The Two Best Southwest Florida Artists You've Never Heard Of

While their paintings are widely acclaimed, these two artists—Lynn Davison and Mamie Holst—fly under the radar.

BY February 25, 2016


Like the ghost orchid and the Florida panther, some of the best artists in Southwest Florida are elusive souls.

They’re more apt to be found in their studios than on the social circuit, pondering the ineffable rather than managing their brands. Talented but reclusive artists like Lynn Davison and Mamie Holst fly under the radar, better known elsewhere than in their own hometowns.

Davison, for instance, has lived in Naples for more than four decades, though she rarely exhibits here. Her work is represented instead by galleries in Sarasota, Tampa and Atlanta. She has racked up numerous awards over the years, including three individual artist’s fellowships from the Florida Arts Council and one fellowship jointly administered by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Southern Arts Federation. In 2013, she was among the 40 artists chosen by a panel of experts to be featured in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Her contribution, an oil painting called Modesty 2, 2010, anatomized her own unclothed torso, seen through a transparent, crumpled wrapper.

Davison's Rock, Scissors, Paper

“I’m dull,” Davison says with a smile during a recent visit to her airy, wood-paneled studio. “No one knows I’m an artist.” She and her husband “are really hermits,” she continues, preferring to socialize with family and close friends. He retired as a curriculum specialist at Collier County Public Schools, and she’s been a working artist throughout her adult life.

Petite and elfin, Davison, 72, has bright eyes and a quick laugh. But she is also absolutely determined to go her own way artistically—even if her inclinations lead her off the beaten path of social conventions into a complex, often ambiguous realm of relationships.

The human figure is a constant in her work. Clothed or not, tangled or twisted, amiably napping or dueling in mock sword battles, the human body has engaged Davison ever since she studied at the Ringling College of Art and Design in the early 1960s. “Bodies are bodies. I love all kinds,” she says. Her models tend to be herself as well as family members and friends. Nonetheless, her portrayals can be ruthless. Davison charts the map of crevices on people’s faces with exquisite precision, and paints the rolls and sags of aging flesh with an alert, almost seismographic hand.

She doesn’t spare herself the harsh treatment, either. A gorgeously lucid painting from 2009, Party Time, shows the artist and her husband sprawled on a couch in the aftermath of a celebration, complete with ribbons, wrapping paper and balloons. They look exhausted, heavy and drained rather than festive. He’s asleep, and she looks over at him questioningly, as if to ask, “Is this all we’ve got left to look forward to?”

“I want my figures to provoke introspection,” Davison says. “While they’re essentially revelations of self, I hope they also portray universal truths about what it means to be exposed, disconnected, vulnerable and human.”

About 10 years worth of paint piles on Davison's palette.

That’s serious business. But her paintings often poke fun at the absurdity of it all, too. In her large oil painting Vision Quest, 2013, a middle-aged couple appears to be resting on a journey. They both look away from the viewer, surveying a broad landscape that stretches in front of them. The woman is seated on a rock, clad only in bra and panties. The man is bare-chested, wearing shorts or bathing trunks. He hoists a toilet plunger over his shoulder as if it were the most natural thing in the world to carry on a hiking trip. The painting is both strange and funny, suggesting that the road to enlightenment might pass through some pretty dark places.

“The fact that she is such a masterful painter and that she can paint the figure as well as any of the Renaissance masters—and then some—and infuse humor into the work, is what makes her so successful as an artist,” says Barbara Hill, an art consultant in Fort Myers who has organized exhibitions of Davison’s work. “Her ability to capture the human form is unparalleled, in my opinion.”

Earlier in her career, Davison’s paintings were often surrealistic. She set her figures in elaborately weird environments, lavishing her considerable representational skills on theatrical lighting effects and quirky grotesqueries. Lately, however, her figurative scenes have grown more fleshy and intimate, focusing on the interaction of couples rather than the predicaments of isolated individuals. She’s also begun a series of small works on paper, covered with a thick layer of glossy epoxy, that offer quick, expressionistic takes on characters ranging from beloved pets to imaginary beings.

“Each piece I do, I want it to be the best I can,” Davison muses. “I do things to please myself, to solve the problems I set up for myself in the painting. You’re always trying to let what comes, come, rather than trying to force things. You go through periods in your work. You’re not the same person you were 30 or 40 years ago. Your interests change. As you work day by day, things evolve, and you just sort of go with it.”


Cosmic Vibrations

“I feel isolated in Fort Myers, but I would never want to live anywhere else,” says Mamie Holst. In fact, the 55-year-old artist has spent the majority of her life in the Fort Myers neighborhood where she was raised. Except for a yearlong sojourn in Australia as a child and a decade spent living elsewhere while she traveled and completed her education, Holst has remained close to her roots.

