An Inescapable Connection
Walking the sugar sand beaches of Gulf Islands National Seashore with artist Billy Solitario, it is easy to channel the inspiration he receives from the barrier islands. He stands in the light surf with his jeans rolled up. Surrounded by thick Gulf Coast skies, you can genuinely feel the weight of the atmosphere above. He wants to paint, but mostly he talks about past fishing trips and expeditions to the barrier islands. He spies a female blue crab in the clear shallows and gently picks it up with his bare hands.
With the unhappy crab in hand, while paying close mind to his painting fingers, Solitario points, “Look at these colors – the blues, the reds, the oranges and even these pinks here. Blue crabs have worked hard to make all [of] these beautiful colors. We think of them as delicious food crawling around in the mud in the bayous and bays, but look at these colors they’ve created – they’ve become these incredibly beautiful and exceptional creatures.”
The Earlier Years
Solitario is a native of the Mississippi coast. A part-time resident of Fort Walton, he is at the vanguard of the next generation of coastal artists finding their rhythm and style. Akin to the cowboy poets of the west, these coastal artists paint their prose and rhymes on canvas drawing from lives well lived along the Gulf of Mexico. At the age of 48, Solitario already has a dedicated following, including attention and acquisition from the permanent collection of the Ogden Museum of Fine Art. He also has a flourishing gallery on Magazine Street in New Orleans.
Solitario moved to New Orleans in 1994 and studied under Auseklis Ozols while earning his Master of Fine Arts at Tulane University. It was in the city where he, ironically, found his artistic voice. “In New Orleans or any urban setting, the true natural world really only exists in the sky above. Nature is what drives my work, so I found myself going to the Fly [in Audubon Park] to paint river scenes. The Mississippi [is] filled with these enormous manmade freighters, but the sky and the clouds are this whole other massive scale larger and simply humble these ships.”
Solitario’s landscapes, with their towering spectacles of building thunderstorms over windswept dunes and pine trees on Horn Island, or over open water with shrimp boats or freighters on the river as the sky grows dark and dangerous, is where his work becomes iconic.
Raised in Gautier, Mississippi, Solitario built Huck Finn-style makeshift rafts to navigate the bayous. He spent hours exploring the woods and marsh behind his family’s home while sketching on the back of his father’s naval engineering schematics. By the age of 12, his family had moved and become neighbors with the Walter Anderson ancestral home of Old Fields. The Mississippi Coast became his world. First on johnboats and then on 14’ Hobie Cats, Solitario grew up secreting off to Round and Horn Islands on expeditions with friends. His sketchbooks were always in tow.
“The coast and the water was all I knew as a kid. When I had a free period after lunch in school, I’d run home, throw a [shrimp] cast net off the pier and catch a trout for lunch. The connection to the water was inescapable for me.”
Solitario’s Still Life Art
Solitario’s still life paintings incorporate seafood freshly caught, be it oysters, blue crab, or redfish while running boats during the weekends with friends and during extended solo expeditions to the barrier islands where he likes to paint. Although his catches allow him to explore the colors and nobleness of each creature, it is the expansiveness of nature that drives him.
“Nature has a way of reminding us that we’re not really in charge and as we all know down here on the Gulf Coast. It can take control whenever it wants to. As strong and as safe as we may feel living near the water or out on a boat fishing, we’re all at nature’s mercy, and I try to convey that on the canvas.”
Solitario Organizes Gulf Islands National Seashore Retreats
Artist Billy Solitario organizes annual retreats for many of the city’s top artists. Gathering along Gulf Islands National Seashore, participants work and experience the remote barrier islands firsthand. The New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts displays the artistic bounty collected during the expeditions as a unified collaboration. The next showing will be held during the summer and include the works of Auseklis Ozols, Mary Monk, and Phil Sandusky among others.
With a lifetime on the water evident in his paintings, Solitario’s landscapes perfectly embody the thickness and gravity of the Florida Gulf Coast’s atmosphere and the power it can muster. With many of his works painted on an easel with his feet in both the surf and sand, it is perhaps not a trick of the imagination to taste saltwater or feel a freshening breeze from a squall line while admiring his work.