Lake Wales artist Blair Updike draws inspiration from her home. Florida culture, cowboys and Seminoles, even modern-day authors inspire her to illuminate the beauty and history of the region. Two years ago we met in her studio off of Lake Amoret to discuss her work. As her painting exhibition of Florida landscapes is opening later this month at the Lake Wales Arts Center, it seemed fitting to revisit her story.
The 8th generation Floridian grew up on The Ridge. Creativity was a natural resource for Updike, even as a child. She was always drawing or painting. Remembering her earliest work, she said, “I’d do these whole scenes where it was the landscape with all different kinds of trees, a waterfall, and squirrels, and otters.” Anywhere there could be an animal, she put one.
Updike majored in Art at Stetson University before switching her focus to English. “I put down the painting for years,” she said. She went to work for her family’s company Petersen Industries in Lake Wales.
“When my youngest child was two, I had a picture of her that I thought was really cute and I wanted to make a painting of it,” Blair remembered. She and the canvas were reacquainted and she picked up her brushes once again. The artist now homeschools her two girls and works as the Clerk for Highland Park where she lives and paints.
A multi-faceted artist, painting with watercolors and sculpting, her primary medium is oil paints. Her stunning portraits hang on the walls of her studio in handpicked frames – some antique, others custom from a local framer. A palette layered with paint from portraits past rested beside her easel – a piece of art in its own right, it was a colorful testament to the hours of work she puts into her craft.
“I mostly do Florida cultural and landscape themes just because I feel like it’s beautiful and the cultural aspect is something that needs a little more attention,” Blair explained. “I’d rather reflect something that’s a little authentic about Florida than just to do pretty scenes.” Blair’s subjects range from her daughters, cowboys, Seminoles, authors, self-portraits, families in commissioned pieces. She’s even captured Mike Osceola, descendant of the war chief, Cheif Osceola who led a Seminole resistance in the Second Seminole War.
Blair does many portraits, some commissioned and some that catch her eye, landscapes, sunsets, still life’s – a little bit of everything. She is constantly evolving. When we spoke she was working on painting from memory. In Italy the Spring before, Blair met a group from Boston that she stays in touch with. She said, “I sent four panels up for an event they had last week. Something went wrong with the first two panels.” She improvised and painted the first two panels from memory, without reference. “It kind of set me free to be able to make stuff up,” she said. On her walks every afternoon or evening, Blair would try to remember what she had seen and return to her studio to paint it from memory.
“It’s the difference between observing something and finding it [...] in your own head,” she said. This, she said is less about creating and more about learning. “I’m directed by what I’m interested in learning now.”
Updike admires many other artists. She noted Quang Ho, David Leffel, and Sherrie McGraw as modern artists that she appreciates as well as Spanish Impressionist, Sorolla as an incredible inspiration. About five years ago, she studied with “modern Rembrant” portrait artist, David Leffel. “From him, I learned the logic behind painting and about composing for the light. I’ve gone to workshops to study with quite a few of our contemporary masters, but the conclusion that I’ve come to is that I know enough by now, and it’s time to practice it,” said Updike. “So now instead of studying with someone, I have painting mentors and I put the most energy into working as opposed to studying.”
She’s gone to Tuscany twice with well-known painter, installation artist, and Bostonian Michael Dowling who serves as one of her mentors. “We stay in a Benedictine monastery in San Gimignano and walk out and paint in and around the town,” she said. “Michael’s emphasis is more on just discovery through the work as opposed to trying to control the whole process or think through it. The joy is in the absorbing and creating, not in the controlling.”
Updike’s latest project has been a collection of Florida landscape portraits for her exhibit “Orange & Oil” opening February 13 at the Lake Wales Arts Council. She spoke about her inspiration for the series of paintings. “I spent a lot of time out at Tiger Creek, especially around the bluffs. There are a lot of cabbage palms just because I love their form. They’re so sculptural,” said Updike.
Clouds also drew interest from the artist. “I cloud-watch when I’m driving the kids around and I get very into studying them as if I could logic them out. There is order to them but it’s as vast as the sky, so my human mind can only grasp a piece of it and then rely on imagination or inspiration for the rest,” she said. Realizing she was painting scenes just to show off the clouds, she decided to make some of them cloudscape instead of a landscape.
One single piece doesn’t speak to Updike more than another in the collection. In fact, in true artist fashion, she said, “I alternate between loving and completely loathing the paintings when they’re done. A lot of the time I’ll keep the finished ones in another room so they don’t aggravate me while I’m working.”
Updike has enjoyed working on such a grand scale for the show. Though completing six-foot paintings in succession isn’t typical for the Lake Wales artist, she said it was “an intriguing challenge.”
She remarked, “I was complaining to Michael a couple of months ago about the investment in such large canvases and he said, ‘You’ll feel better after you butter them.’ And I do.”
As you meander through the Michael Crews Gallery, admiring the collective brushstrokes that have come together to create Blair’s unique perspective on the Florida landscape, she leaves it up to the beholder what they choose to take away from her work. Her goals were simply to “reveal the beauty of the scene and make the paint look its best,” she said.
“I can’t improve on the Creator’s work, but I can remind people of the beauty that’s there and do it in a way that justifies my medium,” said Updike. “If it’s oil paint, the paint itself needs to look good. I think the technical term is ‘surface quality,’ but all I’m thinking is whether it looks interesting or beautiful on the canvas.”
Keep an eye on what’s coming up at the Lake Wales Arts Center this year urged Blair. “The exhibits and musical performers are all fantastic this year and not to be missed. It’s a group that I can be proud to have as my peers.”
Blair Updike – “Orange & Oil” Reception
When: February 13, 2020 6 PM - 7:30 PM
Where: Michael Crew Gallery
1099 FL-60 E, Lake Wales, FL
There will be an open bar and food available to all guests. Admission is free to the public. Blair’s paintings will be available for purchase throughout the duration of this exhibit. Artwork purchased during the exhibit will be available to take home after the exhibit concludes.