Two decades ago, while exploring the nooks and crannies of Cedar Key’s Dock Street, I ventured through a ramshackle collection of shops perched on stilts over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and passed by a studio with windows open wide to both passing breezes and tourists. Inside, a petite blonde woman was standing, paintbrush in hand, before a large canvas mounted on a heavy wooden easel. The work in progress was vintage Susan Dauphinee – a moody landscape of mangroves, oaks and palms, lit by the glancing gold of sunset and reflected on the still, dark waters of a tidal marsh. I stood there, mesmerized. I wanted to pull up a chair and simply sit there for the rest of the day.
Fast-forward to the winter of 2010. Susan has just won the poster-art competition for the 2011 Old Florida Festival of the Arts, to be held April 2-3 in the small town of Cedar Key on Florida’s Nature Coast. I am again visiting Susan Dauphinee’s studio. She now works from her home, a stilt house looking west over tidal flats and sheltered shorelines of Cedar Key. Finished, or almost-finished paintings are everywhere, propped on the floor, hanging on walls, sitting on an easel or table. It seems that “finished” is a relative concept. The paintings remain works-in-progress, with another translucent hue layered here, a soft reflection added there, until some indefinable signal says “stop”. In any case, I want to buy them all. I’m supposed to be conducting an interview, but most of my brain is trapped on a canvas surface by the pink and lavender light of vanishing daylight reflected in the smooth ripples of the Suwannee River.
Susan Dauphinee may have been born and raised in land-locked Gainesville, but the rivers and coastal marshes of Florida are clearly part of her soul. While the location of her studio may have changed, her inspiration has surely not.
Susan cannot remember a time when she has not been drawing or painting. Artistic expression was her refuge as a shy child and teenager. At the end of high school, she traveled to Sarasota with a friend checking out the Ringling School of Art, and that visit inspired her to enroll for a fine arts degree. As a student there, her first painting was a still life of mullet on a sheet of newspaper, perhaps a harbinger of her future in Cedar Key. The most challenging aspect of Ringling and later, of making a name as an artist, was finding a way to be taken seriously when she looked more like a cute blonde high school cheerleader than an edgy, angst-ridden art student.
Although an art career provided the flexibility demanded of the military spouse she was to become, it was difficult, forty years ago, for women to gain respect in any traditionally male profession. While a male colleague might be treated as a serious artist, Susan found that her art was at first considered as “a good hobby for the little woman”. It wasn’t until the early 1980s, when she began taking her work to art shows and festivals, that she began to achieve critical and commercial success with her paintings, and with that came a new found confidence. Along the way she picked up awards, commissions and galleries to represent her. Her works now hang in dozens of corporate collections throughout Florida, and many private collections. They have been widely exhibited.
She now does few annual shows, but she never misses the one in Cedar Key; it is her favorite. For the public, the Old Florida Festival of the Arts is a chance to meet Susan and see her current works, while exploring the natural beauty of the Nature Coast that so inspires Dauphinee and visiting the “old” Florida that still resides in Cedar Key.