Same Island, Different Worlds

Two St. George Island Artists Revel in Inspiration

One has “wings.” The other has “gills.” One lives in a world of exacting realism and literal vision; the other a world of abstract, imaginative images that explode in vibrant volumes of color.

John Ficklen and Beth Appleton are very different when it comes to style, themes and subject matter, but they share an attribute common among artists: a passion for exploring new forms of expression.

Ficklen, a retired Navy helicopter pilot who used to hunt Soviet missile subs during the height of the Cold War, is an award-winning builder of scratch-built model warplanes and, more recently, of oyster boats.

Appleton, who also garnered her share of awards during her career, grew up in Ocala and at one time studied underwater ballet in hopes of becoming a Weeki Wachee “mermaid.”

Their St. George Island homes also reflect their respective natures and tastes.

Ficklen’s beachfront home is a “man cave” full of Navy destroyers in glass display cases, reference books, framed aviation art and models of scratch-built vintage fighter planes. Appleton’s bayside home is a comfortable, permanent getaway filled with items she and husband David Harbaugh have collected over the years. Antique bottles line empty spaces on the walls along with various kitschy knickknacks, and Harbaugh has a collection of fishing lures found washed up on the beach.

Toy Planes and Oyster Boats

Ficklen made his mark on the world of militaria with his award-winning models of historical warplanes and ships spanning four wars. His models are on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola and the Smithsonian Institution. He was a Navy helicopter pilot back in the mid-1960s, at the height of the Cold War. He flew anti-submarine operations off an aircraft carrier, then went on to become an Eastern Airlines pilot.

Ficklen has put many aviation heroes on canvas, and his prints are autographed by men who made history: Air Force generals Jimmy Doolittle and Chuck Yeager, Battle of Midway veteran George Gay, and Marine Corps fighter aces Pappy Boyington and Joe Foss, among many others. Meanwhile, his airplane models are notable for their exacting detail; for example, the miniature pedals and stick on his World War I Fokker Eindecker (German for “monoplane”) actually work the flaps and rudder.

“I really learned modeling and painting on my own,” Ficklen said. “I have always had an intense desire to do this type of work. Also, I am blessed with good eyesight and eye-hand coordination.”

After many years of handcrafting boats, ships and planes, and immortalizing fighter aces on canvas, Ficklen said he has found a new love: modeling the humble oyster and mullet boats of Franklin County. He has built almost 30 of the little boats over the past two years.

“I love the culture, the water people down here,” he said. “So I started making these things.”

Ficklen admires the way the full-size boats are made by eye.

“These guys don’t have drawings or anything,” he said. Learning how they were made was an adventure.

“I visited the oyster boat builders that I could find and took a ton of photographs, and talked to the guys,” he said. “I made a couple, and I didn’t like what I was doing so I kept studying them. I wanted to do it just like they did — no drawings, just made by eye.”

An interesting fact about the local oyster boats is that no two are alike. All of them are a little bit different, Ficklen said. They’re also tough. That’s something a traveler passing by on U.S. Highway 98 might not realize.

“They’re incredibly well built,” Ficklen said. “They’re economically made, but they’re very sturdy and rugged.”

The model versions may have their own character, but each one has special details built in, such as tiny oyster bags, “bottomless” 5-gallon buckets for measuring bushels, and miniature tongs made from brass wire and scrap pieces of ash wood. Ficklen models them right down to the old crankshaft sections oystermen use for anchors.

“I put all that stuff in there,” he said. “And I said, man, you’ve got to have motors on these things. So I got on eBay and started looking. I put in ‘toy outboard motors’ under toys and hobbies and started buying outboard motors. I don’t rig them up to run, though. When I run out, I just buy more.”

Ficklen calls his oyster boats a “worthwhile endeavor.”

“These are fun. And it captures a little bit of the history of this place and preserves something that I see is going to go away,” he said. “It’s already changed so much. I’ve learned so much from these guys. I love talking to them about the old days. But that’s all dying off.”

Florida Kitsch and ‘Floridalas’

Beth Appleton enjoys living on St. George Island, and every day the sand, wind and stars brings about new inspiration.

Throughout her life, Appleton’s environment has inspired her art. As a child growing up in Ocala, she had plenty of natural elements around her, from beach shells to the shaded canopy roads between Ocala and Daytona Beach.

“I have grown gills, in a sense, and as a third-generation Floridian, I come alive during the hot steamy nights that shout out frog songs,” she said.

It was also the tacky tourist traps and attractions of Central Florida, along with the gift shops and colorful roadside fruit stands, that struck a chord with the budding artist.

“Patterns and icons evolve from my love of Seminole Indian clothing … and even funky tourist kitsch; all these images combine and embed themselves within my work,” she said.

Appleton graduated from Florida State University and spent many years as a professional teacher. She also traveled a lot and, with her husband’s help and guidance, set up an art studio in Quincy. In addition, the duo established “Art in Gadsden,” an annual exhibition for local artists.

Around 1989, Appleton came up with what she terms the “cut paper” series, which is uniquely her own. Her love of bright primary colors, fed by trips out West and to the Caribbean, fuels her imagination. Some of Appleton’s works are circular images similar to mandalas, which she calls her “Floridalas.” These she populates with highly stylized images of tropical palm trees, fish, island huts, people …whatever strikes her fancy.

“I love the circular works; the Floridalas are works that David and I could work on together because he’s got that great mathematical left brain that allows him to be able to arrange space in a mathematical way,” Appleton said. “And I have the design quality to do the design work. It’s a nice relationship we share with that.”

Stylized lizards, frogs and other island motifs still play into her art.

“In my earlier career I had great fun at that in terms of designing and playfulness in my work,“ she said. “My work has been going through different stages now, and it’s more of an abstract body of work. I say ‘abstract’ because I really don’t have a word for it.”

Appleton uses a wide spectrum of colored paper to construct her images. A sharp X-Acto knife is a must. She starts out by creating a chromatic watercolor wash, which is used for the background. Then comes the tedious, painstaking task of cutting out literally thousands of tiny angular blocks of paper, triangles and rectangles. Once cut into the desired shapes, she attaches them to the background in whatever pattern she decides upon — such as figures of people, trees, frogs and fish. The paper edges are raised to give it a three-dimensional quality, and the tiny shadows under the raised pieces create additional texture.

“It’s not planned. It’s refreshing to be able to cut, place and change my mind,” she said.

Appleton said she loves St. George Island for the solitude it offers.

“As an artist and observer, the world makes more sense from outer edges of quiet spaces,” she said. “On this perch, I can witness natural forces and the great expanse of sky and water that surround these incredible barrier islands. My creative spirit is constantly fed.”

Categories: Forgotten Coast 2010, Forgotten Coast Archive