.....Advertisement.....
.....Advertisement.....

Artist’s work reveals changes in springs

-A A +A
By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

Margaret Ross Tolbert first began painting the springs of Florida more than 25 years ago.  Prompted by a gallery director who wanted some Florida landscapes, Tolbert traveled to Blue Springs in Gilchrist County and painted the first of what would become an ongoing affair with capturing the essence of Florida springs. “It’s just unbelievable that, as a human, you can experience something like that,” Tolbert said from her Gainesville home and studio Thursday afternoon. Her paintings, sometimes measuring 11 feet across, are meant to bring the viewer into the space, she said.  They are rendered in broad swaths of blues and greens, sometimes suggesting the surface of the water with its play of reflections, other times revealing the sun-lit mouth of a watery cavern. “It’s all about the viewer entering the springs,” she said.  “That’s what paintings do, they postulate a different world, and you want to go there.  I like the idea of captivating people.” Not long after she began exploring springs as a subject, she discovered Manatee and Fanning springs. Fanning, she said, has become one of her favorite and most often painted throughout the years. “Fanning is like the essence of all springs.” She spent a lot of time there, she said, often relying on a dock rail or cypress tree to support her canvas.  “The joke about the paints spots on the dock is probably not a joke,” she said laughing. But Tolbert said Fanning is not what it once was. In 2000, she began to see a noticeable difference in the quality of water at both Fanning and Manatee. “To me, it looked like some kind of nuclear waste land.” Tolbert explained that the water, along with her artistic rendering of it, had begun to shift from blue to green, full of particles of algae.  The algae, fed by a rise in nitrate levels, managed to kill off much of the spring’s aquatic plant life, she explained, which denied food and hiding places for aquatic animals—creatures that often make appearances in her work. She said she asked people what happened to the lush carpets of eelgrass, and they told her manatees must have eaten it all, an assumption studies have since proven wrong. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Fanning springs has one of the highest levels of nitrate pollution in the state, more than 5 milligrams per liter.  Manatee Springs, according to a 2004 FDEP study, has been shown to have nitrate levels of up to 2 milligrams per liter.  Both springs received habitat scores in the “sub-optimal’ range. And though Tolbert insisted she does not want to be known as a historical painter, her work, featured in exhibits around the world, has become a visual narrative of the decline of Florida springs for a period of close to three decades.