Oil Painter Blair Updike and Writer Shelby Little

Preserving Authentic Florida with Oil Painter & Mayor Blair Updike

Oil Painter Blair Updike is a whip-smart Central Floridian, a conservation artist, old Florida enthusiast, and small town mayor. If you want to be inspired by both a creative and strong female voice, Blair Updike is an ideal subject.

I sat down with Blair in early March, at her 1920s-era blush pink studio that has enviable heart-of-pine floors, a collection of salvaged, antique chairs and a weathered bull skull on the hearth. A pair of cats watched us through a window screen. The sweet scent of orange blossoms, from a nearby grove, wafted inside. Blair's artwork was spread throughout: some standing guard by the door, some framed and hung in the hallway, and others leaning leisurely among her paint brushes and easels. Their placement reflects Blair’s harried schedule as an award-winning oil painter, mother of two, and engaged local citizen. 

Blair Updike oil painting
Lake Wales, Florida​​

Video: Meet Florida Soul Painter Blair Updike

Blair Updike is Highland Park, Florida Mayor and Polk Forever Board Member

Blair is currently serving as Highland Park mayor, and last election cycle she participated in a bi-partisan political committee called Polk Forever, which successfully ushered in Polk County legislation to protect Polk's wildlands. 

If you’re wondering where Polk County is located, pull up a map of Florida and place your thumb between Tampa and Orlando—that smudge mark on your screen represents the fourth largest county in Florida (by land mass), and also one of the top ten, fastest growing counties in the state. 

Blair Updike Oil Painting of Lake Wales Orange Grove
Lake Wales, Florida. ​​Soon after painting this piece, the grove was sold and a mobile home park is planned in its place.

Video: Blair Updike Works to Preserve Polk County’s Wildlands

A Tireless Advocate for Land Conservation in Florida

 Nature Conservancy First Place Florida Winner, Blair Updike
"Florida Trinity,​​" Blair Updike's tryptic that won the Nature Conservancy's statewide competition in 2021. The three pieces feature native creatures—gator, turkey and panther—with native flowers like lilies and orchids. 

During election season 2022, Blair Updike participated in  Polk Forever, which worked to bring back conservation funding in Polk County, after nearly a ten-year absence. Polk Forever is intentionally bi-partisan and describes themselves as a “group of conservation minded volunteers working to protect Polk’s remaining wildlands.” Polk Forever had almost no funding but had a very active board. Blair says she met a lot of people she wouldn't have otherwise met.

"Conservation isn't partisan. It's become politicized and it shouldn't be. It's to everyone's benefit. We all need good quality water. We all need breathing space."

Blair Updike

Polk Forever was critical in getting the Polk County Environmental Lands Acquisition and Management Referendum passed with a vote of 60% Polk County, Florida residents in favor.

A few of the reasons why Polk County is environmentally significant and sensitive, Blair mentions in the video: home of the Green Swamp, Polk County Highlands, Peace River, and the Kissimmee Basin, the headwaters of the Florida Everglades.

Blair Updike Oil Painting
Tiger Creek​​

How did this bipartisan group effectively work together to protect the environment?

I wanted to believe that it's possible in Central Florida—in this political climate—to do meaningful work for the environment. So I asked Blair how the bipartisan Polk Forever board came together effectively. "It mattered enough. That's all there was to it," Updike replied.

"We had people who were hunters and airboaters and then we had people who were counting the butterflies, but the fact was that without us both cooperating, we were not going to make it. We had to put our differences aside and try to find the middle narrative. And people did. They didn't love each other the whole time. But we worked together and got it done."

Blair Updike

"We've developed a trust," Blair said. "Now there's this network of Polk County people who didn't know each other before but now know how to work together very effectively. It's pretty cool."

And that cooperative, bi-partisan group of airboaters and butterfly counters got the referendum passed. Seven million ($7M!) dollars in funding per year for next twenty years, plus 70% matching funds. You can really get something done with those kind of financial resources.

The funds are to buy lands outright or to fund conservation easements on critical lands. That will help protect water quality or could be a crucial part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor for animals to walk through.

Video: Influences and Reading List with Blair Updike

Talking Florida books with Blair Updike felt a lot like bringing a knife to a gunfight. Blair is an eighth generation Floridian, a history buff, and a Stetson University English Major. Watch how she schools me on A Land Remembered—top of my reading list now!

Essential Florida Reading List:

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (and all her other books!)
  • The Everglades: River of Grass, Margory Stoneman Douglas
  • A Land Remembered, Patrick Smith
  • The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, Michael Grunwald
  • An Assumption of Sovereignty, Harry A Kersey Junior

This conversation isn’t finished: How can we get proper recognition for Zora Neale Hurston and her hometown of Eatonville? Anyone have ideas? I’d love to help.

Video: Seminole Portraits of Mike Osceola and Durante Blais-Billie

Respecting & Painting Seminoles

Blair Updike holds respect for Florida's indigenous people and has painted portraits of modern Seminole people and a scene at Dade Battlefield, where the Seminoles defeated the United States Army in 1835. Mike Osceola and Miss Florida Seminole, Durante Blais-Billie, agreed to have Updike paint their likeness. Blair did not paint these portraits to sell or for profit, though she does have a waiting list for commissioned portraits. Instead, Osceola and Blais-Billie's portraits were passion projects and gifts for Osceola and Blais-Bille.

Video: How Blair Updike Got into Painting

Blair explained to me that after high school, (where we originally met) she took time off from oil painting to study English literature and contemplate a law degree. Fast forward five years and it was a moment of play, when her second daughter was splashing in a fountain, that inspired Blair to return to oil painting. And once she started again, she couldn’t be stopped. She took oil painting classes at Polk State and established a business to manage her expenses, taxes and new career as an artist.

How Does Oil Painting Match Blair's Personality?

Before we settled into our wooden chairs, Blair and I remarked on how creative people can use so many ways to express themselves, yet often there is one outlet that really works for them.

"Sometimes you have a medium that matches your personality," Blair said. When I asked her how oil painting matches her personality, she chuckled and replied, “We’re both messy.” But true to form, there are layers to her explanation.

Blair likes that she can pause an oil painting; she can put it down and come back to it at a later date—and that doesn’t disturb the quality of the piece. She also likes that her brushes and paints survive too, if she sets them aside until she returns to them again.

Blair Updike oil painting
Grove near Bok Tower​​

And as I reflect back on our conversation, I am struck by how Blair’s essence is wrapped up there, in her explanation. The 1920s studio, the collection of antique chairs, the weathered bull skull hung like a prized sculpture, and the presence of her adopted, stray cats. 

Blair wants to preserve what’s here today for tomorrow. That explanation applies to both the stories she tells in her oil paintings, and to her advocacy for Florida land conservation. She’s preserving an older, more authentic Florida for a later date. And that’s something we can all get behind.

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