Works from Holst's A Town Called Mindington series hang in her Fort Myers studio.

Though she insists she was once very shy, Holst is hearty and talkative in person, with a faint Southern twang to her voice. She’s attentive to language, to words and their meanings. “Titles are important to me,” she notes.

There’s a vibrant intensity to Holst’s abstract compositions, painted in acrylic on canvas using a palette of black, white and gray. Her vocabulary of forms ranges from the celestial to the microcosmic—spirals, orbs, concentric circles, starburst patterns, stripes and dots—imagery that seems to emanate from both inner and outer space. Her paintings can feel hypnotic and hallucinatory, pulsating with visual energy. While she was in graduate school, Holst studied briefly with the Op artist Richard Anuszkiewicz, and she seems to have absorbed some of his dizzying optical effects, if not his interest in color interactions.

According to critic and curator Bob Nickas, Holst’s paintings “suggest nothing less than an out-of-body experience.” Her Landscape Before Dying (Possibility #3), 2007, resembles a galactic eyeball set upon a backdrop of wavering, slanted stripes. Another work, Landscape Before Dying (Toward Exiting #8), 2008, shows a tunnel made of concentric rings that seems to burrow into the back of beyond. One ring, evidently not a team player, has come loose and is wobbling off in another direction.

“Mamie is one of those rare artists who is speaking directly from that inner space. Her work is incredibly impactful,” notes Ron Bishop, who retired in 2013 as director of museums and galleries at Florida SouthWestern State College, where he organized a one-person show of Holst’s paintings in 2008. “It’s about isolation, it’s about singularity within complexity, it’s about being overwhelmed and the uncertainty of the unknown.”

Roughly a quarter-century ago, Holst was diagnosed with chronic fatigue/immune dysfunction syndrome, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis. At the time, she was just a few years out of graduate school, having received her MFA in 1987 from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 1992, realizing that she was not getting better, she moved back to Fort Myers to live with her parents. In spite of her debilitating condition—which forces her to limit her physical activity, sleep twice as much as most people do and contend with a pervasive feeling of mental fog—Holst has managed to nurture a healthy career.

In 2005, she received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship—an extremely competitive award widely regarded as one of the most prestigious an artist can achieve. Her paintings have been in dozens of curated shows across the U.S. and in Europe. One of her pieces is illustrated in the catalog to No Boundaries, a major exhibition of contemporary aboriginal Australian art currently touring American museums. Her work is discussed as an example of contemporary abstraction that resonates with the Australian artists’ creations.

A Town Called Mindington #14

From 2000 to 2014, she was represented by Feature Inc. in New York. Holst credits Feature’s owner, an unorthodox gallerist who went by the single name of “Hudson,” with much of her success. With his nudging, her work found its way into the hands of collectors and was included in numerous shows. “He was a true mentor,” she says of Hudson, who passed away unexpectedly in 2014. “I don’t know of any other New York gallery that would take on someone who was chronically ill, who could only paint for a few hours a month and who lives in Fort Myers.”

All of her paintings since 1997 have been titled Landscape Before Dying, with parenthetical subtitles. At first, Holst says, the series title indicated a query she posed to herself. “It started off as a question, wondering how long I was going to be sick. And it became the answer. It’s really more about life than death.” Though many people see her paintings as allusions to her condition or even reflections of the visual phenomena associated with it, she doesn’t feel that it’s important for viewers to know about her illness in order to understand her paintings. “I would hope that these paintings have a much broader scope than that; [they are] more about the mysteries of life,” she says. Skookum, an abstract canvas painted over a two-year period from 2010 to 2012, hints at one of those mysteries. It consists of vertical rows of white dots on a black ground. The dots part in the middle, like a curtain being pushed aside, and the lower portion of the canvas is fringed with a thick beard of heavily applied gray paint. The title, Holst explains, is a Northwest Coast Indian word for Bigfoot or Sasquatch, the hairy, apelike being that people claim to have sighted around the globe. In Native American lore, the Skookum is a mysterious being that can become invisible. Her canvas shows the void where the skittish creature has disappeared.

She is fascinated by all sorts of speculative knowledge, ranging from science fiction to extrasensory perception, and it’s helpful to know this when trying to puzzle out the meaning of Holst’s canvases. But she is emphatic on one point. She wants viewers to interpret her paintings from their own perspective. “What I think doesn’t matter,” she insists. She wants people to look for themselves. Like the Skookum, the answer to our questions may be hiding in plain sight.

Janice T. Paine is a freelance writer on art and an education program manager at the United Arts Council of Collier County in Naples.


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