LIVING THE LEGACYBY CATHERINE ENNS GRIGAS
Jackie Brice dips a brush in oil paint, touches it to blank canvas and makes magic. Puffy clouds appear, stately palm trees rise and oak trees bend. A lone heron takes shape on the banks of a twisting river. Sunlight sparkles on the water, and shadows fall across wide marshes. Brice’s paintings capture those ethereal landscapes of Florida, preserving the state’s natural beauty with a rare blend of artistry and accuracy.
In her 43-year career as an artist, Brice, who lives in Jupiter, has focused on painting the rivers, backcountry, swamps and shores of the state where she was born 74 years ago. In return, she has gained an impressive and loyal following and has earned numerous accolades. Her work has hung in the halls of both state and federal buildings, including the White House and the Florida Governor’s Office. It has graced the homes of celebrities, a host of government officials, bank presidents, and numerous private and corporate collections.
Yet, when she talks about her paintings, the conversation begins and ends with the man who was her greatest artistic influence, A.E. “Beanie” Backus, the legendary master of Florida landscape painting who lived most of his life in Fort Pierce. “I don’t talk about myself without talking about Beanie,” says Brice, sitting in her family room, where Backus’ paintings of some familiar Fort Pierce scenes, such as Moore’s Creek and Dynamite Point, hang on the walls. “I know I have so far to go and there is never going to be anybody like Backus.”
For 11 years — until the day he died in 1990 — Brice painted with Backus at his studio at 122 Ave. C. She began as one of his students, a term that meant setting up her easel in a corner of Backus’ studio and soaking up his wit and artistic wisdom. Eventually she became a respected artist herself, a member of the so-called Backus school — area artists who were influenced by him, a designation she considers an honor.
It was, in many ways, an unlikely alliance. Brice was a straight-laced, church-going housewife. The Backus studio was a refuge for free-thinking Bohemians.
“He was one of my best friends,” says Brice. “Working with Beanie was probably one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. But we were so different in so many ways. I’m a teetotaler. He was an alcoholic. I’m a Christian. He was an atheist. But there was such a bond.”
Brice’s artistic link to Backus is so strong that she was selected to do a mural rendition of his painting, “A New Day Dawning,” on the exterior of the Backus Museum and Gallery. And for “The Backus School,” published by the Martin County Council for the Arts, she was asked to write a chapter on the paint colors he used.
“Of all the countless aspiring artists who passed through the studio of A.E. Backus, whether for tutelage or mere inspiration, Jackie Brice’s artwork most closely embodies the subtlety of color and nuance of light that distinguished Backus’ later work,” says the museum’s director, Kathleen P. Fredrick, noting that Brice was not only the artist’s student, but also a beloved friend. “He would be so pleased to see how far she has come in her career as one of Florida’s finest representational landscape painters.”
Brice smiles when she thinks back to the road that took her from pursuing a hobby to a lifelong career. Born in Miami, she met her future husband, Herman Brice, when she was in fifth grade and he in sixth. “He was on the safety patrol,” she says. “I was always did go for a guy in a uniform.”
They married young and Herman began his ascent up the ranks of the City of Miami Fire-Rescue Department, where he had his own illustrious career, serving as chief from 1978 to 1984. He was named head of Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue, coordinating the consolidation of the department from 1984, retiring after 25 years in 2009.
DISCOVERY OF TALENT Jackie Brice was a quiet, stay-at-home mother of two, raising a daughter, Debbie, and a son, Woody. Once the children started school, Brice was looking for a way to fill her days when she began taking painting lessons in Miami from artist Vela Boss, who happened to be a former student of Backus.
“Something clicked when I walked into the garage where her studio was,” says Brice. “Maybe it was the smell of turpentine or mineral spirits, but I thought, ‘I can do this.’ And as the years went on, I really got to thinking that even more, that it was God whispering to me that you have a talent and you should use it.”
She painted with Boss for 10 years. Then, in 1979, friends of the Brices introduced them to Backus. Brice had admired Backus’ paintings over the years, but the two had never met. She says she was a little starstruck and addressed the man known to all as “Beanie” as “Mr. Backus.”
“I said, ‘Mr. Backus, what does it feel like to be famous?’ He laughed and said, ‘Oh honey, I’m not famous, except maybe on Avenue C.’ ” After seeing some of her paintings, Backus invited her to come paint at the studio. “I was there the very next day,” she says. It was a ritual that became a part of her life.
For years, she made the two-and-a-half hour trip weekly from Miami to get to the studio by 9 a.m., paint all day, and drive back home. Later, when the family moved to Jupiter, she painted at the Backus studio several times a week, sometimes staying over at a motel on U.S. 1.
Not only could she paint, she could cook, and Backus was known to have loved her pineapple pies so much that after his death in 1990, she was given a carved wooden pineapple that hung in the Backus kitchen. It had come from the Errol Flynn Plantation near his house in Jamaica.
THE FIRE WITHIN
“When I met Beanie and started painting with him, something changed,” she says. “I had almost a fire in me. I wanted to paint Florida as it is. I just wanted it to be real.”
Her Florida landscapes, painted with the same attention to accuracy and detail that marked the work of her mentor, struck a chord with viewers. She was invited to exhibit in the prestigious invitation-only show at the Riviera Country Club in Coral Gables. One of the prominent collectors of Backus’ work, Allen Morris, bought four of her paintings. From there, she was invited to show at the Coconut Grove Bank. Her work has continued to garner national and statewide recognition.
