The Folk Art of Don Stone by Donna Kelly

The Folk Art of Don Stone
By Donna Kelly

With overflowing bookcases, walls filled with paintings of various styles, and relics of a family history dating back to the Mayflower, the Winter Haven home of folk artist Don Stone is equal parts art gallery, library, and museum.

Somewhere amid the treasures are places to sleep, eat, and bathe. His studio is in the garage. His two cats keep watch over the house he’s lived in since childhood.

Ann and Donald Stone, Sr. – a librarian and a mechanical engineer – raised Don Stone, Jr. and his brother, Sears, to think. Dinner was a family affair and Ann Stone kept encyclopedias near the table to aid in fact checking during mealtime conversations.

Stone developed an appreciation for history, politics, the arts, and a good story.

But he didn’t entertain the idea of becoming an artist until, in his mid-forties: He needed a way to pay for his growing art collection.

“I got into art to make money to buy art,” says Stone, 61, grinning as his eyes move from the paintings filling the walls of his office to a group leaning against the side of a desk. “I have pieces of art stuffed everywhere.”

Always an art enthusiast, Stone’s artistic journey led him to study folk art and develop a style merging his love of color, humor, and history.

Since then, he’s racked up his fair share of awards – although he neither displays nor keeps track of them. His work has been chosen for festival posters and tee shirts, and exhibited in several museums. Usually painted on wood, Stone’s paintings are found in private collections well beyond the Florida state line.

A Salt Box Start

Stone was 9 years old when his family moved to Winter Haven from Greenwich, Conn., but his roots reach back to the settling of New England.

“I’ve had family in Cape Cod from the Mayflower,” he says.

In 1620, ten of Stone’s ancestors were among the 41 Pilgrims who signed the Mayflower Compact, the first document to outline government in what became the United States. He’s a descendant of 27 of the country’s first settlers.

“My family has owned land on the Cape (Cape Cod, Massachusetts) for 400 years,” he says with a hint of pride in his voice.

Stone’s love of history was born of stories passed down in his mother’s family. Portraits of ancestors hang in his home. A scale model boat created by a shipbuilding forefather hangs in his living room. It’s not surprising that his first piece of art was inspired by the saltbox houses of his native New England.

But it took him awhile to foster his artistic talent.

He graduated from Winter Haven High School in 1971 and received his Bachelor of Arts degree in history from LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He minored in political science. After spending time managing an art and glass studio in Sea Side, a community in the Florida Panhandle, Stone returned to Winter Haven in 1998 and took a job running inventories for RGIS, an inventory service provider, a job he still holds today.

“I read an article in a magazine dealing with collecting and two guys who collected miniature homes,” he says, explaining they were not doll houses or bird houses. “So, I made a small Cape Cod salt box, and that led me to the library and I stumbled upon Folk Art Magazine.”

The now defunct magazine put Stone on the path to his artistic calling – folk art.

“That led me to the Abby Aldrick Rockefeller Museum in Williamsburg; and that led me to Mennello Museum in Orlando,” he explains. “I met Ruby Williams. She gave me my first two shows.”

Like Stone, Williams is well known for her brightly painted folk art which grew from the vivid bright colors of the signs she painted for her roadside vegetable stand in Bealsville, a small town outside of Plant City.

But his penchant for painting on wood didn’t come from Williams’ influence. It was born of necessity during a trip to Weston’s Inglewood Fish Camp, in 1999.

“I wanted to paint, but I didn’t have any canvases, so I dumpster dived and found wood,” he says, chuckling.

He’s been painting on wood ever since.

“I don’t like painting on canvas. It gives too much,” he explains.

Outside Folk Artist, Sort Of

Stone has been described as an outsider folk artist, or one who is not formally educated in art. In some cases, it’s used in reference to an artist who is isolated from the influences of culture.

“I’m sort of an outsider, but I’m educated,” says Stone. “Outside art, it was just what I was doing. I didn’t set out to become an outsider artist. I paint for myself.”

His friend and fellow artist Brenda Poff Hill, a retired art teacher, isn’t sure he fits into the folk art category.

“He’s self-taught, but he goes to so many shows and he’s aware of art history. He just hasn’t taken art classes,” says Hill, who’s known Stone for 10 years.

She describes Stone’s work as a type of abstract.

“They came from a subject and they are not realistically drawn or portrayed. They are abstracted, they’re changed,” says Hill, the proud owner of six Don Stone originals. “There’s nobody around that paints like he does, not even the people who are in that folk artist or primitive artists. The ones that come close to what he does are more decorative.”

