AQUIFERious: Florida's Springs

Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, 600 E. Klosterman Rd., Tarpon Springs.

Through May 14:
Tues., Wed. & Sat.: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.;
Thurs., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.;
Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.;
and Sun., 1-4 p.m. $7.

Florida's Springs Panel Discussion
Apr. 5: 12:30-2 p.m. and 5:30-7 p.m.

Your first tubing trip down the Rainbow River is something you never forget. As you slowly float downstream, you can pop your head underwater and get a drive-by view of fish swimming around the spring's grasses — and even the occasional glimpse of an otter or anhinga swooping in on those unsuspecting fish. Florida's springs make you think, "Wow, we live here" and hold so many magical subtropical worlds. At the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, AQUIFERious: Florida's Springs taps into poetic space these waters hold, and their intrinsic value as places of refuge, as well as their necessity to our existence here on this sandy state.

Early photographer Charles Nègre brilliantly stated, "Where science ends, art begins." If there was ever a need to defend the importance of the arts in America, this exhibition in some ways argues the worth of artistic inquiry compared to other fields of study (you know, the ol' STEM vs. STEAM argument) by becoming a collaboration of artists, scientists and writers. Spearheaded by Margaret Ross Tolbert, her interdisciplinary practice not only involves creating work based on her observations, but also in partnership with the scientists, cave divers (who can photograph where the sun don't shine), and cartographers who have mapped out the complex passages of the aquifer.

Water is brought to life right in the museum in Ross Tolbert's "The Well at Silver Glen Springs." Like her other paintings, it tends to speak more about surface and mark-making than about the depth of the springs, but one can hardly complain about the vibrancy of her bold line work or the juiciness in the tactile dribbles of paint that sprawl across the surface like water bugs. Even if the springs aren't this energetic in reality, her paintings are evocative of the widespread life force water truly is.

From observational paintings, she nosedives into imagination in Sirena, her video collaboration with Mark Long. With the whimsical spirit of this fictional character who lives underwater, how could you not associate Sirena with the Weeki Wachee mermaids? There's an element of the strangely familiar as she swims through the water with a large hat and patterned sundress, but also a hint of the mythological. This piece makes you believe in magic again, to see the aquifer with childlike wonder.

The springs we see are only the tip of the iceberg; the aquifer below ground makes up a 100,000-square-mile system that feeds over 1,000 freshwater springs throughout Florida. As a "part art show, part park visitor information station," Eric Hutcheson's cartography of Silver Springs is a great addition, showcasing the spidery underground railroad that is rushing beneath us, along with Georgia Shemitz's Springshead maps. This exhibition points out that it's not just about immersing yourself in the art, but even moreso about becoming a teaching hub to learn about these sensitive environments we need to be protecting.

The sense of depth and mystery of these caves is especially prevalent in Mark Long's photography. "Let the Sun Shine" is one of the most impressive shots in the show, with the air bubbles from two divers in the distance creating a hole in the thick algae on the water's surface, allowing a shaft of light to illuminate the craggy rocks. Many of us aren't daring enough to go spelunking in the aquifer's dark corners, but all of us can relate to Jill Heinerth's "Sunflower," a lighthearted moment captured of the underside of a bright yellow transparent raft with a silhouetted figure lounging across it. We can experience the joy of splashing in the springs; yet these aren't just places for us to enjoy now, but also sites to protect so they can be enjoyed forever.

AQUIFERious ties in beautifully to the exhibition next door, Endangered Landscapes: America's National Lands in Transition, which features the photography of Rick Braveheart. Capturing the landscape from his many artist-in-residence opportunities at national parks across America, these images will soon be historical reference images for what the land used to be. Even Ross Tolbert (who is sort of like the unofficial artist-in-residence of the Florida springs) confesses in her artist statement that it can be tough to face the pollution and destruction of the fragile lands that even she would rather not see nor admit to.

Weaving in science, technology, and artistic expression in an exhibition to illustrate the poetic nature of the aquifer, Tolbert's line pretty much sums up any experience of the springs: "And that was it. I was inside a prism of light, in a supremely different planet imbedded within our own."