All images of art courtesy Denége Patterson
In 2010, local author and historian, Denége Patterson, published (with Peppertree Press) Edisonia Native Girl, subtitled “The Life Story of Florence Keen Sansom, Artist Born on the Edison Estate, Fort Myers, Florida.”
That Florence was born on the Edison estate is certainly interesting, as she may be the only child who was, and yet this fact is incidental in the larger context of this exceptional woman’s life.
A self-described Florida Cracker, Florence was an artist who painted, in watercolors and oils, portraits of family and friends, Florida landscapes and wildlife, still lifes of flowers, and scenes from her childhood. Florence grew up in the 1920s; thus, in her paintings, we catch glimpses of country life in Florida before urban sprawl, even before paved roads. And we see it all through the clear-eyed joie de vivre of a child. The child-like simplicity and gladness of heart with which Florence Sansom treated her subjects are, perhaps, the most remarkable and distinguishing characteristics of her art. And the most revealing of her own character.
Florence died on July 2, 2017, just short of her 100th birthday. Missing her centennial celebration by only 3 months and 2 weeks would probably have elicited from her a shrug and a smile. That’s the way she was—matter of fact and good-humored, dismissive of the disappointments of life with patient practicality. “Well, sometimes,” she once said about one of her paintings, “we don’t get things the way we want them.”
The Caretaker’s House
She was born Florence Owana Keen on October 16, 1917, in the little board-and-batten Cracker house where Sam Summerlin’s cattle drovers had bunked before Thomas Edison bought the Summerlin riverfront property in 1885. Her 23-year-old parents came, in the sweltering heat and humidity of August, to a house without plumbing, electricity, screens or even so much as a wood stove for heat in the winter. Two months later, undoubtedly before the Edisons and Fords arrived for the winter, Florence was delivered in “the Summerlin house” by Dr. William Winkler.
Florence’s father, Noah E. Keen, Jr., had been hired by Harvie Heitman, who managed Edison’s properties in Fort Myers, as arborist, horticulturalist, carpenter and general handy and maintenance man. According to his daughter, Noah Keen was a skilled and dedicated caretaker but, like caretakers before and after him, he could not support his wife and himself on the meager wages paid by his multi-millionaire employer, and when Florence was only 5 months old, he resigned. Keen’s resignation may have been motivated also by his young wife’s displeasure with Mrs. Edison. Her baby, Florence, was only a few months old when Esther was asked to come to the house and polish silver. “I’ll be glad to polish the silver if you’ll take care of my baby,” she said.
“Mother,” Florence said in Patterson’s book, “had an elegant way of putting things.”
“Dad Always Found Work”
They moved to Moore Haven up on Lake Okeechobee where Florence’s father and his brother opened a laundry business and then a cabinet-making shop. In a few years, they had saved enough to buy land out near Alva, where they planted citrus groves and where Florence and her little sister lived the happiest years of their happy, laughter-filled childhood.
Though their father, Noah Keen, was a skilled gardener and wood-worker, with the imagination and grit of an entrepreneur, he was essentially a laborer, taking work where he could find it. As a result, his family lived a rather vagabond life, moving from small, Florida town to town until, when Florence was 15, they came full circle back to Fort Myers.
Late in life, Florence would recreate bits and pieces of her childhood that evoke not just the place or the event, but the pure pleasure she had in remembering them. For instance, in Patterson’s book, Florence describes their brimming vegetable garden at Persimmon Ridge in Alva and the wild fruits with which they supplemented their diet. Her oil, “Still Life Fruit,” glows with a joy in the memory that is nearly beatific.
Florence depicted their house on Persimmon Ridge with the seemingly artless naiveté of a child, but the primitive style is deliberate. In this small painting, Florence and her sister are children on a seesaw made of logs in the left foreground; they are disproportionately large in relation to their little barn-like house behind them. It is a watercolor sketch of a memory, the image as insubstantial and fleeting as memory, as childhood.
