An artist by the name of James Rosenquist fell in love with the still waters and wild landscape of Aripeka, a rustic fishing village on the border of Hernando and Pasco Counties. While his sleek, sophisticated boldly vibrant brush stroke left an indelible mark on the international art world, Aripeka made an indelible mark on him.
Artist and friend Leslie Neumann, who resides in Aripeka, said that he added to Aripeka’s “mystique.” Simultaneously though, he was just like anybody else who lived in Aripeka. “He was down to earth,” said Neumann. “Jim was a very friendly man. He was a motorhead. He would work on his cars and boats. He got along very well with everyone.”
Rosenquist was at the center of a small artist’s community in Aripeka. He attracted high caliber artists to work as studio assistants as well as artist friends who enjoyed his camaraderie and Aripeka’s unique landscape. These artists in turn became part of the community and also left their unique marks on the area. They include Arline Erdrich, Daniel Stack, Tony Caparello, Leslie Neumann and Steve McCallum. “Jim’s sphere of influence on the local level was very significant,” said Neumann.
His studio assistant for ten years during the 1970’s and 80’s was artist Dan Stack, whom he met through USF’s Graphicstudio program. Stack said that after he graduated from USF with a degree in printmaking, he called up Rosenquist to see if he could work for him as a studio assistant. Rosenquist said he had a project coming up with a company out of London and he could use another hand. He told him to put together a portfolio and come up to New York. Stack flew up to New York, got a cheap hotel room and can recall that when he finally met with him, he was expecting to show him the portfolio. Instead Rosenquist felt that could wait and said, “We got to go to a party.” It was the party of the famous publisher Henry R. Luce, Creator of Time-Life Magazine empire. Stack was given a tour of Luce’s 60th floor apartment overlooking the Museum of Modern Art, priceless paintings lining the walls. Stack was awestruck. “I was a nobody from nowhere- I was just astonished… It was the first of many exciting experiences,” he said.
While Rosenquist maintained the lifestyle of an internationally renowned artist, he always remained grounded. To this point, when Rosenquist finally got a chance to look over Stack’s portfolio, it was under a covered highway in the rain. He examined Stack’s sketches on the hood of his car. “Jim was a working class guy, which I am as well,” said Stack.
Rosenquist started with USF’s Graphicstudio in 1971. Artist Robert Rauschenberg who was also involved with Graphicstudio bought some property in Captiva, inspiring Rosenquist to find his own slice of Florida. He began construction on his home and studio in Aripeka around 1976, which was designed by Gilbert Flores, Tampa artist and architect.
“Jim adopted Florida as his home,” said Stack, who emphasized that Rosenquist wanted to be a part of “old Florida.”
“He didn’t care that the tide would come in and flood the whole property, and it was a good thing that we had picked the painting up off the floor,” said Stack.
He truly embraced the wild Florida that Aripeka offered. “Jim wanted it rustic. It was very important to Jim to have the Florida landscape... Jim loved the Florida nature- he wanted to live in it- he didn’t want to change it. He didn’t want St. Augustine grass,” Stack explained.
Rosenquist also loved the people in Aripeka. “To him they were honest real people,” said Stack. “He wanted to be invited over for mullet.”
Stack explained that the families of Aripeka like the Norfleets and the Whites really embraced them. “The people in Aripeka could not have been nicer to us,” said Stack. “I’m sure Jim was always grateful for the local’s hospitality and acceptance.”
There was also another advantage that Florida had over New York City: dresscode. Stack remarked, “He liked it because he could paint shirtless in boxer shorts. In Florida he could get away with that.”
After the house was built, Stack would commute from Ybor to the Aripeka studio the first of which was just a screened in area beneath Rosenquist’s stilt home.
The pair would work long hours. Stack recalls jumping into the car later in the evening after a day’s work, to rush over to the Bayport Inn to have dinner, where stuffed raccoons greeted them and staff encouraged diners to feed the alligators.
Rosenquist hosted many business associates at his home in Aripeka. Stack mentioned that a Swedish collector would come to visit and exclaim, “Jeez, Jim you live in a Jungle!”
Stack explained that he hosted visitors from the President of the Renault factory in France to the owner of the biggest publishing company in Sweden. “They all came down. It was fascinating to see how they reacted to Jim’s house in the Jungle,” said Stack.
Stack recalled, “We’d take them out swimming. When Yankees and Europeans come here they have no idea how difficult the sun is and we’d buy them all hats. Aripeka has springs as well. We’d go out to the Gulf swimming and come back to rinse off in the springs.”
Early on, while they were still working in the studio beneath Rosenquist’s house, Stack was living at a department store in Ybor where he rented two floors and the mezzanine.
This is relevant because Rosenquist decided that he wanted to paint on a larger scale. The team made the decision to move the studio to Stack’s Department Store where the ceilings were 20 feet high. They would create pieces measuring 17 feet high by 46 feet wide. A carpenter by the name of Bill Molner created the panels that made up the giant works. They would stretch the canvas over the panel and then bolt them all together to create the enormous painting.
While the first of the enormous paintings were created at Stack’s studio in Ybor, Rosenquist eventually built an airplane hangar type studio on his property in Aripeka.
“His father and mother were pilots back when it was really dangerous. That’s one of the reasons I think he liked a studio like an airplane hangar because that is how he grew up,” said Stack. “By the time he was 15 he was pretty used to airplane hangars and what not.”
Rosenquist lived between Aripeka and New York City until a fire destroyed his home, studio, and office space in 2009. He lost hundreds of irreplaceable prints and paintings including a 24-foot by 133-foot mural commissioned by the French government. Mr. Rosenquist decided to relocate to South Florida after the fire. He initially intended to rebuild his home and studio in Aripeka but was told that he had to build both at least 20 feet above ground to get permitted which swayed him away from rebuilding.
Rosenquist passed away at his home in New York City on March 31, 2017 leaving behind his wife Mimi Thompson, his son John, daughter Lily and grandchild Oscar.
“He lived his life according to his own terms,” said Leslie Neumann, “Live large, do what you want to do and be successful.”
“He loved Aripeka and Hernando County. Unfortunately his house and studio burned down, but fire is part of Florida. It’s a part of our environment. The tide comes in and goes out. He was part of the environment,” said Stack. “I’m really going to miss him.”
In his paintings, Rosenquist fused together usually disparate subject matter in dynamic ways that leave you hypnotized into believing that subject matter like spaghetti, a retro Ford, and a woman’s profile are meant to be together and it should be no other way. He started out painting billboards in New York City, so selling his odd combinations using both his incredible painting skill and advertising prowess was only natural. His experience painting billboards comes through in his art as he incorporated the images of popular products in his paintings. He was considered to be a leader in the Pop Art movement, but cautioned that he and that his contemporaries such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein emerged independently.
Preceding his defining experience of billboard painting in New York City, Rosenquist studied at the Minneapolis School of Art and the University of Minnesota. He also attended the Art Students League in New York City. From his Biography, “His work is included in major public and private institutions, and has been featured in solo exhibitions at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Museum of Modern Art, Walker Art Center, Whitney Museum of American Art, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, The Menil Collection, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Denver Art Museum, Tretiakov Gallery, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, and other international institutions.”
Correction 4/7/17 10:46AM: The version above was corrected to say that Rauschenberg bought property in Captiva, not Aripeka.