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Camilla Webster's Florida Keys to Success by Bruce Helander

For generations, artists have been revealing an individual and inventive visual spirit through their work. The first painting was created by primitive tribes, believed to have been the Neanderthals during the prehistoric era, and they often demonstrated through these arts their daily lives. Early humankind struggled to add a personal touch to a handmade utilitarian object or to create an early fresco that offered a story. From Egyptian hieroglyphics to cave walls in the South of France, there always has been a human impulse to share a graphic language of informational symbols or letterforms. An ongoing creative contest was to take an experimental and often imaginative subject and provide a decorative document that carried a storyline through symbols and often abstracted constructed drawings. South Florida artist Camilla Webster seems to follow this honored tradition through an engaging palette and an innate motivation to communicate as a storyteller on canvas. Webster knows a thing or two about professional broadcasting. She began her career in 1993 interning for Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes. She was an anchor reporter for Forbes, where she interviewed newsmakers in business and on the global stage in the United States and Europe, including Richard Branson, Christine Lagarde and T. Boone Pickens. In addition, she was the host of CEO Spotlight, where she anchored coverage of the World Economic Forum’s annual meetings. Webster also was a returning guest on Fox Business and MSNBC.

Most artists can look back at their early careers and find a positive and uplifting parental connection to their childhood environment and eventual achievement. Camilla was no exception and was fortunate to have visionary parents who were intelligent, knowledgeable and ambitious. Webster’s mother Mollie taught her to be observant with a discerning eye and encouraged Camilla to monitor and examine the environment’s aesthetic properties. Her mother was a writer and photo editor for Time & Life and worked with many legendary photographers including Gordon Parks, as well as contributing to both science books and cookbooks. She apparently was an incredible journalist and was a leading writer at Gourmet magazine. Mollie also was a tester chef for James Beard, and Camilla grew up sitting on a kitchen stool drawing as Mr. Beard and her mother tested recipes in his kitchen. They also would visit a young Daniel Boulud in his kitchen at Le Cirque. Her home was always filled with leading editors, thinkers and creative types, and as an only child Camilla’s father took her to galleries and museums every weekend in Manhattan. They would spend summers in England and Europe and the South of France while her mother was exploring stories for possible future assignments. It didn’t hurt that she later was persuaded by her parents to attend the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where she received her Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Modern History and History of Art. These youthful occurrences informed her perspective on enjoying and creating contemporary paintings. Later, as her artistic career blossomed, nature and waterways played an important part in her compositions. 

The objective of modern-day correspondents, particularly those involved in breaking news stories or presenting a topic of curious interest, is to provide the viewing audience with a well-crafted summary of events within several concise sentences that “paint” an electronic picture that comes to the point quickly and efficiently. Like a seasoned television reporter who needs to summarize a point smoothly and instructively to an audience, Webster clearly has mastered the art of arranging painterly components to consistently portray a distinctive visual message and offer it to the viewer. The artist often becomes a de facto storyteller, combining narrative abstraction that one immediately can comprehend and appreciate.

Camilla spent a great deal of instrumental time with her father on Key Largo and Islamorada, where for years she explored and painted the pristine beaches and glorious sunsets of the Florida Keys, which traditionally have been a remarkable muse to artists in residence there. In the past, the painter and naturalist John James Audubon initially was drawn to the area by a huge variety of exotic birds. The Florida Keys also were home to famed writers Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams as well as artists Winslow Homer and Mario Sanchez, who found the Keys motivational and nurturing. Webster was in inspirational territory as the Florida environment also attracted a wide range of contemporary creative individuals including Robert Rauschenberg (Captiva), James Rosenquist (Aripeka), John Chamberlain (Sarasota) and Duane Hanson (Davie). Nearby to her family compound were the winter studios of neighboring color field painters Lawrence Poons and Jules Olitski, and singer Jimmy Buffett was well known for using the Keys as lyrical incentive, backed up by the Coral Reefer Band. 

Webster’s recent series of works are a clear reflection of her early experiences and influences, particularly those canvases that are drenched in viridian blue or a vivid orange, for example, as an indelible idiosyncratic accent that was adapted from the gloriously colorful landscape of South Florida’s atmospheric surroundings. Her work also depicts her ongoing interest in abstract narrative scenes, which are quite often inspired by the ocean and the skies above.

Several examples stand out as iconically Webster-esque. In some of her color field-oriented works she salutes the renowned colorist Mark Rothko with two paintings titled “Pink Sands” (currently on view at Manolis Projects in Miami) and “Sunshine.” In other works, Webster turns to classic examples of art history by creating pointillist compositions with a dash of salt air and impending fog as in “The Clock Tower,” a tall stone structure at the Atlantic Ocean end of Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, and “Bubbles Under Water,” illustrated in this essay. Webster also stretches the boundaries of mixing abstraction with the serene depiction of the sea and sky in “To Lilly with Love Series I.” On a more narrative side, “Love in the Everglades” is a handsome configuration of tropical lovebirds perched on winding branches while singing the blues. Speaking of harmonic blue pigment, “Alone Together Series I” is a memorable painting that mixes elements of surrealist pictorial gestures from a viewer standing on the shore peering out through dense foliage to another beach in the distance. Not surprisingly, in “Champagne Palm” (also featured at Manolis Projects), Webster has developed a unique simple depiction of single palm trees that has become her signature image.

Over the artist’s rich and varied career, she has amassed an impressive collection of vibrant artworks that fit cleverly into Webster’s abridged dictionary of tropical imagery.

­—Bruce Helander is a regular contributor to Elevated. He also has written numerous articles and reviews for The Huffington Post, ARTnews, Forbes and WhiteHot Magazine of Contemporary Art. He is a member of the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, an honor he shares with many of the artists mentioned in this article. He is a former White House Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts. His work is in over fifty museum collections including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. His most recent books are “Chihuly: An Artist Collects” (Abrams, Inc.) and “Hunt Slonem – Bunnies” (Glitterati).


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