a twig and sky a personally revealed universe, mysterious yet self-evident, Lois Bartlett Tracy receives and sustains each morning of life with wonder and grace."

MAX BERND-COHEN, Carlisle, England

Caption: STAFF PHOTO / ARMANDO SOLARES / This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Lois Bartlett Tracy sits in front of an impressionist painting of her husband, Harry H. Tracy, painted in the 1970s.
"Elijah and The Fiery Chariot," Lois Bartlett Tracy, 1983.

February 10, 2002   Section: FLORIDA WEST   Page: E1

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