Saturday, April 17, 2021

Joy & Whimsy Intertwine at Rookery Bay’s Under the Sea Mural

Rumination from the Rock and Beyond

I was enjoying the recent art show at Rookery Bay Preserve when I happened to glance through the gift shop and discovered a stunning mural in progress by artist Dora Knuteson on the stairway wall to the second floor. Tarps, ladders and assorted paint cans lined the stairway haphazardly, at least to my untrained eye, repeat – untrained eye. The artist was working on an underwater scene, along with mangroves, birds and assorted underwater dwellers with a focus on hatchling turtles crawling toward the sparkling water.

Being the curious person that I am, I squeaked past the barrier and peeked around the corner to find the artist contemplating her next critter and its location, deep in thought. I waited for a break, introduced myself and we were soon discussing her love of art and how she was invited to do this spectacular mural for Rookery Bay.

Dora and her husband, John, moved to Florida from Wisconsin. The environment in Southwest Florida has offered her continuous inspiration based on the natural abundance and diversity of flora and fauna. Contrast this with Wisconsin where there is snow for months at a time. John bought her an easel and paints when they started living in Florida and told her to have fun and she did. After a long career as a graphic artist, Dora unleashed her creativity and found her inner muse. Dora credits John with her creative transition and says, “He’s my biggest fan and supporter.”

Distressed by the red tide, beach litter, blue-green algae and water quality issues, Dora started to ponder ways that she could help with the problem, although she never perceived herself as an environmentalist or activist; she just wanted to help. She started asking around about organizations that might need some fundraising assistance and was willing to create paintings to help support them. Several were interested, but she was determined to help an organization that wanted to improve water quality and settled on Captains for Clean Water.

Captains for Clean Water is a 501(c)3 grassroots, non-profit organization that has been actively engaged in bringing public awareness to Floridians of the water quality issues that abound. In fact, they have made it their mission to provide accurate information to the legislators that make the decisions about water who, sadly, have been dragging their heels in ensuring water quality for all Floridians. “Their mission: Advancing education, awareness and scientifically-supported solutions to restore and protect marine ecosystems and our way of life for future generations.”

Dora Knuteson designed 22 original paintings for a recent Captains for Clean Water fundraiser/auction and every one of her paintings sold. “It was astonishing, but I was thrilled to contribute to the improvement of clean water,” she said.

There’s a free-spirit and sense of humor in her style. Her eyes sparkle with the fun she’s having in the creative process, an evolution that started with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, working as a graphic artist after college for about ten years and then moving to Florida. In her tropical home, there was a “euphoric click” and a sense of joy in the tropical environment and artistic possibilities. Others noticed her style and started buying her artwork, which evolved into more demand and an offer to do a mural.

Fast forward. Dora’s background in graphic arts and web design enabled her to share her interest in wildlife and the demand for her work increased. As her talent was recognized, Dora felt she could put her abilities to work for other organizations that had similar goals for improving the local environment. Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center (part of the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve) engaged her to create a mural that encompassed the local mangrove estuary environment to support their turtle nesting program.

Estuary Day at Rookery Bay Reserve is a free celebration of the 29 estuarine research reserves around the nation. Called National Estuaries Day, this was celebrated on Saturday, September 28, 2019. The events included displays, hands-on activities, science labs, staff-narrated boat tours, introductory kayak trips, stand-up paddleboard demonstrations, the touch tank, crafts and local food trucks.

And ta-dah – the unveiling of the finished mural by Dora, 2019. What a great day to share in the appreciation for our beautiful, tropical environment.

Jory Westberry has been a dedicated educator for over 40 years, the last 14 as Principal of Tommie Barfield Elementary, where she left her heart. Life is rich with things to learn, ponder and enjoy so let’s get on with the journey together!

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