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A visit with Guy LaBree, painter of the Seminole ways

Guy LaBree01TALLAHASSEE — When Guy LaBree entered first grade at Dania Elementary School in 1946, he found a whole group of children who hated to wear shoes as much as he did. The first generation of Seminole Indians to attend Florida public schools quickly bonded with LaBree. He would sneak away to visit their camps and was welcomed by elders who served him sofkee and frybread. His Indian friends would sneak to the LaBree home, where he let them stand in the shower as long as they wanted and play the hi-fi just like urban teenagers anywhere.

Though the friends all drifted apart by high school, LaBree never forgot. An amateur oil painter and bored print shop worker, LaBree was confronted one day by his old friend Alan Jumper who told him, “Paint the ways of the Seminoles.” Jumper’s directive unlocked LaBree’s soul, the artist said, creating a prolific urge to paint the Seminoles. He retired from printing, got out his old easel and the rest is Seminole history.

Forty years later he still paints the Seminoles, their traditions, history and the special vanishing culture he personally witnessed as a youth. His work is distinctive for its bright colors, lush landscapes, accuracy and compelling scenes.

Last month, LaBree won the prestigious Florida Folk Heritage Award.

Chairman James E. Billie nominated LaBree for the award, writing:

“I first met Guy LaBree when he was hanging out and running around barefoot with Harry and Tommie Jumper’s sons, Alan and Harley Jumper, and with Jimmie and Bobby Matthias on the Dania Seminole Indian Reservation. They were very close friends, almost inseparable. Guy spent many nights in Indian camps and his Indian friends would spend nights at his home. Beginning with those early years when we were all just boys and on through today, Guy has kept closely in touch with the Seminoles, researching our culture and producing outstanding paintings depicting our people, history, traditions and legends.

“The first painting I commissioned Guy LaBree to make for me was “The Legend of the Bridge to Eternity.” I gave Guy my description of what I remembered about this horrifying legend of the narrow bridge crossing from the Earth to the New World and what you had to do to get there. The final product – his paintingBridge to Eternity– came forth and I was astounded how true to life it seemed. I believe he could not have brought forth this legend on canvas had he not lived among the Seminoles and spent so much time listening to our legends and stories.

“Guy LaBree paintings are everywhere around me, wherever I go in Seminole Country. They are on the walls of my office and my home. Many other Seminoles treasure their collections of Guy LaBree paintings as well. Our Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum has quite a few in its permanent collection, including the entire series of our folktales he painted for the collection displayed in “Legends of the Seminoles by Betty Mae Jumper.

“Up until now, I have seen many famous artists and their paintings of Seminoles and Seminole life. Guy LaBree, however, tops them all with his accurate depictions of the way of life of the Seminole.”

The Seminole Tribune visited Guy LaBree and his wife, Pat, recently at their home and studio in the Pine Level section of western DeSoto County.

Peter Gallagher: Guy, I want to tape a little conversation with you to see if we can find out what you’re doing these days.

Guy LaBree: OK, but you’re gonna have to cut out all the bad words.

PG: Tell me something about your friend Patrick Smith, the Florida author who died recently.

GL: I thought a lot of him. The man was brilliant. He took real Florida history stuff and mixed it with fiction, but the fiction did not interfere with the real story he was telling.

I know when he was in his last days, laying in bed like that, I kept calling him up and his wife would answer, ‘Who is this?’ She didn’t know me ‘cause I’d never met her. I’d say, ‘Guy LaBree, a friend of Pat’s.’ She’d go, ‘Well, he’s sleeping right now.’ I’d say, ‘Fine, let him sleep.’

But, the last time I called, I could hear him in the background: ‘Who is it?’ and she said, ‘Some guy named Guy LaBree’ and he said, ‘Bring that phone here, lady.’ Man, he got all excited. I felt real good about that.

PG: I went over to Merritt Island to see him not long before he died and it seemed like he was permanently in bed in the living room of his house, surrounded by bookcases full of his books, books on Florida and all his awards. He told us that he had been honored by the governor with the Hall of Fame award but that he was too ill to go to Tallahassee to pick it up.

So one day, without any forewarning or anything, a big black limousine showed up in front of the house and a bunch of guys in suits got out and none other than Gov. Rick Scott and his wife knocked on the door, walked in the living room and presented the award to Pat, personally. Pat said they stayed a whole hour.

GL: Very cool, very cool. I’m glad they did that. Pat brought a lot of business down to Florida with his writings. He hadn’t been busy saying ‘I’m good’ or anything like that. He was just out there doing it.

Rick Scott’s wife was one of the ones handing out the award to me up in Tallahassee and I walked up to her with all the racket going on and whispered, ‘I voted for your husband and I’m gonna vote for him again,’ and she said, ‘Oh, that is so sweet.’

PG: What are you doing now?

GL: Painting-wise?

PG: Yeah, in your current life. What is Guy LaBree doing these days?

GL: I am getting more and more close to retirement; though, as far as painting goes, I don’t guess I’ll ever retire. We are not tied down to anything. We only go to a couple of shows a year and they’re the ones that Seminoles put on. I think I’ve gone to one other one – the event honoring Frank Thomas they had last year up near Bushnell. I can’t remember. Patty would remember. I got the mind of a sieve, it all passes through. Only some things just hang on.

