Primordial Reflections with Artist Michele Oka Doner

A new Ringling Museum of Art exhibition informed by the artist's memories of childhood touches on Florida’s rapidly changing ecosystem

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As a child, Michele Oka Doner spent a great deal of her time outdoors. The Miami Beach-born and -raised, New York City-based multimedia artist has dedicated her career to interpreting her play-filled days in Florida in the 1940s and ’50s—a time before out-of-control real estate development, congested highways, and even air conditioning.  

“We lived outside, at the beach, walking around and looking at things, sitting under trees for shade,” says Oka Doner. “As I grew up, I learned ways of addressing the world around me.”  

The results of those early explorations now inform The True Story of Eve (through June 2), an exhibition at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota. Featuring more than 60 works dating back to the 1960s, Oka Doner says the presentation is not a retrospective, but rather a collection of “pieces of a larger puzzle that fit together in some new way.” The show pays homage to Florida’s unique ecosystem while also reminding us of its fragile state.

A prolific artist, Oka Doner’s technique is varied to say the least. She works with paper, wood, bronze, silver, wax, glass, and ceramics, and has a penchant for natural, found materials. Her themes draw from childhood memories, such as family trips to cities on Florida’s Gulf Coast, including Sanibel, Fort Myers, and Sarasota. “Those were long drives from Miami Beach on the Tamiami Trail,” recalls the artist. “Pastoral in some sense.” 

Oka Doner first discovered her tools of expression as a college student and she remains inspired by her idyllic past: “I carry those days with me, and I think that’s what artists do, what they’re compelled to do,” she says. “Over the years, my work has become a narrative that I keep writing, adding new chapters, or a saga that’s both personal and transcendent.” 

Although the artist’s work has been exhibited at notable institutions across the United States and Europe, this showcase at the Ringling (which owns three of her works as part of its permanent collection but had never before hosted an exhibit of her work) is rather close to her heart. “Showing at the Ringling is very special,” says Oka Doner. “It’s almost like an extension of my childhood.” 

Story Credits:

Text by Kelley Marcellus

Michele Oka Doner portrait by Marc Heldrens; all other photos courtesy of Michele Oka Doner; artwork photos courtesy of Ringling Museum of Art and Michele Oka Doner

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