Mary Jo Snell, a primitive folk art doll designer from Apopka, met Stone 12 years ago when they started turning up at the same art shows. They’ve been swapping artwork ever since.

The first thing that caught Snell’s eye was the vivid color that brought to mind her childhood and happiness.

“Most of his work is very whimsical. It reminds me of Grandma Moses,” she says. “The little intricate people he puts on his work, and little cars. It’s just a great scene.”

She admires the complexity of his work.

“When you look at the whole picture, he always has a reason behind what he does,” Snell explained.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Seuss, Grandma Moses, and Earl Cunningham are Stone’s biggest influences.

“With Dr. Seuss it’s the colors. There’s an organic quality,” says Stone. “When it comes to landscape, the influence is from Grandma Moses and Earl Cunningham.”

Stone may not include formal art training on his resume, but this doesn’t mean he isn’t continually learning. He’s known as a gifted conversationalist and he takes what he learns from others and applies it to his work.

He attends the judge’s critiques offered by Ridge Art Association on the final day of jurying and judging each show. During these critiques, the judge explains why each winning piece was chosen, and fields questions from the audience.

“I owe the judges’ Q & A. I’ve learned a lot,” Stone says.

The Artist as a Storyteller

Stone’s artist statement says a lot about his personality: “I just don’t paint through agony. I like color. I like humor. I like positivity. If I can make you smile, make you laugh or bring joy, you’ve gotten my message and I’ve done my job.”

When Stone first started painting, he decided he’d complete 100 paintings and see where it led.

“I found out I love to tell stories. I love history,” he says.

And tell them he does – in his paintings and gallery talks, and in general conversation.

Michelle Harvey, who co-owns Mitchell’s Coffee House with her husband, says his work does elicit smiles. She enjoys hosting Stone’s shows at the coffee shop. Both Stone and his artwork are popular with customers.

“It’s something quirky, something unexpected and for him to talk about it was even more entertaining because he could point something out,” says Harvey. “His wheels are always turning. When people would come for the meet and greet during the first Friday event, he was really good about answering questions and talking about the art.”

Stone’s work is filled with references to his family history, popular culture, and local life.

“Part of it is my love of history and being wrapped up in family history,” says Stone.

He’s painted Polk County orange groves and Winter Haven Lakes. Look closely and you’ll see glowing red eyes on alligators in blue lakes, a beloved family dog frolicking, or his parents holding hands while courting. There are the beach cottages and light houses from the family place on Cape Cod, and clipper ships in honor of his shipbuilding ancestors.

Harvey owns six pieces of Stone’s work. Among Harvey’s favorites are the grove paintings.

“It was amazing how he had all those little tiny dots. You’d think he’d take forever to paint. There are trees with oranges, a river, all these tiny little details, so when you look at the whole picture, it’s cool,” she says. “But when you look closer you have all these little details and signs.”

She describes Stone as “kind of unusual.”

“He has more depth. More humor,” she says.

Snell loves how Stone tells a story three ways. He presents it verbally during gallery talks and through pictures on the paintings, and through the written word on the back of each piece.

“The thing I love is it doesn’t matter the way you hang it,” says Snell “There’s the way you put the picture facing you so you can enjoy the picture on the piece, then he puts the full story on the back of that board telling you what the picture is about, so you always see art.”

Stone chuckles when asked about his inspiration for paintings.

“My mind wanders and something will set it off or I’ll dream of something,” he says.

He wants to paint the eight Airstream trailers standing on end on Interstate 4 outside of Plant City, Bartow’s L.B. Brown House, and the Southgate Shopping Center in Lakeland.

“It’s the history I’m trying to preserve,” he explains. “How many people remember the Volcano across from McDonalds?”

Located at the corner of Avenue D Northwest and U.S. 17 in Winter Haven, the Volcano was a Polynesian restaurant and lounge featuring a fire spewing volcano.

And then there’s inspiration from the vivid memory of the family crossing Interstate 4 on U.S. 27 with orange groves on either side of the car as they motored toward their new home in Winter Haven during 1963.

“I can remember looking out at the groves, the rolling hills. That image was always burned in my mind,” he says. “The groves are disappearing. I wish I could paint the smell of the blossom. That pungent smell from January to mid-April was so profound.”

Don Stone will be a vendor at the 2nd Annual Local FiArt Fest in downtown Winter Haven on April 16 (see back cover for more details). Also, Stone’s work is in Lakeland at the 1026 SoFlo Fine Art Gallery & Marketplace, located at 1026 South Florida Ave. in Lakeland.