Okaloosa Island

The white sands of Okaloosa Island encompass only 875 acres, a narrow, three-mile stretch of land between Fort Walton Beach and Destin in the Florida Panhandle.  Although part of the larger Santa Rosa Island, reaching forty miles to Navarre Beach, Okaloosa Island remains isolated from the larger area, a military training ground reserved by the United States Air Force.
(pictured, Okaloosa Island, 2011, an original silkscreen collage, combining photography, drawing, and paint by George Rodrigue, 16×38 inches, edition 90; click photo to enlarge)
As a child I walked often to the edge of the island and peered through the fence at the mysterious deserted beach on the other side.  In the other direction, I walked a mile to the pier, a giant dock stretching ¼ mile into the Gulf of Mexico, surrounded by hotels and tourists on the most populated part of the beach (the area pictured in George’s print).
We moved to the island in 1977, trading our neighborhood house and yard across town for a condo and a view.  From our front door and balcony at Emerald Isle, I looked both directions, staring every day of my childhood up and down the oft-deserted coastline surrounding our building.  Even then I tried, much like today as I watch George paint in his studio, to concentrate on the moment, the rare experience of living on one of America’s most beautiful beaches, or of watching one of America’s greatest artists at work.
(George Rodrigue paints cats in his Carmel studio)
Dolores Pepper, my wild side, was born on this beach.  But that’s another story, and I’ve already covered it in detail here.  My mother recalled my teenage years as me waving hello or good-bye to the boys, visiting on spring break or family vacations. 
It was on this beach that I first met a Cajun, an Hebert from Lafayette, introducing him as He-burt to my mother, until he corrected me with ‘A Bear.’  We dated for a week each summer for years, despite the fact that my lanky 5’ 10” frame towered over his stocky 5’ 5” one.  Each year he dug a hole in that sugary, soft, cool sand, where I stood while we kissed in the moonlight, the waves breaking behind us.

(pictured, Hebert, Yes; A Bear, No, from Rodrigue’s Saga of the Acadians, now on view at the LSU Museum of Art – see the bottom of this post)

This was my beach, and I felt responsible for it.  At night I warned tourists of the dangers of sharks swimming close to the shore.  Early morning, my sister Heather and I collected beer cans and cigarette butts, cleaning up after the spring breakers.  We protested as people uprooted sea oats to decorate their sand castles, and we walked, every day, up and down, taking it all in.
I lived on this beach for eight years, and my mom for another ten. She always knew where to find me.  Heather and I wore our bathing suits under our school clothes from March through May, running straight to the beach from the bus, rather than miss one minute of sun to change.
I grew up holding my mom’s hand as we jumped the waves; ignoring her call as I swam into deep water to the sandbar; watching her, dressed for work, as she stood at the end of the boardwalk hollering “Wendy Anne!,” because the dishwasher remained full and the living room dusty. She patched my jellyfish stings with meat tenderizer and lectured me endlessly on the dangers of sun exposure.
Heather and I dove for sand dollars, swimming all the way back to the beach just to show our mom, and then all the way back to the sandbar, returning them home. We slid on homemade cardboard sleds with our dad on the mountainous dunes, now mostly swept away.
Despite all of those years and memories, Heather and I can’t find a single picture from the beach.  We didn’t own a camera, a float, or a beach ball.  I don’t think we took anything to the beach but a towel.   Once a week I carried my allowance, a dollar in quarters, walking up from the beach to the nearby Tom Thumb for an icy and a few turns at Pac Man.
(pictured, ‘The Next Generation,’ nephews William and Wyatt)
George Rodrigue created the silkscreen Okaloosa Island for me.  My dad still has a place there, and we visit every few years.
This year, September 28 – October 2, we make a special visit to the Miracle Strip, when the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts teams up with the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation for a series of school visits, workshops, and fundraisers, all benefiting the arts in education on the Florida Gulf Coast and throughout Louisiana. (We’ll post a list of events with details at www.georgerodrigue.com next month).
Such visits are par for the course in George’s home state, particularly in south Louisiana, such as the events surrounding the current exhibition at the LSU Museum of Art in Baton Rouge.   At last I have a chance to give back to my hometown, to a place that gave me so much, a place I never once took for granted.
For more information on the silkscreen Okaloosa Island, including pricing and availability, contact Rodrigue Studio

For a related post I hope you enjoy “Remembering Old Biloxi,” in this week’s Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans

We’re in Baton Rouge this weekend for the opening of “Blue Dogs and Cajuns on the River,” a collection of eighty-five original Rodrigue paintings at the Louisiana State University Museum of Art, July 23rd to September 18th, 2011.  For a list of related events with George Rodrigue, visit here.  

For updates with photographs and more, follow us on twitter:  @George_Rodrigue and @wendyrodrigue

13 thoughts on “Okaloosa Island

  1. Having grown up in the beach town of Lake Worth, Florida (below West Palm Beach on the East Coast), your musings brought back so many wonderful memories!

  2. When I was in college at the now Univ. Southern Mississippi in the late 50's, as soon as we finished the Spring term a group of us girls would head to Destin and stay for a few days. At that time there wasn't all the "tourist" stuff that is now there.

    This past May, my son Bryan, got married on the beach. It was a beautiful and fun filled wedding and brought back many, many memories

  3. Thank you both for writing in- Living on the beach was a wonderful way to grow up. Even though the area is built up now, it retains its beauty and pull. How I wish we still had my mom's old place! Many thanks for reading- Wendy

  4. This is where we go every year with my children. I'm drawn to it more than all the new farther away beaches. Like you I have childhood memories here. I love this print! Your writings are very wonderful. Thanks for sharing. Meg, the LSU MOA photographer.

  5. Thank you, Meg. I'm so glad you enjoyed the post. George and I so appreciate your excellent photography during opening weekend at the museum. We look forward to seeing you again soon for the next round!

  6. thanks Wendy, I am from Chalmette, La. I came to the Florida area as a kid and loved it. It took me 54 years to move here and although I love the swamps and bayous of La. everytime I walk out on the beautiful sands it takes my breath away.

  7. Hi Wendy,

    I have been a Blue Dog art fan for years, but I just discovered your blog. The past few days have been very enjoyable as I've sifted through your various and interesting musings. Thanks so much for sharing. I am a Pensacola native and am very excited about George's newest silkscreen print with the Pensacola Pier (I think at least) in the background. Looking forward to more character-rich thoughts from you.

    Chloe Kowalski

  8. Hi Chloe- Thank you for your message. Hope we see you at the Florida Gulf Coast events late September. I'll post the details under 'More Art and News' at the top right of this page within the next few weeks. I can't tell you how excited I am to go 'home' and not only share George's art, but also gain some great blogging material for stories!

    Many thanks for reading- Wendy

  9. Hi Wendy,
    My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blog posts about Okaloosa Island to share on our site and I came across your post…If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you 🙂

  10. I too grew up in Ft Walton Beach, a couple of blocks from the bay on the other side of the Bridge. Went to Meigs Jr High and Choctaw HS. I bought this print! Long time admirer of George and the Blue Dog but this was my first purchase but won't be my last.

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