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Countdown to the Arts Festival: Harriet Huss, wild about color

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By Jenna McKenna

Beneath the bright and cheerful colors is an urgent feeling - a need to preserve wild Florida before it's gone.

Harriet Huss started her art career as a potter. Graduating from Eckerd College's storied art program in 1973, "It was a great time to be an artist."

She was a professional potter for 15 years, but at one point, found herself starting to do more and more two-dimensional work - platters, tiles - mostly to have a surface on which to paint pictures.

"I realized I really wanted to start painting," she says.

Huss worked in watercolors for a long time, building up a dedicated following for what she calls her "whimsical" portfolios - brilliantly-colored, finely-detailed houses and exuberantly bright, large, loud animals such as birds, fish, cats and cows, sometimes all in the same canvas.

Some of the house pieces are exquisitely drawn, and look more designed, like art-deco. Others seem to exist more as a perspective piece for the wildly out-of-scale cats and cows, benign dreamscapes that Huss says were influenced by Chagall and Kandinsky.

The delirious colors seem to belie the precariousness of the size perspective, but Huss says that's mainly due to the media she uses.

"Acrylics tend to come in brighter colors than watercolors, and it's hard to resist a sense of fun when you have all that bright color to work with," she says.

But just as Huss manages to instill her whimsical works with the lush insecurity of dreams, her more recent wild nature pieces contain another subversive element - photography.

Looking at the strongly textured palms, inshore waters and marshgrasses of her latest pieces, the brilliant and optimistic palette is still in play. However, underlying these colorful landscapes is a little slice of reality.

"I started taking digital photos as a way to record my own work, but I got hooked on taking pictures in the places I love to go," she says. Huss, a Miami almost-native (she was moved there at the age of two) and long-time North Florida resident, says she and her husband Jerry Thompson love to go hiking, bicycling and kayaking all over Florida. They've found the landscape they love disturbingly in flux, however.

"I think with a lot of Florida artists, there's a need expressed in their work to try to show the Florida we know and love," she says. "We want to keep the real Florida, and not just have a fantasy landscape."

Huss uses her serendipitous digital camera to take sepia-tone photos of landscapes, flora and fauna, then prints the photos on watercolor paper. This print serves as the background for her paint and crayons.

"In 'Roseate Spoonbills, Convergence of Beauty,' the spoonbills started as a photograph," she says. In "Florida Wild," it's the royal palms. In "Big Water, Florida Coast," it's the shoreline.

Huss says she gets a surprising reaction to "Florida Wild," a sunny-toned palm landscape that nonetheless has a lurking darkness in the background and an almost invisible influence of a single large pine at the left margin.

"When people find out that this is a real place (Matheson Hammock Park, in Miami), they say, 'You need to keep this place a secret,'" she says. The sight of a real wild place - an abandoned nursery - preserved in the midst of the city, sparks a powerful urge to recall and preserve.

Huss can't wait to come back to Cedar Key for this year's Old Florida Celebration of the Arts. Now a resident of Melrose, she calls Cedar Key one of her favorite scenic places. She's continuing her whimsical house series using some area homes and their surroundings as models, and hopes that others who love Cedar Key will also love what she sees.

"It's a lot of fun to see what's in nature," she says. "Nature does a great job."