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Florida Southern Hosts Robert Vickrey Retrospective

Sep 10, 2015

Bill Meek, is the owner and director emeritus of the Harmon-Meek Gallery in Naples.  He wanted to bring the work of American Master Robert Vickrey to his alma mater, Florida Southern College in Lakeland. Meek was friends with Vickrey for 30 years. And tomorrow night, Sept. 11, Meek will lead a walking tour of the Vickrey exhibition.

Robert Vickrey made his name painting the faces of the famous for the cover of Time Magazine, like the one of the famously reclusive author J-D Salinger and Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Junior. He jetted all over the world to create these paintings.

But in his other work, the faces aren't quite so "face forward."  They are in profile, half in shadow or looking down, almost doing anything they can do---not to look at you.

He is also known for repeating motifs such as nuns and bicycles in his paintings.  

In an 1990 video from the Orleans Historical Society on Cape Cod, Vickrey said it was always a challenge to encounter new people who asked, "so what do you do?"

"And I sort of sigh, because I know when I tell them, they are not going to believe me, so I tell them I paint nuns and bicycles and old brick walls," he said.  

Bill Meek's gallery is in Naples, where Vickrey lived before his death in 2011 at the age of 84.

Meek said to take his friend's paintings at face value would be to miss the deeper meanings.  

"He paints dreams, and  when you look at his paintings, some of them are depicting a dreamlike state, and if the figure is doing something and you believe it, then you've fallen into his dream," Meek said.

Meek said it's painted realistically, but it's creating a statement that is imaginary.  

Vickrey painted in egg tempera and told the Orleans Historical Society he couldn't remember a time when he didn't paint or draw. His early schooling took place in a one-room schoolhouse in Nevada. He remembers only one teacher for all eight grades.  

"And so she couldn't spend more than 20 minutes a day with each grade, and so she would give us crayons and paper and just tell us to draw all day. And so that's all I did for my first couple of years of my schooling was draw," Vickrey said.

His art eventually gave Vickrey brushes with the powerful. One painting made it to the U.S. House of Representative's Speaker Portrait Collection. It's of Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill.

The larger than life figure wanted to be remembered as a more svelte version of himself. Vickrey told O'Neill he'd try.

"So, I finally decided I would paint him in a dark blue suit, against a dark blue wall. (snickers), So that you would see Tip's face and hands and you wouldn't see the rest of him.  He kept telling me that he was going to lose 50 pounds in the next few months and would I please paint him that way?" Vickrey said. 

Meek said Vickrey's art has a remarkable staying power.

"For a period of 50 straight years, he was never without a major New York Gallery representing him," Meek said.

He said that's a record he believes that very few American artists of even greater fame could match.