In the sun-splashed studio at her condo overlooking Lake Osceola, artist Elizabeth “Cissy” Barr fills canvases with images beloved by Central Floridians, from towering stands of lakeside cypress at Kraft Azalea Gardens and peacocks preening on Genius Drive to tabebuia trees in glorious bloom and the sea-oat studded dunes of New Smyrna Beach, where she lived from 1989 until 2016.
This issue’s cover painting, a scene of azaleas in full bloom inside Winter Park’s 48-acre Genius Drive Nature Preserve, is part of the collection at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, which is supported by the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation. The foundation owns the preserve, which is not typically open to the public.
At 90, the acclaimed artist and Orlando native is more prolific than ever. She still takes on commissioned projects and devotes herself to creating paintings she often sells at auctions to support various charitable organizations.
“I might be slowing down physically, but not creatively,” she says. “All I want to do is paint, paint, paint. It’s my joy.”
Like many an artistic path, Barr’s was a winding one. After graduating from the University of Georgia, she took a job with the U.S. Department of State in Egypt.
“It was 1950 and, you have to understand, back then it was somewhat unusual for a young, single woman to go off by herself halfway around the world,” she says. “Here was this wide-eyed Orlando girl seeing wonders she had never imagined.”
It sparked Barr’s interest in painting, and she took classes in charcoal drawing at a studio in Cairo. After completing her stint at the State Department, she returned to Florida and accepted a job as secretary to Martin Andersen, the legendary power broker/owner of the Orlando Sentinel.
She later married Graham Barr, twin brother of Andersen’s wife, Gracia, who is remembered as one of Central Florida’s most notable philanthropists, with major donations to support the Orlando Museum of Art, the Orlando Science Center and numerous other institutions.
Barr put painting aside to raise her three children, but took it up again after opening a store — Cissy’s Ye Olde Antique Shoppe — on Edgewater Drive. She originally focused on portraiture, but found it “too confining.”
“It didn’t speak to my spirit of adventure,” says Barr, who traveled widely with her late husband on extended trips to China, through Europe and across the U.S.
At her store, she displayed and promoted the work of local artists and, in 1973, was instrumental in launching the Winter Park Autumn Festival, now held annually on the second weekend of October.
“At that time, the Winter Park Spring Art Festival had grown into a juried event that we felt was looking too much toward artists from outside of Florida,” she says. “We wanted an art festival that fully supported the work of local artists.”
It was at the initial Autumn Art Festival that Barr sold her first piece. “I got $100 and I thought, gee, maybe I really can make a go of this,” she says.
And 44 years later, she’s still going strong.
— Bob Morris