Exploring Orlando’s “Other Face”

Story and photographs by Dorothea Michelman

“You’re visiting Orlando? – Disney World, right?” my friends guessed with knowing smiles. “Not this time,” I rejoined, blissfully envisioning an evening with Puccini and La Bohème and Orlando’s many other cultural delights in the week ahead.

Indeed, the city which Mickey put on the map offers a breathtaking array of cultural opportunities – from opera, ballet, and an eight-month Shakespeare festival to a well-rounded variety of museums both in Orlando itself and in nearby communities.

A walk through the doors of the Orange County Regional History Center is a walk through twelve thousand years of the area’s past. After “meeting” with the Paleo-Indians, or First People, we explored European contact with Timucuan Indians and stopped by a Seminole Indian settlement before traveling on to the present. Moving into the 20th century, I was intrigued by a campsite depicting tin can tourists of the 1920s and ’30s, whose name originates from the tin-can cuisine they brought along for the journey. Formally organized in 1919 during those first days of car travel from the North to Florida, members often soldered empty cans to their Tin Lizzie’s radiator cap, a silent greeting to any kindred spirits they might encounter along the way.

Hands-on artifacts and audio-visual presentations enhance the visitor’s experience, while a walk through one display area, the natural environment with its unique flora and fauna, gives pause for reflection in the realization of how much of the “natural” has been lost in the wake of ambitious development projects.

My next stop was the Orlando Museum of Art, particularly noted for its American art collection, an eclectic survey of American art history from the 18th century to the present, with works in a variety of media ranging from painting to photography. Several members of the renowned Peale family are represented here, including Rembrandt Peale’s “Portrait of Three Children” (c. 1809), while works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams and Andy Warhol highlight the modern era.

A leap into the more distant past brings you to the fascinating “Art of the Ancient Americas,” a collection of artifacts from over thirty pre-Columbian cultures dating from 2000 B.C. to 1521 A.D. Crossing the ocean to Africa you will discover an extensive collection which focuses on West African art, including works by Benin, Yoruba, Ekoi and Baule artists. Numerous temporary exhibits round out the varied offerings of this fine museum.

For day-trippers, an ideal destination is the Crealdé Art School, where you may watch artists at work in their studios, visit six exhibit galleries, and admire the unusual metal sculptures adorning the school’s gardens. Art buffs with a bit more time may want to sign up for one of the school’s weekend workshops, which are led by noted artists. And for those with yet more time, eight-week classes in various media including painting, black-and-white photography, drawing, sculpture and ceramics are offered.

The quiet town of Winter Park is home to both Rollins College, which has hosted a prestigious Bach festival since 1936, and several museums of note. Here you will find the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Garden, comprising the home, studio, galleries, gardens and private chapel of Czech-born Albin Polasek, an internationally renowned artist who died in 1965. In addition to his own work, primarily of a religious nature, the museum collection comprises more than 200 sculptures and paintings by Polasek and other artists, including American impressionist William Merritt Chase. Be sure to take a look at the fountain at the museum entrance, where you will be greeted by a charming sculpture of “Emily” the harpist as you walk by.

The Rollins College campus also houses the century-old Cornell Fine Arts Museum, one of the most distinguished collections in Florida. The Museum’s decision to seek American art at a time when others preferred to concentrate their efforts on the pursuit of European treasures has resulted in an outstanding collection of American masterpieces, including paintings by William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam, and Louis Comfort Tiffany. And I was pleasantly surprised to find Samuel Morse’s signed diploma painting (yes, the inventor of the Morse code was also an artist.)

For the visitor curious about Louis Comfort Tiffany, the most comprehensive collection of his work can be found nearby at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, also in Winter Park. Tiffany (1848-1933), son of the celebrated jeweler Charles Tiffany, rebelled against following in his father’s footsteps and studied oil painting. Not quite satisfied with the colors he obtained through this medium and fascinated by the rich tones of medieval stained glass windows, this innovative artist turned his attention to glass. Unlike his contemporaries, whose practice was to paint on the clear glass surface, Tiffany eventually created a method for creating colored glass. The illusion of depth, produced by varying thicknesses of glass, enhances the unusually rich shades of Tiffany glass paintings.

