I was born and raised in the Sarasota/Bradenton area of the sunshine state. Growing up, as brightly as the sun could shine, all I saw were the shadows. It seems to be a common occurrence. You grow up in paradise; the beaches somehow seem like a punishment. So you move away, set out to see the world, and realize the world is a shadowy place, and all you want to do is jump back into the ocean. (Or maybe it is just me…?)
Anyway, one of the most popular attractions in the Tampa bay area is the Ringling Museum. You can’t graduate from high school without at least having gone on one field trip to the palatial, rose gardened grounds. John and Mable Ringling’s “modest” little mansion has been restored; now called then Ca d’Zan, you can take a tour through the halls and rooms they once spent their days and ask yourself, “what is wrong with me?” a hundred times before exiting those fanciest of doors. There is nothing quite like a mansion to make you feel like a bug who deserves to be squashed.
They filmed the movie “Great Expectations” on the Ringling grounds when I was in college, using the Cá d’Zan as a dilapidated mansion left to ruins. Both the grounds and the house were “designed” to look as if they were left exactly as it was the day Ms. Dinsmoor was abandoned at the altar. As I said, I was in college, so naturally two of my friends and I sneaked onto the set to take photos. The silver place settings were strewn about from “years” of weather, beautiful disarray where the wedding of the century would have occurred, had it not have been for that most ultimate heart break and humiliation of being stood up, in front of all your family and friends, on “the most important day of your life.” An upright piano was covered in leaves and sadness, and the table settings were thrown about on top of tattered table dressings. The following is a shot I took on black and white infrared film on the set…
The set was not open for visitors, and there honestly was a chase almost fit for a movie itself, as they realized they had unwanted company, and we ran for our lives. We at least ran from a very real charge of trespassing (not to mention a potential charge of theft, as we may or may not have stolen a gorgeous candelabra, seeing as how Ms. Dinsmoor was not taking proper care of it…) The “may or may not have” part aside, if you watch the movie “Great Expectations,” you can clearly see the candelabra in question in the opening credit sequence, as they must have filmed that part before the neighborhood hooligans arrived…
I have always been a dedicated student of literature, both in college and in my personal life, so even witnessing the theatrical version of a beautiful piece of literature, a classic for good reason, was a very meaningful experience for me, especially since I am also a life-long student of heartbreak, and it is rarely translated into prose of any kind as it was in that book. However, the history, as well as my associations with the Ringling Museum, go far beyond the brief trip Hollywood made to Sarasota, FL. One of my very dearest friends got married in the Ringling rose garden. I was the maid of honor; in fact, I was the only bridesmaid in her beautiful wedding. I had a broken ankle at the time, and instead of walking down the aisle before the bride, I had to stand with the groom, basically on one foot. I loved my friend dearly, and was very happy for her, but I honestly had always related to the woman in “Great Expectations,” having two children in a seven+ year relationship, and though I was never left at the altar, I always wanted there to be an altar in the first place, but my partner “didn’t believe in marriage…” Until a month into his second relationship after ours, anyway… So weddings have always been bitter sweet for me. Especially in such a beautiful location like the Ringling Rose Garden, with its fairy-tale like vibe, almost like Disney World, where you kinda feel like dreams really can come true. Well, other people’s dreams, anyway. I know; poor me. (Fast forward: I am now happily married, and my best friend is still married, having her nuptials blessed by all those many, many roses.)
Aside from weddings, the Ringling grounds was just a place to be visited at night. For all its art and culture, Sarasota is still a relatively small town, and it was better than the usual small town meeting place of a Walmart parking lot. While still illegal, the monitoring of uninvited guests was lax, so my friends and I had many midnight poetry readings, and my friends and family received many bountiful bouquets of “home-grown” roses, always accompanied by a story of a secret garden I had somewhere or other to harvest from. (Now you know, mom and dad…)
So after moving away from Florida for some time and returning with a new husband, I of course had to take him to visit the fabled home of John and Mable, assortment of cameras and films in hand. After hearing all my stories, I don’t know if any real place in the “real world” could have measured up, but he was certainly enthralled more by the masculine-type statues and scenes whereas I lean towards the roses and the mythology, the memories still seeming like yesterday, and the overgrowth still imagined as real as the now neatly kept grounds.
The Ringling Museum is a close neighbor to New College, which has its own beautiful architecture and borders the same gorgeous bay with a small bamboo “forest” clinking together, making eerie, echoing noises that only adds to the air of mystery I tried to maintain as we walked the grounds. My husband was reluctant and a little scared of trespassing as I walked right into the college, showing off the brilliantly sun-lit rooms, spiraling staircase and piano as if I lived there and was giving a tour of my family home.
I have photographed a couple weddings in the New College buildings as well as had a rushed, trespasser-style photo shoot, especially at the New College piano, in a room with wooden floors and amazing acoustics. I barely convinced him to stay long enough to quite literally steal a few shots before he convinced me to leave the bay-side building for the more safe-seeming grounds.
The banyan trees all over both the Ringling and New College grounds are beautiful backdrops for photos, which I have used many times. So beautiful, in fact, that the following photo taken with just an Instax Mini camera and a multi-image filter shows the grandiose scale of these very old (and very protected) trees in their mystical seeming splendor.
To sum up what has become somewhat of a review of The Ringling Museum, New College, and their mostly mutual grounds, it has always been a magical place for me. I have so many memories that occurred in this one location that have pretty much all been the sort of experiences that stand out as incredibly special times, that it very much seems like its own little world that borders on reality vs. a dreamlike state, leaning much more towards the dreamlike. To illustrate the magic it represents to me, I had to include the following photo, that was 100% taken by my husband, Justin Valentine, rather than being a self-portrait, because it unbelievably captures the magic more so than any words I could use to describe it…
See the “light” on my forehead, more or less in the shape of a crown? I know photography well enough to know that this is a sunspot, caused by shooting directly into the sun. But I have never, ever, not ever seen a “sunspot” take the shape of a crown. Or anything, really, more than an actual spot. And to be so perfectly placed? And so perfectly crown shaped? And so perfectly… magical? I couldn’t believe it when I saw it, and I still can’t believe it, now that almost a month has passed and I have had time to fully grasp this “happy accident.” Happy accidents are what mostly analogue photographers call something that was not intended, and therefore an accident, but in one way or another ends up being perfect in some way. This is the happiest, most perfect “accident” I have ever seen. And it just happened to occur while visiting one of the places I consider to be the most magical locations in my past and present experiences. This photo was taken on expired Polaroid Blue instant packfilm, and this is exactly the way it came out of the camera; not one stroke of Photoshop “magic” added. I swear. I think that this photo is proof that I am secretly the queen of unicorns. What other explanation is there? That is a rhetorical question, because there is no other explanation. Obviously. I am the queen of unicorns. And you thought you were reading some rambling blog entry from some instant film obsessed lunatic. Nope.
So, to end my tale of expectations, both great and broken, my story of growing up bored in the Sunshine State, I leave you with a state of consciousness where your mind is blown and you are realizing my secret identity as I reveal it slowly but surely. We can still be friends, even though I am royalty and a mythical creature, other than mythical creatures don’t exist, but I do.
And as all unicorns would do, queen or not, I couldn’t leave then and can’t leave you now without one last romp in the magical rose garden…
Magic is real, my dears, and is only hiding until you open your eyes and start paying attention. Take time to smell the roses, always. Otherwise, you will miss the flower fairies and the unicorns, and probably mistake a girl wearing a way too formal dress as a crazy person instead of what she is.
The Queen of the Unicorns