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    Subtly shaded turtles unveiled

    By LISA GREENE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 17, 2001


    SAFETY HARBOR -- They aren't what you would expect from Peter Max.

    That is, if you can know what to expect from an artist so unconventional that he has painted a jumbo jet. And if you can know what to expect from anyone painting 6-foot-long, fiberglass sea turtles. But the turtles Max unveiled here Friday for a Clearwater Marine Aquarium charity event don't feature wild swirls of abstract color.

    They're not covered with Max icons -- hearts, angels, sailboats, the Statue of Liberty.

    By Max standards, they're downright subtle.

    Max decided he wanted them that way.

    "At first, I was going to make them very painterly," he said.

    But when he began to sketch designs, he changed his mind. Epic sweeps and loud designs would detract from the details of the turtle shells, he thought.

    "I thought how nice it would be if they were very clean colors," he said.

    Max began with the saturated bright and intense colors he loves. He blended different shades of similar colors for each turtle and gave each one a contrasting base.

    The first turtle glows orange, blending to yellow, then back to orange, with fuchsia back flippers. The second is covered with tones of yellow and green. The third is bright blue and periwinkle with two small white stars dotting the shell.

    Last month, Max agreed to paint one turtle for the Tampa Bay Tour of Turtles, an event designed to combine public art with environmental awareness. Sponsors can underwrite a turtle painted by a local artist. The tour plans to display more than 300 in the Tampa Bay areaand auction most for charity next spring.

    The Max turtles will be returned to the artist next year instead of being auctioned. Even so, tour officials say, getting him on board was a coup.

    Max, one of America's best-known artists, painted fiberglass cows live on NBC's Today show for a similar New York City charity event. But he has since turned down other cities. He said yes to the Tampa Bay area because of the tour's environmental theme. And once he got the first turtle, he asked to paint two more.

    One turtle, sponsored by Eckerd Youth Alternatives, will be displayed at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. A second, sponsored by TradeWinds Beach Resorts, will stay at the TradeWinds Island Grand on St. Pete Beach. The tour is looking for a Tampa sponsor for the third.

    The turtles almost didn't make it to Tampa. Airport inspectors insisted on unpacking the turtles. The trio missed their flight and had to be put on a last-minute truck, arriving at about 1 a.m. Friday.

    Last night, while the turtles were somewhere in Georgia, Max did a tour of his own -- an after-hours visit to the aquarium.

    The artist, who has a flair for big art and dramatic gestures, was quiet as he studied the turtles, which are at the aquarium because they are too sick or hurt to live in the open ocean and too rare to let die.

    Max saw turtles with tumors, turtles with shells cracked by boat collisions, turtles injured by cold, turtles struck by mysterious illnesses.

    Altogether, Max saw 59 sea turtles -- the most the aquarium has ever held.

    "What happened to his flipper?" Max asked senior biologist Glenn Harman as Harman held up one sea turtle, its walnut shell gleaming in a starburst pattern.

    "It probably got bit off by a shark at some point," Harman said.

    Max shook his head as Harman told him about turtles discovered in the Florida Keys, almost too sick to swim, some unable to raise their heads enough to breathe properly. The aquarium is now caring for four of them.

    The experience was still on Max's mind Friday morning. He unveiled the turtles at Syd Entel Galleries, where his paintings are on exhibit until Feb. 25.

    "I was surprised and I was saddened by the condition of these turtles," he said.

    He told the crowd he plans to do something else to help the aquarium raise money.

    The artist and his work struck the right note with Chelsey Lilly, 13. Lilly, a student at Eckerd Wilderness Educational System, was at the exhibit Friday because Eckerd Youth Alternatives is sponsoring a turtle. She hopes to become an artist.

    "I think they're very beautiful," she said. "They inspire me to want to continue to do art. Maybe they'll make people have a different outlook on nature and the environment."

    Harman liked them, too.

    "They're really cool," he said. "They look like big mom turtles on the beach."

    Max will attend a reception at the gallery, at 247 Main St. in Safety Harbor, tonight from 6 to 9 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

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