By T Michele Walker
It’s a technicolor summer day, circa 1966. My father, mother, sister, our dog, Ginger, and I are all crammed into a 1965 burgundy Plymouth Fury for our annual pilgrimage from Orlando to Indian Rocks Beach. Each summer my family went home to IRB for a glorious two-week vacation. I can still feel the thrill of turning on to Gulf Blvd., seeing the rows of cottages lining the beach.
When visiting Indian Rocks Beach today, gone are the rows of cottages, replaced by high rise condominiums, hotels, apartments and McMansions. If you’re observant, you can still spy a cottage here and there, a beloved witness to a treasured past. For this, we can thank three plein aire cottage artists: Mary Rose Holmes, Helen Tilston and Violetta Chandler, the founders of Save Our Cottages.
Fifth-generation Floridian Mary Rose reflects, “Helen, Violetta and I met in Indian Rocks Beach 20 years ago when the building boom was happening and these old cottages were getting smashed and the condos were replacing them. When we saw the beautiful cottages being torn down, we were just trying to get a memory of them on canvas. The people of the town started buying our paintings off our easels. These people realized the beauty of these historic cottages and they started the movement with us to ‘save our cottages’.”
Helen Tilston, a talented Irish artist, elaborates, “As a plein aire oil painter, I have exhibited and, like Mary Rose and Violetta, have won awards for my paintings. I divide my time between Indian Rocks Beach in the fall and winter months and Ireland and Europe for the rest of the year. One of our greatest compliments has been a letter from the Mayor of IRB who stated, “… [Mary Rose, Violetta and Helen] have turned the lights back on at Indian Rocks Beach and the residents have fallen in love with their city again. [Your work has] resulted in residents attending planning and zoning meetings at IRB city hall and objecting to variances being given for cottages that were slated for demolition.’”
Violetta Chandler, a fifth-generation artist from Russia, is an award-winning artist that has painted all of her life. She moved to Sarasota in 1995 and taught painting at the Ringling School of Art, the Gulf Coast Museum of Art in Largo and worked as an Instructor of Impressionist oil painting at St. Petersburg Community College.
Mary Rose described what this project means to the trio: “Today, you can walk or ride down Gulf Blvd. and still see the beach and wonderful old cottages and not have the ‘Great Wall of Florida’ as you see in most beach communities. We have made progress beyond our hopes and dreams…”
To learn more about Save Our Cottages and the plein aire artists, check out their website https://www.saveourcottagesdoc.org/#artists-with-a-cause where you will find their award-winning documentary “Save Our Cottages”. For information on where to purchase paintings, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 813-294-2272 (Mary Rose Holmes).
Born in St. Pete and raised in Orlando, T Michele Walker is a native Floridian to the core. She’s worn many hats throughout the years from professional actress-singer at Walt Disney World, educator, director, writer of plays, musicals and children’s operas, four of which were performed at Carnegie Hall. Now living in Sarasota, Michele is a freelance writer and correspondent, theater and music critic for the Herald Tribune.