by Chuck Faulkner and Edward
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 anothers 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.
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.
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.
11 X 15 inches, "Studio, Rock Harbor"
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.
& Art Around Florida
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,
The Best Antiques Guide Magazine
in the U.S.!
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