Brice collectors are a who’s who of Florida. She has painted in Greg Norman’s backyard for a commission from the golfing great, and Burt Reynolds owns one of her paintings. She has photos taken of her with such luminaries as former first lady Laura Bush, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, all drawn to her because of her paintings.
Michael B. Smith, a Coral Gables collector, owns three large-scale paintings by Brice. “We just love her ability to capture the subtle variations of color you see in the Everglades or any body of water in Florida,” he says.
He commissioned her to paint a particularly beloved Florida landmark, the three-centuries-old oak tree in Ormond Beach known as the Fairchild Oak. “I asked Jackie if she’d paint it for us and she agreed,” he says. “It’s been hanging in my office for five years, where I enjoy it almost daily. She captured the details and shadows perfectly. The painting, as the tree, is magnificent.”
Although her natural talent as an artist was nurtured by painting with Backus, Brice says she also was taught the kind of art and life lessons that have stayed with her to this day. Just outside the wide windows of her light-filled studio, tucked away in a corner of the Brices’ home, she can see sabal palms, and across the street, royal palms. The Brices planted a number of coconut and sable palms on their property, and cypress trees that line a canal are living lessons for her paintings.
“When I look out my window, I can see the light through the palms and see the burnt sienna. I can see the vertical movement of the royal palms,” she says, sounding remarkably like Backus.
She still has the pieces of sketch paper and canvas that Backus used to illustrate a point. An egret is quickly sketched in pencil. On a piece of canvas, a few swirling strokes of oil paint demonstrate how to paint a campfire. “He would show me this way,” says Brice, running her hands over the papers. “But he would never touch my canvas.”
Don D. Brown, a landscape artist who was Backus’ longtime manager, has known Brice for more than 30 years, and said she stood out among his students. “Bean just loved her,” he says. “Bean would comment to me that she was one of the few students that he only had to tell her one time how to paint something and she would not forget. And she was one of his who would constantly go out on location to paint. Bean said that was how you developed your own style.”
Backus encouraged her to get out and observe nature, and she has faithfully followed his lead, canoeing up the state’s rivers, wading in swamps and crisscrossing the state in pursuit of her subjects. “I think that is so important,” she says. “You have to look at it, to get out of the studio and really observe.”
That adage has taken her on some wild painting expeditions, including holding on to her easel in high winds, sharing close encounters with alligators and dealing with the mercurial Florida weather. In 1997, when Sen. Bob Graham invited her to show a solo exhibition in the U.S. Senate’s Russell Building in Washington, D.C., she prepared by spending a year traveling around the state from St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge in North Florida to the Florida Keys, completing 17 paintings.
On another trip, she visited the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve south of Naples with a group that included Graham and was led by a park ranger. “He was taking us to the area where the ghost orchid grows,” she says. “We entered the water up to our ankles, holding PVC poles to help us and ended up to our hips in water. We walked for three hours. Senator Graham was a real trooper, and I was thinking, surely with a U.S. senator here, the ranger won’t let anything happen.”
For a documentary on the Loxahatchee River, a camera crew followed Brice for two days as she painted on its shores. Her paintings have been instrumental in promoting the Loxahatchee, a river that is just minutes from her home.
Although Florida is her first love, Brice was happy to pack up her paints for a trip to France to paint in the Loire Valley. But even her French experience was a connection to Backus. “I went to Claude Monet’s Garden at Giverny,” she recalls. “Beanie idolized Monet, and they had Monet’s palette there. It was the same paint colors Beanie used — phthalo blue, ultra marine, burnt umber. “
Brice, who is trim, with eyes as blue as a Florida spring sky, hardly looks her 74 years. She calls herself a “one-man operation” who keeps her own accounts, stretches her own canvases, and has found ways to tackle the 48-by-60-inch canvases she has been commissioned to paint. “I’ll stand on a chair or a little ladder to paint if I have to,” she says, laughing. Through the years, her husband has been her biggest fan, documenting her career in photographs, including ones he took of his wife on the first day she went to the studio to paint with Backus.
She paints every day and has no intention of cutting back, even though she now has a great-grandchild, Mason, and the couple recently purchased a getaway place in St. Augustine. Their daughter, Debbie, and her husband, Ed Corey, live in Green Cove Springs and have two daughters, Lindsay and Lauren. Their son, Woody, a lieutenant with the Coral Gables Fire Department, died at age 41. After his death, the Brices raised his son, Dustin, who is now 20.
Their son’s untimely death gave the Brices an opportunity to give back to the community, a maxim that they quietly follow. The annual Woody Brice Memorial Golf Tournament raises scholarship funds for prospective firefighters.
The Brices’ open, airy home surrounded by palm trees is a proper setting for the Backus paintings the couple has been able to acquire over the years. Each one has a distinct memory for Brice. A few, given to her by Backus personally, give her the feeling that he is still looking over her shoulder, reminding her that there is no black paint in the shadows of a palmetto, but deep greens. They still inspire her, she says.
But perhaps one of the things she treasures most from Backus is a handwritten message written on his personal stationery. It hangs framed in her studio:
“Dear Jackie, Here is my quote. I hope I’m a better painter than writer — Jackie Brice is in my opinion a very talented painter. She has a love of Florida landscape and her mastering of her medium enables her to impart this love,” A.E. Backus.
That is clear praise from the master that Brice continues to honor in her own art. But her own devotion to Backus’ legacy is a gracious, yet humble, statement.
“If you say that I paint like Beanie, that is the best compliment I can receive,” she says.
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