Harry J. Sontag "Mandalay"
11 x 15 inches, "Manadalay", Rock Harbor

by Chuck Faulkner and Edward Odell
Harry J. Sonntag lived for art alone. He was born in Astoria, New York, on October 12, 1900. At the age of 16 he studied at the Pratt Institute of Art in New York, showing great talent and excellent grades. Harry also studied at the Art Students League for a few years. He left school saying "everyone is just copying what has been done, or copying one another‘s style." Harry took odd jobs around Manhattan to keep himself in brushes and paint and to cover his rent. Sometime in the 1940s, Harry lost his entire art studio and most of his works in a fire. He went out on the road, hitching rides that took him from Wisconsin to California and Washington state, before ending in the Florida Keys. With little money and not much use for it, Harry found a spot by a small bay near what is now called Rock Harbor.
Sonntag built a wooden shack down by the water from driftwood and other debris found along the shore. Being close to the water gave him access to fish and seaweed for food and bathing facilities. He also had a garden and grew greens and tomatoes.
Harry J. Sonntag, Key Largo
Locals recall him as always having a fire going and he would use the smoke to cover his body to keep off the mosquitoes. Harry was always inspired by the Keys sunsets and nature. This marshland and tropical setting was all he wanted as his backdrop.
After using his little shack for his home and studio for two years, Harry took over an abandoned Key lime packing shed along U.S. One and converted it into the Key Largo Art Gallery. It was perfect for his needs and the rent was cheap! Free! Harry painted from Key Largo to Rock Harbor and Tavernier and south to Key West, capturing nature at its best. He had no transportation so he walked or hitched a ride wherever he went.
Harry would put a price on his paintings and that was it. No matter how badly he needed the money, lower offers were refused or ignored. Sales apparently were not a major concern. According to an article published in 1952 in the Miami News, those who stopped often found his art gallery closed. The newspaper writer quoted Mr. Sonntag, "Art is the universal language and my desire is to bring beauty to the multitude so people may realize how lovely is this world." In the Keys, the writer noted, "He has found greater happiness and satisfaction than he has ever known in his not un-colorful life." Harry stayed in the Keys 'til around 1955 or 56 when he landed on St.Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Harry Sonntag, artist
16 X 20 inches, signed H.J. Sonntag

In 1992 Chuck Faulkner came upon a woman cleaning out a storage unit in Kissimmee, Florida. She told them how she and her husband, in 1960, found a bag of artwork under a bed in a rooming house on St.Thomas. They contacted the landlord and he did not want the art. They brought the items back to the mainland and put them in storage. She no longer had any interest in the paintings and suggested Faulkner take them. Faulkner at that time did not realize what a treasure he had in his possession.
In the bag with the art were newspaper clippings from the Miami News dated 1952, '53 and '54. The interviews mentioned where Harry went to school and brief words about where he had traveled. Faulkner was able to obtain student records and grades from the schools Sonntag had attended. Mr. Faulkner traced Harry to St. Petersburg, only to discover he had passed away in 1991, just one year before Faulkner had found the collection.
In July, 2000, four pieces of art and a history board about the artist were displayed at the City Hall in Kissimmee, Florida. An article about the show was published in the Orlando Sentinel. Soon after, Faulkner and Odell were astonished when a local woman approached city hall and claimed to have known the artist in the 1950s in the Keys. Faulkner was put in touch with Lyda "Pete" Hadley and met with her. He could not believe his eyes. Lyda had old photos which her husband, Jim, had taken of Harry working in his studio and at home tending his garden. The pictures were proof sheets with over twenty photos on them. Some of the photos on the proof sheets were already in the collection when Faulkner got them, indicating Sonntag got the photos from Lyda and Jim.

Harry J. Sonntag, artist
11 X 15 inches, "Studio, Rock Harbor" 1951

Lyda told the story as if it were yesterday. While walking along the beach, she and her husband came upon Harry's home by a bay. Sonntag greeted them, something he seldom did with strangers. They talked for what seemed like hours, said Lyda. She gave Faulkner a photo of herself, as a young artist, in Harry's studio. She then presented Faulkner with a signed watercolor given to her by Harry many years before. As if that was not enough, Lyda pulled out a short story she had written while taking a creative writing course at the University of Miami in 1952. It was called Portrait of an Artist.
Lyda, in her short story, describes how Harry talked about his "guardian angel," a pelican who was always around Harry's camp. "Whenever I'm hungry, she comes along and shows me right where the fish are." Lyda wrote about another time when a hurricane was approaching the Keys. Lyda and her husband tried to persuade the artist to come to Miami with them. Harry would not hear of it. "No," he replied quietly, "this is my place here, with nature, and nature will take care of me. The old pelican is not going to Miami, why should I?" When they returned to the Keys the area was demolished. Through the mangroves they saw the old pelican sitting on a rock, basking in the sun. They came into a clearing and there was Harry cooking fish. Lyda commented, "I guess this really was his Guardian Angel.”
Harry found his spirituality in nature. Faulkner believes that is why all of this came together in the fashion it did! Lyda “Pete” Hadley passed away six weeks after meeting Faulkner. He believes Harry is up there looking over things.



About the author:
Mr. Chuck Faulkner is a longtime resident of Central Florida. Mr. Edward Odell is the CEO of Worldwide Technology, Inc. Odell and Faulkner work together promoting and telling the history of the Sonntag Collection to the art world. You can contact Chuck Faulkner and Ed Odell at www.wetinc-art.com or Worldwide Entertainment Technology, Inc. P.O. Box 22383, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830.


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