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Roberts records island history with a paintbrush

By Staff | Feb 16, 2011

“Measuring Up,” a piece Roberts dedicates to Savea Scott’s mother and grandmother.

There are many big names associated with these tiny barrier islands — Roosevelt, Lindbergh and Darling, just to name a few — but one artist is on a mission of historic proportions, painting her way through the complex cast of characters that make up the islands’ rich and, as Myra Roberts’ paintings indicate, colorful past.

Roberts is a Sanibel resident of more than 10 years and a lifelong history buff and artist.

“Living on these islands, you hear so many wonderful stories,” Roberts said, recalling her early research into some of Sanibel and Captiva’s earliest icons. “I particularly fell in love with Esperanza Woodring and her very strong image, her love for nature and her role as an early conservationist. The more stories I heard, the more I had to know.”

And while Roberts does paint some of those rather famous gentlemen who frequented the islands, most of her work features strong island women who braved two kinds of hostile climates — the subtropical weather and coastal terrain, naturally, and a socially sexist climate still clinging to old fashioned ideas of a woman’s place.

“I always do research when I do a painting because I feel some connection to a certain place or person. Esperanza Woodring is one of those people. The fact that a woman could go out as a fishing guide with three men as her fare and not take any guff from anyone was pretty incredible,” Roberts said, noting that one of her favorite Esperanza stories illustrates just how resolute she was upon the matter. “Esperanza’s granddaughter used to wait for her to come back to the docks after taking out passengers. One day, as her granddaughter waited, she saw Esperanza whack one of her male customers and knock him out of the boat. The other men were laughing at him, and Esperanza never told her granddaughter what the man said, but it was probably something sexist or horrible. He was a paying customer, but she knocked him out of the boat!

Roberts’ depiction of Esperanza Woodring catching oysters.

“I love that story. I was so honored that I could sit on Esperanza’s porch with Ralph, her son, and her granddaughter and just listen to their stories.

And Roberts has much more to share, especially now that she’s teamed up with native islander Savea Scott, a descendent of island settler John Dickey.

“Savea’s mother, Julia Dickey, lived on the island for 75 years and kept a journal the whole time. She loaned me the journal, and it was just filled with many incredible stories about the Lindberghs flying onto the beach and a story about when the Dickey family came from Virginia,” Roberts said.

But there is one particular story that Roberts immortalized in a painting called “Measuring Up,” that she’s dedicated to Scott’s mother and grandmother.

“The painting, which shows a man measuring a wool bathing suit, is based on a true story,” Roberts said. “One of the clippings in the journal Savea shared with me was about Julia Dickey getting sand in the stockings of her wool Jantzen bathing suit. Apparently, someone from the newspaper saw her remove her stocking to get rid of the sand and they wrote a story about her with the headline, ‘Scandal on Captiva!’

Anne Bailey sipping tea at Charlotta's Tea Room.

And though times have changed since the days of head-to-toe swimwear, Roberts and Scott — with the help of fellow islander Brian Johnson, who worked with Roberts to release her 2009 book of vintage oil paintings, “Retro Images From the Florida Coast” — combined their artwork and anecdotes into a slide show to share with audiences of all ages. The trio is now presenting their island history project at various locations and, just recently, Roberts, Scott and Johnson addressed a rapt crowd at Shell Point, where some members of the audience also ended up sharing a few of their own stories about island history.

“This project took several years of research and interviews with descendants, but it’s worth it to preserve the memory of people like Esperanza, who maybe weren’t world famous, but whom I consider to be heroes. Even a woman like Annie Mead Bailey — not a hero like the Lindberghs, just a woman who was brave enough to come over with her three sons, who are such a huge part of the preservation of the islands.

Other women capture in Roberts’ historical painting series include Dorothy “Gramma Dot” Stearns, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Laetitia Nutt, Marie Barnes and Alice O’Brien, another woman Roberts said she feels a strong connection too.

“Alice O’Brien drove an ambulance during World War I, saved many lives, and ended up raising money to build a children’s hospital in Minnesota, which saved thousands more lives,” Roberts said. “All of these women were great philanthropists. They could have lived selfishly, but they chose to give of themselves. It’s an honor to make these amazing people sort of live forever through my paintings.

In March, Roberts and Scott will present their island history project on Sanibel and Captiva.

“Captivated” features Alice O’Brien.

The first will be held at the Sanibel Public Library, 770 Dunlop Road, on Tuesday, March 1, at 2 p.m., and the second will be part of the Captiva Memorial Library’s third annual Cultural Fest, taking place on Wednesday, March 2, at 4:30 p.m. in the Captiva Civic Center, 11560 Chapin Lane.

To see more of Roberts’ work, go to www.MyraRoberts.com.

Roberts’ “Chapel By-The-Sea” features Marie Barnes, a daughter of an island settler.