Book excerpt: Made in Florida by Art Levy

Adapted from "Made in Florida: Artists, Celebrities, Activists, Educators, and Other Icons in the Sunshine State'' by Art Levy. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

Romero Britto

Artist, interviewed in January 2011, when he was forty-seven, Miami.

When I was a kid, I loved watching soap opera television, and I dreamed that my life would someday become like that. It was so different from how I actually lived.

I grew up in a family of nine, and my mother was a single mother. We lived in a part of Brazil called Recife, and we lived in a very poor part of the city. It was very difficult, very challenging. I was child who didn’t understand where the food would come from, where the money would come from. I started painting to bring light and color into my life.

Color is a universal language like music is a universal language.

Yellow and blue is yellow and blue anywhere in the world.

With the way globalization is today, people can see how other people live across the world, and this makes some people feel left out. They feel jealous, and then they want to take things from the other people because they feel like they deserve it. That’s when the problems arise. A lot of times, people go through difficult times and they become angry. I went through difficult times, but I’m always trying to see the best in the world.

I was studying law, hoping to be a diplomat. I wanted to travel the world and be an ambassador for Brazil and learn about people and countries and everything. But then came a moment that I realized it was not through this that I would find happiness. So I gave up the idea of being a diplomat, and I gave up studying law. I quit everything, and I said: “You know what? I’m going to just paint.”

When I create, I put together shapes and colors and then I use the shapes and colors to create a kind of vocabulary that everybody can understand.

There is some negative stuff happening around the world, but I still think that there’s more beauty happening, and I focus on that beauty. When I look at my work, I feel happy. I feel content. I don’t have to drink a bottle of anything. And hopefully, people who see it have that same feeling of joy without having to fill themselves full of alcohol or drugs.

When the people who gravitate to darkness and negativity criticize me, it doesn’t mean anything. Their words I can’t hear. I just keep doing my work.

I think there are more people who understand what I do than people who can’t, so I’m not focusing on what the art critics say. At the end of the day, the people fill up their walls with what they like.

I have a great opportunity to walk and talk and feel and see, but I’m here not that long. In another fifty years I’m going to be gone, so why not do something interesting? Why not fill my every day with colors? To have this opportunity and not do anything, that would be such a waste.

It would be a wonderful thing if we could somehow forecast our lives as we do today with the weather, that we could know a little bit ahead of time what we will become. That way, we wouldn’t waste time doing things that would be a waste of time. We would just focus on the right thing, but unfortunately, we don’t have that yet. We don’t have a manual to tell us how to be a human being, how to be a husband, a wife, daughter, son, or friend. So, sometimes, we make mistakes, but I’m happy to be here learning from my mistakes.

Margaret D. Lowman

Rainforest canopy researcher, author, interviewed in November 2008, when she was fifty-five, Sarasota.

I grew up in Elmira, New York, and my best friend was my neighbor Betsy Hilfiger. She and I used to make little tree forts. I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but we would follow our dads when they mowed the lawn, and we took the worms that got cut in half and tried to bandage them back together. We thought we would be vets, but that career failed because no worms survived. What’s funny is she has an older brother named Tommy Hilfiger, and we used to beg him to come out and play with us, but he never would because he was in the basement of their house, sewing bell-bottomed jeans. So, we ended up with our tree forts, and he ended up with a clothing empire that could pay for all my rainforest research.

My parents were very patient with me. I used to shriek for them to stop the car when I saw a wildflower I hadn’t seen before. They were really very nice to allow me to be this very strange child.

I went off to Australia for graduate school because I got a very nice scholarship. During my very early weeks over there, the head of the department kindly took me aside and said, “Why on earth are you getting a Ph.D. when you’ll only get married and have children?”

Being a woman has caused me to really make sure I’m doing good work, pay attention to detail, be organized, and be productive. I was also a single mom, which is like a scarlet letter, at least I felt it was. I had to make sure I could do my share of research and hold onto my job and be a good parent at the same time.

In the forest, it’s very important to cultivate the ability to know where a snake might lurk and be cognizant of that little rustling sound that’s a swarm of army ants. That’s my work, to be able to recognize those things, which gives me a sense of comfort in the forest. On the other hand, you have to keep me from walking off the curb when the light is red.

I’m not a person who loves to go climbing for recreation. I take it pretty seriously. I’m real careful when I climb. I did have an accident in Australia -- I fell about 15 feet -- and perhaps that was a really good thing because it taught me to be absolutely careful and not to climb when I’m tired or when the conditions are really wet.

I’ve eaten a lot of insects because they’ve been offered to me, but I’ve been in some situations where we actually did run out of food. Once, I survived on raisins for three days, and it was pretty darn OK.

Art Levy is a Florida Trend associate editor. He writes the Of Counsel law column, the Florida Originals column and many of the magazine’s Icon features. A graduate of the University of Florida’s journalism college, Levy joined Florida Trend in 2005. Before that, he worked for newspapers including the Tampa Bay Times and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Over the years, his stories have won more than 20 awards. To learn more about "Made in Florida'' and other Florida-related books, visit the University Press of Florida website.
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