We can only long for the paintings she did not give us: of finding colored eggs in the wood box next to the stove on Easter morning; of awakening one Christmas morning in the woods to discover dolls for her and her little sister hanging in a cypress tree; of her first experience of ice— “I kept holding my ice and would put some on the stove and grab it off. It was the most wonderful thing I could imagine—ice.”
“I have been very lucky.”
Florence’s perception of herself as having always been lucky and her gratitude to the people who played a part in her life is a constant theme in her telling of her life’s story.
“I have always been thankful for my mother and her Swedish family,” she said. Her mother was “an elegant, gentle woman,” the daughter of prosperous Swedish immigrants who “could have married anybody she wanted to,” but who married Noah Keen from Arcadia and spent most of the rest of her life making the best of often primitive living conditions. Her mother’s life was hard, but “she raised us with love, care, and gentle guidance.”
Despite the undiagnosed dyslexia that scrambled letters and numbers in Florence’s head and made her schoolwork so difficult that she simply gave up in the ninth grade and left school, she is grateful that the humiliation she suffered as a child instilled in her the determination to earn her high school diploma when she was 43.
Florence was grateful also for the 47-year career in cosmetology that grew out of her desperation to make something of her life after she left school at age 15. After graduating from the Lakeland beauty college in 1933, Florence went to work in Lucille’s Beauty Shop in the Bradford building in Fort Myers. A few years later, she opened her own shop, the Charm Beauty Salon on McGregor not far from the Edison estate where she was born. In the 1940s, she opened a shop next to the small house she built with her own money out on Piney Road in North Fort Myers. Florence would be elected president of the local cosmetology association and appointed Florida’s Historian of Cosmetology. She was sensibly proud of her accomplishments and “thankful for…all the wonderful teachers I have had in cosmetology.”
Florence learned late in life that her beloved little sister was schizophrenic, but this kind and patient woman—patient with herself, with others, and with life—summed up her life’s experience with Verda in these simple words: “I am thankful to have had a capable, beautiful and fun sister like her.”
And despite having to assume responsibility, in middle age, for her unwed sister’s baby, she was “thankful for the joy that this boy and now man, brought into my life.”
Though Florence Sansom’s life was no less fraught with disappointment, desperation and sometimes despair than any other life, her memories and the people in her life flow onto her canvases untainted by sorrow or bitterness. Perhaps the serenity of her mother’s spirit flowed through her and into her art, for her paintings are imbued with a tranquility that is very nearly sublime.
My Art is My Legacy
“The Indians lived around the lake at Moore Haven. Mother taught me to see how dignified they were, how they walked upright and held their bodies straight. They took care of themselves, adorned themselves. They were beautiful.”
Florence did not begin taking art lessons until the ‘60s, when she was in her forties. She took classes at night, after she closed her beauty shop. By 1963, her art was on display in public buildings.
Critics praised her work but were inclined to interpret it through a distorted lens, missing entirely the essence of its beauty—that it is pure of heart, its loveliness and innocence neither facile nor contrived, but a skillfully rendered purity of vision. For instance, one art critic commented on “Sunday Afternoon,” Sansom’s portrait of her parents in lawn chairs, that “The angles of the figures and chairs create powerful interplays of positive and negative space.” Florence, who was eminently practical, commented simply, “The chairs just happened to be that way…”
Another critic referred to the “quietly disturbing image of an outdoor gathering entitled ‘Picnic 1924.’” Florence said of this painting, “This was one of those wonderful family picnics.” Also, “I remember how happy everything was.”
“I used to worry about what the critics said,” Florence admitted at the age of 93. “Now, I’ve outlived the critics. Their legacy is Criticism; my legacy is Art.”
“I just loved that little doll. This was a little Indian boy with a turtle. Sister molded it with clay.”
We are thankful to you, Florence Keen Sansom, for the tranquility and cleansing sweetness of your art. It lights our way.