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Countdown to the Arts Festival: Skeletons in the open with Susan Livingston, fossil sculptor

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By Jenna McKenna

Susan Livingston is taking the bones of the past and making them into art.

The sculptor from Lutz has a Master of Fine Arts in painting from Florida State University, but put down her paints more than 30 years ago and never looked back.

She began to produce clay sculptures, starting with some projects that took her back to childhood summers, when a much deeper past intervened.

"I had been working in clay, doing some pieces that recalled a place on Long Island Sound where we used to go when I was a little girl in New York," she says. "I was trying to recreate that place in my sculptures - very earthy."

But then Barbara Fite, of the Tampa Bay Fossil Club, gave her some dugong ribs.

A dugong is cousin to a manatee, the slow-moving sea cow that quietly reigns over Florida's rivers.

"The color was great," Livingston said. "They were so interesting. I started a new type of work."

That new work has involved new opportunities to explore line, form and color, as Livingston has had the opportunity to use a wide variety of fossil pieces from Florida and neighboring states.

One part of the fossil fascination is the knowledge that Florida has been a subject of study for some 200 years because of its fossil sediment. Livingston has used the fossilized bones of camels, sabre tooth tigers, sharks, mastodon, mammoth, giant sloth, giant tapir, and other fantastic beasts.

In line with her interest in Florida's natural history, she took a paleo-oceanography class at the University of South Florida.

"We went on a shell tour and found million-year-old fossils - mammoth teeth, camel teeth - this was just on the beaches," she says. "I got really excited."

Since starting with the dugong rib pieces - chunks about five to six inches long - Livingston says some of the pieces she integrates have been much larger, as have her own works.

"The ribs seem small, now that I've been working with mammoth skulls and camel skulls," she says.

Although she has elected not to use the fossil bones of more modern animals, such as horse or deer, Livingston does admit to being very flexible in her approach to new old bones.

"Most of the fossils I get come out of either rivers or phosphate pits," she said. "You're not allowed to go into mines very much any more, so I get a lot of fossils from river divers."

Sometimes even that doesn't work out well. For about two years, from 2005-2007, a combination of weather and economics meant that the decreasing number of fossils in Florida's rivers was harder to find, and less interesting to divers.

"That was a terrible time," she says. "It was impossible."

Nevertheless, she continued to work, addressing the fossils that were available and working to see what kind of form they would lead her to.

"I love fossils," she says. "I love the colors, and working them with clay. I love it because I believe the elements of clay are so much like the fossils. When you fire clay into sculpture, you need silica (for hardening). And silica is also what makes things fossilize."

As is the case with many Florida artists, Livingston says her work with the state's supply of fossil bones has made her more aware of the pressures of development and change.

"There used to be a shell pit in Sarasota," she said. "The first exit off the highway. I went there one time - found some amazing things. Then the owners let it fill with water, then they filled it with dirt. Then they built condos on it."

"I feel that what I do is like preservation," she continued. "Because I'm not using museum pieces, but I'm saving these small pieces. I'm an evironmentalist.!

Cedar Key's Old Florida Celebration of the Arts will be held April 12-13. For more information, visit www.cedarkeyartsfestival.com.