Tiffany, who also worked in ceramics, furniture, and jewelry, was in addition a marvelous interior designer, as can be seen in the stunning interior of his Byzantine Romanesque Chapel first displayed at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and now here at the museum. I was particularly enchanted by his “Daffodils Window” (c.1916) and “Feeding the Flamingos” (c.1892). The museum also showcases paintings by American artists of the 19th and 20th century together with jewelry and ceramics.

Just a few miles north of Winter Park is the Maitland Art Center, featuring contemporary American art including “Strident Figure” by Claes Oldenburg, Alexander Calder’s “Two Pyramids,” and Thomas Hart Benton’s “Swampland.” The Center also offers classes, with options to sign up for weekend or special one-day classes, ideal for the out-of-towner. Visitors are also encouraged to stop by to watch artists at work in their studios, converted apartments in what was originally a retreat for avant-garde artists. Looking up at the buildings, decorated with murals and ornamental carvings in Aztec and Mayan motifs makes a ramble through the tranquil gardens a visual delight.

Nearby is the Maitland Holocaust Memorial Resource and Educational Center where Tess Wise, a 77-year-old Auschwitz survivor, guides visitors through the rooms of documents and other displays of this terrible period in recent history. Educational programs include a film presentation of “Preserving the Past to Protect the Future.” Particularly moving was a display of smiling dolls made by mothers in concentration camps for their children, hoping to lift their spirits.

One of the most rewarding highlights of my visit to the Orlando area was to Eatonville, founded in 1887 and the first incorporated black community in the United States. Although she was actually born in Alabama, Eatonville is where the renowned writer, anthropologist, and leading Harlem Renaissance figure Zora Neale Hurston grew up. In contrast to other Southern towns where racial harassment and discrimination from white neighbors was an integral part of day-to-day life, Eatonville was a town whites only passed through en route to Orlando. Hurston thus grew up in a self-sufficient African-American community, a community to which she returned to again and again as an adult, both literally for research on black folklore and figuratively in the form of novels and stories.

Her life and work are honored in the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts, where you will find an impressive gathering of works by contemporary African-American artists, all the more impressive when one reflects that this museum is the achievement of a community with a population of just 300. The members of its Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, Inc. (P.E.C.), who transformed an idea into a museum, also support and promote the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities during the last week of January.

The “other face” of Orlando and its environs may still be relatively undiscovered, but change is clearly in the air thanks to the vigorous promotion of cultural tourism by the Orlando Peabody Alliance for Arts and Culture [OPAAC], an innovative partnership of the Peabody Orlando Hotel and over 30 member groups from the arts and science community. In the words of one enthusiastic participant, OPAAC’s promotion of the area’s cultural offerings on a regional, national and international level has made it a veritable “cultural chamber of commerce.” Adds MaureenBridget Gonzalez, a former ballet dancer and now ardent promoter of OPAAC, “People know about the mouse, but we want to turn it into a Fledermaus house!”

And with a throng of 100,000 visitors to Orlando’s opera during the 2001 season, MaureenBridget’s dream is well on the way to becoming reality.

For further information contact:

The Peabody Orlando
9801 International Drive
Orlando, FL 32819
Tel. toll-free: 1-800-PEABODY
or: 407-345-4505
Fax: 407-363-1505.
Website: www.peabodyorlando.com

Cornell Museum of Fine Arts

Maitland Arts Center

Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Garden

Winter Park Chamber of Commerce
Toll free: 877-972.4262

Orlando Museum of Art

Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts
e-mail; zora@cs.ncf.edu

The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art

Orange County Regional History Center
toll free: 800-965-2030

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