Published January 2nd 2024
By Kim Brown
November 2022 at the St Augustine Art Association – Photos Courtesy of STAA
With a unique combination of European architecture and tropical joie de vivre, St. Augustine has long been a city where creativity and innovation have flourished. Painters, sculptors, writers and more have found more than inspiration on the sugar sand shores and oak-covered streets. They created a thriving colony of artists that came to call St. Augustine home. The St. Augustine Art Association (STAAA), a nonprofit dedicated to celebrating, supporting and promoting visual arts in the community, started as a modest collective of artists gathering for artistic companionship. Now celebrating its 100th anniversary, this organization is proud to include a host of influential and talented artists in its membership.
“The history and pedigree of the St. Augustine Art Association are truly inspiring,” says Jennifer Flynt, Executive Director of the STAAA. “When you read about the founding members, the artists, see the work they produced, you can’t help but gape a little. These were absolute giants in their field. Brilliant painters, graphic artists pushing the boundaries, women fighting for equal representation, it’s humbling that this all occurred within the history of our organization.”
Northeast Florida’s artistic history extends far back into history, with its native people dating back to around 3000 B.C. Although they wore few clothes, the Timucua favored body ornamentation and colorful jewelry. Jacques LeMoyne was on one of the first European expeditions to La Florida in 1564, producing what is universally recognized as the best artistic records of Southeast Native American tribes and Colonial Florida life. John James Audubon arrived in St. Augustine in 1831 to draw the area’s birds for his exhaustive birding guide. And at the turn of the century, St. Augustine flourished as a winter destination for the wealthy, thanks to the enthusiasm of oil tycoon Henry Flagler. It was Flagler who started enticing northern artists to venture south for the winter to immortalize the paradise he had built.
On the evening of January 18, 1924, twenty writers, painters, sculptors and photographers met in the historic Ximenez-Fatio House and founded the Pen and Brush Club “for the purpose of giving men and women of creative mind a place in which to meet and exchange ideas with those who are doing things in the world of art and literature, and where they can exhibit products of their work.” They met again four days later and renamed the group The Galleon, a Palette and Pencil Club. For perspective, the oldest recognized nonprofit artists’ association in the United States, The Copley Society of Art in Boston, was founded in 1879, making the St. Augustine Art Association a mere 45 years younger.
From the start, women played a significant role in the organization at a time when they were far from enjoying equality in many spaces. Author Georjina Jex was elected the first president; other founding female members included amateur painter and editor of the local newspaper, The St. Augustine Record, Nina Hawkins and artist Mercedes Powell. The original group also featured prominent sculptor Charles Adrian Pillars and professional portrait photographer E Victor Rahner.
Archival Image From the St Augustine Art Association – Photos Courtesy of STAA
The group remained small and primarily served as a social group until 1931, when one of St. Augustine’s most well-known artists, Hildegarde Muller-Uri, a portrait and landscape painter, and J. Dexter Phinney, known for his impressionistic landscapes, fortified The Galleon Club with a purpose – transform St. Augustine into a prominent winter artist colony to rival the favored New England artist colonies. They changed the name to the more appropriate St. Augustine Arts Club, and the group secured property from the City of St. Augustine as a gallery and headquarters. They moved into the historic Waterworks building just north of the historic district and began soliciting artists.
At this time, many artists were finding inspiration in New England’s small, picturesque towns. The Arts Club enticed them south with a well-structured ad campaign that showcased the European architecture of the city, promising it was “Like Painting in Europe.” Looking through their collective works, the impression St. Augustine made was unmistakable. The historic homes that grace Edith Oliver’s sketches are easily identifiable by locals. Elizabeth Warren’s etchings – signed E.B. Warren to disguise her gender – include one of St. Augustine’s Oldest House. And Louis Vogt found a sandy muse in the beaches of Anastasia Island.
