Avian Passion

A Dunedin wildlife artist gets up-close and personal with his subjects–Florida Birds

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It’s another work day for Ernest C. Simmons – or Ernie as his friends call him. Today he’ll be hooking up the 18-foot Gladesmen skiff to his trusty four-wheel Jeep and heading from his Dunedin home north a few hours to the Chassahowitzka River. He’ll do a little fishing, maybe, but a lot of shooting. His weapon of choice: a Canon 10D. His ammo: a 100-400 lens.

Back in his studio, Simmons takes his prey of digital photography and goes to work on the computer. He categorizes and stores his captures of ospreys and gators and herons and anhinga into a neatly organized online filing system. After several decades, he has amassed thousands of photos both print and digital, ready to pull up and use as subjects in the exquisite wildlife paintings he creates.

An avid outdoorsman, Simmons is a natural, painting Florida birds set in detailed narratives of nature. His work, which can sell as high as $28,000, is in demand among wildlife art collectors. The prestigious Raymond James Financial Art Collection holds 15 pieces of his work.

Spending time in natural Florida settings, observing and photographing, is what sets this wildlife artist apart from others.

“I always have my camera with me,” Simmons says. “I get inspiration from seeing the wildlife.” His favorite locations to photograph: “Ocala around the Silver River … and I go to the Chassahowitzka River a lot, and Honeymoon Island is a great place.”

His current large-scale painting portrays an eagle attempting to steal a fish from the clutches of an osprey in mid-flight. All components – the eagle, the osprey, the fish and the clouds – are studies from Simmons’ photographs. Each is painted in fine detail — feathers are created using brushes as fine as eyelashes and the billowing clouds on a bluebird sky would make Michelangelo jealous.

swallowtail kites

Simmons began painting while attending Clearwater High School. He is a self-taught painter and a self-admitted bird geek.   “After high school I immersed myself in birds and bird photography and painting birds,” he says.

In 1980, he won the Florida Duck Stamp competition with his portrait “Pintail Duck in Flight.” In 1997, Simmons was chosen as Florida Ducks Unlimited artist of the year. A few years later, he was commissioned by the Florida National Parks and Monuments Association to paint the Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks.

After moving around West Central Florida, he settled in a historic bungalow in Dunedin and built a studio of rough-cut cypress in his backyard. It serves as a gallery, workspace and storage unit for his fishing gear and a wooden canoe that hangs poetically from the ceiling. He sells mainly through commissions and chooses to exhibit at only a handful of high-end art shows annually. His next show will at Art Harvest in Dunedin November 3-4. He also holds two studio open houses each year; the next will be on Saturday October 20.

To see more of Ernest C. Simmons art or to contact the artist, go to www.ernestsimmons.com

Story and Photo By Marcia Biggs

Article written for Destination Tampa Bay magazine