The Art of Buell Whitehead
by: Larry Roberts
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Summer/Fall 2008
In the spring edition of Antiques and Art Around Florida I began my first in a series of articles on alternative Florida artists or those who choose mediums other than oil, water color, etc. It began with a review of metal-smith Serge Nekrassoff.
This sketch will focus on Buell Whitehead, a master stone lithographer whose work embodies amazing color renderings of Florida nature and folk life.
I found my first Whitehead litho about 30 years ago and became an instant collector. I was able to find little about him until I met a fellow at an antique show who was from Ft. Myers and had a couple of the artist’s pieces for sale. I learned from him that Buell was from Ft. Myers as well. I called as soon as I found his number only to find he was in an advanced stage of the neurodegenerative, Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was in the care of his daughter and she spoke for him as he listened on another line. Buell communicated thru taps on the phone, once for yes, twice for no and three times for thank you.
It was an awkward and abbreviated introduction to a once vibrant artist whose work I had long admired.
I planned to visit him in person but in a few months after we talked he took his life ending his hopeless regression.
All was not lost as I was able to locate Dennis Prengart who managed property formerly owned by Buell and lived in his house, also the location of his studio. Dennis was a gracious host and well versed in Whitehead family lore. I was also put in contact with Ron Newsome a fellow collector who grew up knowing Buell and is now in the final stages of writing a book on him. Finally I was putting things together. I learned that Buell had attended the University of Florida and I later found his masters thesis in the P.K. Younge/Smathers library on campus.
So much for the leg work, now to the artist…
Buell was born in Panama City, Fla. on March 16, 1919. His father Henry traveled to Ft. Myers shortly after his birth with the idea of becoming a cattle rancher. The family followed by rail and upon arrival young Buell was handed thru the passenger car window to his waiting father. Growing up in Ft. Myers, Buell developed a love for the great outdoors, hunting in the Everglades and fishing among the many islands of Florida’s southwest coast, prominent themes in his art work. He graduated from Ft. Myers high school in 1937 and began attending the University of Florida in 1938. Majoring in art, he worked toward a Bachelors of Art degree, where he studied the complexities of lithography. His education was interrupted with the beginning of WWII. He served in the military from 1942-1944.
Using the GI bill he finished college and graduated from the University with honors in 1945. Shortly after receiving his degree, Buell moved to California to attend the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. At Otis he continued his research, refining his art while mastering the technological expertise of stone lithography. Here he illustrated California’s mountain and desert landscapes including Yosemite National Park and Death Valley. About this time in the mid to late 1940s, we see dated examples of Balinese temple dances, and other near eastern exotics appearing in Buell’s lithography.
After finishing Otis in 1947 he began traveling and selling his art to hotels across the US. His lithography graced many hotel lobbies and rooms. Even the elegant Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina decorated with Buell’s colorful lithos. Still wishing to advance his education he returned to the University of Florida in 1950 and finished his masters in 1951.
Following his degree Buell returned to Ft. Myers and became a real estate agent. He still pursued his craft, but real estate became his main source of income. He purchased some land north of town and opened a trailer park also the location of his home and studio. Managing the rentals and other business ventures, Buell’s pursuit of lithography became more recreational than a source of income but did not distill his passion to create. By this time he had established what I call his Florida style, which can be seen as clearly evolved in his dissertation art portfolio. Lithos similar to “Pig Snatcher”, “Bayou”, “Wood Ibis” and “Summer Rain” mirror his treatment of Florida landscapes. His return to Ft. Myers marks Buell’s ascent into Florida art history. Vibrant lithos of the Everglade swamps, wading birds, and costal islands were sold to local venues and many were given to friends. He never lost his passion to create.
Buell’s work reflects his love of nature, folk life and the stark realities of having grown up during the depression. His lithos were frames of his Florida experience. In his masters thesis he mentions fellow lithographers like Bellows, Grant Wood, and Thomas Heart Benton that shared his Regionalist School ideals. It appears that Buell was most influenced by his contemporary, Benton as Buell’s treatment of skies and imagery share many similarities. It should be mentioned that rural scenes such as “Tobacco Barn” and “Erosion” depict vignettes of southern Alabama as he had relatives in Dothan and Geneva.
Few lithographers used color as it is a long and tedious process and difficult to master often requiring 5 to 6 separate stone intaglios to create the color image. Nevertheless, Buell’s stone lithographs are testimony to his compositional genius and skill in the technological process.
Footnote: Collector Ron Newsome will be publishing a book on Buell’s lithography in the near future. He can be reached at 1-239-980-0305.
Larry Roberts owns Roberts Antiques in Micanopy, Florida, specializing in art and antiques from Florida. For questions call 1-352-318-0152.
Photos by Jan Davis.
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