Phinney focused on creating partnerships with the local business community in an effort to restore St. Augustine as a popular tourist destination. In fact, the club boasted many members who were primarily businessmen who had taken up art as a hobby. Professionals and amateurs were treated with the same brevity, showing their work together and enjoying equal status in the organization. Founding member Nina Hawkins reported on the Arts Club in The St. Augustine Record, raising their profile.
The Arts Club officially became the St. Augustine Art Association in April 1948, “with the idea that such a name would indicate that it was a club for all who enjoyed art, whether they were creative artists or not.” They secured land on Marine Street for a permanent home and gallery. Hildegarde Muller-Uri’s father, Henry Muller, an artist himself, sold the Association the property for $4,000 and loaned it $9,000, secured by a mortgage on the family’s property, to begin construction. According to an article in The St. Augustine Record, the plan for the concrete-block, Spanish-style building with a coquina finish was “an integration of ideas submitted by various members…” The building opened in February 1954 with over 1,000 guests and a mention in the New York Times.
The St. Augustine Art Association continued to thrive in its new location throughout the following decades, becoming a home for artists of all genders, races, economies and abilities. “Since its inception, the Association has endeavored to welcome all creatives with open arms and to be an integral part of the community,” says Flynt. “In celebrating our 100th anniversary, we wanted to provide a multitude of opportunities for creatives and appreciators to be a part of it. It all kicks off with the Beaux Arts Ball.”
The inaugural Beaux Arts Ball was held on February 26, 1949, at the Lightner Museum. This year’s ball is at the Lightner Museum on February 23, 2024, almost 75 years later. The Beaux Arts Ball is a grand masquerade event named after the original masquerade ball held by students of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. This fundraising event features dancing, fine dining and even finer art.
The STAAA is presenting two special exhibits in honor of its centennial. Reflections, open May 3 through June 2, 2024, features work from artists throughout the Association’s history, representing the past, present and future. History through the Lens of Architecture, opening July 18 and continuing until August 25, 2024, showcases local and national photography from amateurs and professionals. Artists will show through photos how a city’s architecture is representative of its culture and community.
Plein Air Event at the St. Augustine Art Association – Photos Courtesy of STAA
The STAAA’s annual Plein Air Paint Out is a call-back to the origins of the St. Augustine art scene – a tropical oasis where artists can paint out in nature (plein art) without the snow and ice of the Northeast. Artists will head out April 24 through April 28, 2024, to create works of art in and around St. Augustine. It will culminate with a pop-up exhibit, art sale and awards presentation at the St. Augustine Yacht Club on April 28.
A nod to where the Pen and Brush Club began, the historic Ximenez-Fatio House invites STAAA artists to decorate its fireplace mantles for the holiday season. This three-dimensional decorative art can be viewed throughout November and December of 2024. STAAA’s most recent community endeavor is returning Thanksgiving weekend. The Hastings Main Street Fall Festival of Art celebrates art, crafts and history in the quaint town of Hastings. Its downtown avenues become a showcase for a juried art show, demonstrations, lectures, performances and art sales.
The St. Augustine Art Association frequently adds workshops, classes, lectures and other creative opportunities. For an updated events calendar, to join or to donate, please visit the St. Augustine Art Association’s website at www.staaa.org and follow along on social media @staugartassoc. Together, we can set the stage to celebrate another 100 years!
The St. Augustine Art Association is partially funded by grants from the St. Johns County Tourist Development Council, the St. Johns Cultural Council, the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida‘s Crisp-Ellert Fund, and the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Arts and Culture, the Florida Council on Arts and Culture, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Benjamin & Jean Troemel Arts Foundation.
St. Augustine Art Association
Facebook, Instagram, and X: @StAugArtAssoc
Kim Brown is a freelance writer with Old City Public Relations. She is originally from Ipswich, Massachusetts, and moved to St. Augustine, Florida, to attend Flagler College, where she graduated with a degree in English. She has worked as a marketer and communicator in the recreation and tourism industry ever since. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Florida Municipal Communicators Association. She spends her free time traveling with her husband and daughter.