Other than that I just been doing paintings that I want to do and once in a while I get a commission and I’ll do that. I always try to cut that in ahead of everything else. I got one I am working on now that I am waiting to get an OK on a sketch that I sent out.

PG: What’s in the painting?

GL: A chickee. This woman had a dream and it was about this bayhead and out there was a golden chickee. She was told that is where she would go when she died and she wanted a painting of it, so I did a sketch and she said the chickee was too big, so I did a smaller sketch and now I’m waiting to hear.

PG: How common is that for people to approach you to paint a dream?

GL: It started a way back with James (Billie). He would describe something to me, tell a story and he would say, ‘I’d like to see what that would look like,’ and I’d get a picture in my head and paint it and show it to him and he would always say, ‘That’s exactly what I was thinking of,’ which is most unusual because most people have their own ideas of their dreams.

PG: People approach you because they see your work and somehow figure you are someone who could create their dream?

GL: Yeah, I guess. Mitchell Cypress had a dream and I did a painting for him. It was a big one and it used to be behind his desk in his office when he was in there, with him up on a horse riding up to the clouds. He had a dream – you see his wife had died in his arms years ago and he had dreams about her. He said whenever he went out to check his cattle, he would make a little campfire, heat up some coffee and take a nap. He said he always dreamed the same dream: He would be on an Appaloosa horse going on up in the clouds and she is waiting on him up there on her horse – a paint horse – and an eagle was  bringing up his black hat … and Mitchell said a medicine man told him if he could see all that at one time it wouldn’t be bothering him. It wasn’t bothering him; it was just the fact that it happened over and over and over that got him wondering. So I did the picture and he said, ‘That was it, that was it.’

Then later, his one daughter died and he had me paint her in there. So I asked him what kind of horse did she ride? I might as well have all the horses right. And, in the dream, she wore the buckskin. And a year or two later his other daughter died so he called me and said I need you to put another one in. She had a black horse.

PG: So you kept adding to the same painting?

GL: Yes, over the years. Then he called again just as we’re getting ready to go out to, what do they call it, the Big Cypress Arts and Crafts Festival,  and I said I would see him out there. He told me, ‘I got one more to put in the picture.’  I told him, ‘Mitchell, you keep on like this and you aren’t going to have any more family left.’  He says, ‘No, no, this one is a new one.’ He had a little baby. So he wanted the baby in there. So I got him laying in there.

Then after that baby, he had another baby, so I put her in there crawling around and I told him, after this little girl was in there, I told him, ‘I’m afraid to even drive this painting home.’ He said ‘Why?’ I said, ‘It’s got a history to it. If something happens to it, I can’t paint all that again.’ And that’s true. That painting of Mitchell’s been going on for years. He said, ‘Well, we’ll just have to start another painting then.’

PG: Did you ever think if something happened to you while you were driving that painting, you might actually end up in the painting yourself?

GL: Oh, yeah. Well, one time he wanted a horse in there for one of these other girls and I made one up and put it in there and Mitchell actually went out and bought a horse for her that exactly matched the one I painted. I didn’t know that until he told me he wanted another horse for the other little daughter and asked me, ‘But please don’t make it so hard to find.’ I laughed and thought, man, this is getting spookier and spookier.

PG: At the same time, it shows how much Mitchell trusted you in translating his dream to canvas. He kept coming back to you.

GL: Sonny Billie used to tell me things, too, but he would only tell me part of the story. He would say, ‘You don’t need to know the rest, just the part that goes on the canvas.’  Another thing he would say is this is the kind of thing that starts from their religion, it starts right at the very beginning of the world and he says you have to be in that all your life to understand where they are at now cause they teach that every year.

He’d ask, ‘Guy, you been to a Green Corn Dance?’ and I’d say, ‘No. I been invited a couple times but I don’t see no sense in going. You got to stay on the outside of it so you don’t know what’s happening.’ People have told me things, but I couldn’t look out at what was going on and tell what is really happening. And it is probably embarrassing to them to have people watch ‘em.  And he said, ‘Yeah, I don’t go to watch you pray, why would you go to watch me pray?’ Sonny was cool like that. He was a brilliant guy. You could get in some deep talks with him. He was very much his own self.

PG: What are you working on now? Do you have something no one has seen that we can publish in the newspaper?

GL: I’ve got a new one of a gal up on a horse. I’m just finishing it. No one’s really seen it yet. The Seminole Tribune will be the first one to publish that one.

PG: Tell me about snake hunting with Buffalo Tiger.

GL: I’d always ask him where can I find this one the most, or that one. And he would save me a lot of trouble ‘cause he was there and he knew where they were. So I would go out and he would always say, ‘But don’t mess with ‘em, ‘cause you’ll get hurt.’ He’d always say that. I am surprised he is still alive. He’s got to be in his 90s, still going strong. Man, sometimes I look back and I can’t believe what we’ve seen. You know how much history we’ve lived through?

PG: I think about that all the time. Thanks, Guy LaBree, for your beautiful paintings of Florida and the Seminoles.