Sally Swartz: Accomplished artist recalls life with Seminoles, Miccosukees

About 150 of James Hutchinson’s friends braved a stormy night in Stuart last week to hear their favorite celebrated artist talk about living with the Seminoles and Miccosukees half a century ago.

Hutchinson’s paintings from those six years, well known statewide and nationally, capture not only a gone-forever way of life, but also the disappearing landscapes of Florida’s tropical wilderness.

Hutchinson’s great adventure with his wife Joan captured the imagination of his friends in Martin County, where he grew up and has lived most of his 83 years.

Named to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2011, Hutchinson still paints. His sons Kevin, also a landscape artist, and Kelly, put together Tuesday’s slide show of photos of their parents’ camp, the people they met, and their father’s paintings. Joan is ill and could not attend.

Hutchinson received an Arthur Vining Davis Foundation grant in 1962 to produce 50 paintings showing the lives of Florida’s natives. Black-and-white photos showed the couple in the late 1950s and early 1960s “when we were young and beautiful and indestructible.”

The photos detailed their lives with the Miccosukees and later with the Seminole community on the Brighton Reservation on Lake Okeechobee’s northwest shores. Slides also showed some of Hutchinson’s paintings of tribal life and of landscapes that live now only in memory.

Once Hutchinson gained permission of tribal elders for the project, “everybody swarmed all over me. They said I had to paint their relatives.”

Joan, a teacher, “made friends with the children first,” Hutchinson said, “then with their mothers and then with their elders.”

The photos included pictures of Billy Bowlegs III, “a remarkable man, used by three Presidents as a guide to the Everglades. He spoke wonderful pidgin English, but there was no mistaking his meaning.” Hutchinson invited the elder over for coffee one morning, and after that “he was waiting outside the tent for coffee every morning.”

A 9-year-old girl adopted Joan and “all but lived with us during the day,” he said. She spoke English and Miccosukee and became their interpreter. One photo showed the Seminoles in the colorful, embroidered clothing often sold to tourists. But nobody actually wore the clothing in day-to-day life, he said. The Seminoles gave Joan a complete outfit that she wore to Martin County schools when she talked to students about their experiences.

Native dances were put on for tourists, he added, but only tribe members witnessed the true dances.

Many became close friends. Joe Don Osceola, Hutchinson said, “lived with us on and off and became the first to graduate from university. That was a huge thing then; now it’s pretty common.”

A photo of a different tent made Hutchinson recall he’d traded a panting for it and ”we stayed happily for another year. Everything was an adventure then. Everything was fun.”

A painting of canoes drawn up at the edge of Everglades reminded him that “this is how we lived. I identify myself with them sometimes … it’s the feeling all of us have when we confront skies with no buildings. We realize what a thrill it is to live here.”

People in the audience, who Hutchinson said he’d known for “about 40 years,” asked what the couple ate at their primitive camp. Hutchinson said he learned a good recipe for possum from watching his grandmother in Alabama cook it. But “Campbell’s pork and beans” was a staple.

Several lucky residents won folios of four prints of Hutchinson paintings of Seminole leaders Osceola, Alligator, Wildcat and Billy Bowlegs II, created for the bicentennial.

Miami’s Historical Museum of Southern Florida and Stuart’s Elliott Museum both have collections of Hutchinson’s art, and other paintings are on display in Tallahassee.

The Elliott Museum will display about 50 Hutchinson paintings from Dec. 18 through January, Kevin Hutchinson said.

Sally Swartz is a former member of The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board. Her e-mail address is [email protected]. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Sally Swartz


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