Margaret Tolbert’s experience of Florida’s springs changed dramatically the day she donned a mask and plunked her face below the water’s lens-like surface. She says she felt like Alice, crossing through the looking glass into an alter world, where nothing was as it seemed. Up until then, springs were something Tolbert was aware of — they were often in the background at family picnics when she was growing up — but she’d never experienced them.
That first swim birthed a creative channel in her that is still fueling her paintings of Florida’s springs nearly two and a half decades later. Today, she has an impressive art portfolio inspired by places that sometimes only local Floridians know intimately. Rainbow Springs, Peacock Springs, Fanning Springs, Gilchrist Blue, Manatee Springs, Juniper Springs, Wakulla Springs, Ichetucknee Springs, Fern Hammock, Telford Springs, Wekiva Springs, Volusia Blue Springs, Cyprus Springs and Rock Springs Run — to name just a few. With the colors and light of specific springs in mind, Tolbert’s swiped and twirled her brushes over an array of large and small canvasses that have found homes in private collections, art museums and institutions all over the world.
“I’m always attracted, as an artist, to weird visual experiences,” Tolbert says. At Gilchrist Blue, she is entranced by medallions of light floating in the water, and the way the surface bends light waves to make swimming bodies look like contorted pretzels. She loves slipping below the surface, which she calls a “lens,” and staring into the springs’ dramatic caverns. At Juniper Springs, it’s the sand boils that catch her eye. At Rainbow Springs, it’s the enormous discharge power that stimulates her senses.
“Each spring has its own personality, its own characteristics that evoke different senses of place,” Tolbert says. Sometimes she floats in the water and writes snatches of free-verse poetry. Sometimes she sketches cypress knees, turtles, eelgrass or crayfish. These poems and sketches “codify” her experience at the spring and she draws upon them to produce her paintings — she does not work from photographs, which she finds to be too “flat.
“Not everybody can go to these places, some people can only visit them through art,” Tolbert says. “So I try to bring the experience of the springs to other people.” Sometimes her paintings are about an emotional experience she had on a certain day — how it feels to slip from the above-world to the below-world and feel water rocketing out of the earth around your body; and sometimes they are about conveying a visual experience — the way air bubbles filter through eelgrass, how dissolved limestone causes the water to glow a diffuse light blue, or what it’s like to stare into the yawning mouth of an underwater cave and watch sunlight be eaten by the bigness of an unseen vortex. Tolbert is known for painting the springs from different perspectives: half underwater looking both above and below at the river bank, from inside a cavern looking out and up at the water’s surface, staring into a cavern underwater, or looking from the tree line down at the surface. She captures light reflecting and bending, colors blending and contrasting.
But as we all know by now, Florida’s springs are changing rapidly. The aquifer is falling due to overuse (and misuse) of water, and something is causing algal blooms that are changing entire ecological communities. The blooms choke light from the life-giving water, infuse it with stringy mats of algae, and ultimately alter local food webs.
Tolbert has witnessed changes in the springs first-hand. Many of these places are like close, intimate friends that she visits every few weeks throughout the year. She knows their dark and light moods, and catalogs their health with a painter’s eye for color. If you ask her to describe changes she’s seen, she talks about color transitions that only a painter could curate. She describes springs that were once deep blue but that are now turquoise. Once-clear springs with a hint of sky blue are now like “bright gloom” due to algal-induced murkiness. And some springs that were once aquamarine now have “a touch of teal”; those that were “wedge-wood blue” are now greener too.
“It’s inevitable that these changes show up in my paintings,” Tolbert says. “Even if I’m not thinking of conservation when I’m painting, I think it’s an inevitable outcome. It’s inescapable that the issues with the springs come through. The water clarity, the turbidity, even though I am not striving to depict it. You are aware on some level of these things, it’s just inevitable that it comes through in my work.”
Similarly, conservation and awareness-building may not have been at the forefront of her mind when she devised her most recent creation, a book titled Aquiferious, but it’s definitely a side effect. (Pronounced “aquifer” plus “- ious,” though some of her friends say they pronounce it “Aquifer, I O U,” as in, “I owe you.”) Aquiferious was self-published in late 2010 and printed by Fidelity Press. It is a visually-stunning and intellectually-stimulating blend of Tolbert’s springs’ paintings and poetry fused with an new element not typically seen in her work: science. Through her years of visiting and painting springs in north Florida, Tolbert befriended many different scientists studying the springs, advocates, and cave divers who mapped new caverns and passages in the aquifer. She asked them to contribute to the book, which she thought of as a “multi-purpose gadget of sorts.”
“I wanted it to have lots of different qualities,” Tolbert said. “I wanted it to be a coffee table book about art. But at the same time, it would be a coffee table book about the springs. It was unavoidable that a conservation element would come into it too. In the end, I think the book has a bigness to it, and a quality more akin to performance art than painting.”
Aquiferious does not attempt to bridge between the worlds of art and science, rather, it explores both as distinct channels that can be used to understand and experience springs. In its pages, readers dive into Tolbert’s alter art world of seeking to understand the springs. Biologist, cave diver and photographer Tom Morris wrote a section dedicated to Wes Skiles, an underwater photographer who championed cave diving safety and revealed Florida’s caverns and passages to millions of people above ground. Morris also wrote a section on the diversity of crayfish found in Florida’s springs and caves, while Howard Jelks, an ichthyologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, wrote about fish variety. Matt Cohen, a professor at the University of Florida and an ecohydrologist, wrote a section about denitrification and springs; Cohen’s Ph.D. student Dina Liebowitz wrote about her studies of the “grazers” of springs ecosystems, snails, and their possible role in algal blooms. The end pages include information on how people can get involved in springs protection, websites for springs working groups and non-profits, and links to website resources. Interspersed throughout are photos of Tolbert’s work installed in museum galleries, businesses and private residences. Viewers also get a glimpse of her process through photos of her painting small canvasses from a kayak, and pouring paint over large canvasses in her Gainesville, Fla. backyard.
“For me, it’s always about the experience of the springs,” Tolbert says. In her pursuit to get to know the springs and understand them on different levels: emotionally, visually and scientifically, Tolbert has led her viewers to an awareness of the beauty, fragility and yes, even the ecological ills, of Florida’s natural springs.
Aquiferious is a quintessential coffee table book: it’s good for curling up and reading at length, but it’s also good for picking up and visiting every once in a while. In fact, soaking up Aquiferious is an experience akin to visiting Florida’s springs themselves: it’s best experienced with repeat visits, to be appreciated with intention, and to be savored with all your senses.