Abstract painter Larry Poons brings art to Miami nature center in January

Larry Poons has the appearance of an outsider. A man who professes a love of color and light, he is dressed completely in black, his attire more suited to a South Beach nightclub than the sun-drenched nature center on Key Biscayne.

Poons looks as if he’d be more at home in his old café on Bleeker Street, where Jack Kerouac and other hipsters from the Beat Generation used to hang out. Or in his old New York loft, where Bob Dylan and the band used to practice.

The contrast between Poons and his friends at the nature center is stark. Theodora H. Long, who runs the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center, has a penchant for Lily Pulitzer shifts emblazoned with wildly colorful flowers. But Poons and Long have been friends for some four decades — a relationship that led to an exhibition of the artist’s latest works, slated to open Jan. 26 in the nature center’s gallery.

“Larry has been a friend of my husband for 40-plus years through motorcycle racing,” Long said at a nature center luncheon for the artist earlier this month. Her husband’s family owns Long’s Motorcycle Sales, founded in 1936, the year before Poons, 76, was born. Poons gets his Seeley Condor G50 serviced there. He and Paula used to tool around New York on the bike, which is now reserved for one of the artist’s other loves — motorcycle racing. When he stopped by the nature center last year, Long planted the seed for the coming show: “Jokingly I said to Larry, ‘Wouldn’t you like to have a show here?’”

While a nature center, particularly one that is tucked away in a remote corner of the county, may seem an odd place to showcase world-class art, it actually makes sense. “The program began in 1969, and at that time the center was a hot-dog stand,” Long says. In 1985 Marjory Stoneman Douglas persuaded the school system to donate a trailer; 15 years later, the center moved to its new building, which was designed by Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.

When the center opened in 2000, Long looked at the stark white walls in the 28- by 8-foot space that now serves as the gallery. “Everything was just so white,” Long says of the blank walls in the room, originally designed as a small lecture hall. She turned to one of Florida’s best-known wilderness photographers to help relieve the unrelenting blandness. “I called Clyde Butcher in 2000 and he brought his photographs and filled the place,” Long says. Butcher’s black-and-white photographs of Bear Cut Preserve remained in the gallery for several months until the artist moved them to another showing of his work.

“I thought, what do we do now?” Long said, answering her own question, “Let’s call another artist.”

Since then, 95 different artists have exhibited at the gallery, which will mark its 14th anniversary in April. For the first four years, Long rotated shows every month. She since has cut the number of exhibitions in half, reserving the summer months for an exhibition by local art teachers.

In addition to showing established artists such as Poons and Butcher, the gallery often serves as a bridge for emerging artists. Recognizable names include mixed-media artist Meme Ferré, watercolorists Dorothy D. Green and Judith A. Maddox Saylor, marine biologist and filmmaker Colin Foord and sculptor Hans Feyerabend.

In October, the center showcased work by Jacqueline Roch, a pastel painter whose lifelike works depict the everyday tropical beauties such as mangoes and seascapes. Xavier Cortada, who has traveled as far as the South Pole to further his art, will be exhibiting next. His show will commemorate the 500th anniversary of Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon’s discovery of Florida. (The setting is especially apt because historical records indicate the explorer actually visited Key Biscayne.) Working with artists and scientists, Cortada plans to fill the gallery with 500 ceramic wildflowers that represent plants that were around in Ponce de Leon’s time. The opening is set for Dec.1.

The nature center receives 30 percent of whatever sales the artists make during their shows at the gallery, Long said. “It’s not a real money maker,” because the center only nets around $5,000 a year. All proceeds go toward operations at the center, which is dedicated to environmental education, particularly among local schoolchildren.

Long hopes the Poons exhibit will be a windfall for the center. Auction results indicate that some of his works have sold in the six-figures. “To sell a Larry Poons painting,” Long said — “If I could do that, I would be able to sleep at night.”

At the very least, the exhibit is sure to put the center on the map, given the artist’s place in the history of contemporary art. Poons has played a role in the development of various genres, including Op Art, Hard-edge painting, Color Field painting, Lyrical Abstraction and Abstract Expressionism. His works can be found in the permanent collections of many prominent museums, including the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, the Tate Gallery in London and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Poons envisions his exhibit possibly affecting a child in untold ways, helping him or her to acquire a different way of observing the world.

“Being exposed to art, in the sense that people are exposed here, is important,” he said during the Oct. 24 lunch in his honor. “It might be important for one out of 3,000 eventually. It’s important just to have it going on.”

By looking at nature, children are learning how to see, he says, and nature gets it right.

“There’s something always instinctively visually right about nature,” he said. “There’s no difference, to my eye, between looking at a great painting and looking at nature. Because painting, when it’s great, has the same immutable rightness, unquestioned rightness, about it.”

And that rightness is intrinsic to its nature.

“It doesn’t matter what the story behind the painting is,” he said, “whether this was painted for a whorehouse or it was painted for the Vatican. A great painting is a great painting.”