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Billy Solitario: Gulf Life And Art, Intertwined

A Mississippi Gulf Coast native son pours his passion for the barrier island waters and the weather he intimately knows onto the canvas.

Billy Solitario painting on the beach

Billy Solitario’s art is inspired by the Gulf Coast waters, beaches, and open skies he’s been exposed to since he was a young child.

Growing up in coastal Mississippi, Billy Solitario fashioned Huck Finn-style makeshift rafts to navigate the bayou behind his house to explore the woods and marsh. In the evenings he'd sketch the scenes from his explorations into the marsh and bayous on the back of his father's naval engineering schematics, brought home from Ingall's Shipyard. Solitario';s natural gifts as an artist would have allowed him to flourish anywhere, but a lifetime spent on boats fishing and running Mississippi's barrier islands left an indelible mark on his canvas.

Exploring the shores of Mississippi's federally protected barrier islands with Solitario is not dissimilar from walking these desolate beaches with any native son or daughter, except when he grabs a female blue crab up from the clear shallows with his bare hands. Standing in the light surf with his jeans rolled up and his 26-foot Pathfinder anchored nearby, Solitario has more than a passing eye for Mississippi's coastal beauty.

Cadmium Claws

With the unhappy crab in fighting mode and minding his painting fingers, Solitario points, ";Look at these colors — the blues, the reds, the oranges, and even these pinks here. Blue crabs have worked so hard to make all these beautiful colors — they're exceptional."

Solitario is a native of the Mississippi coast, resident of New Orleans, and at the vanguard of a generation of coastal artists finding their own style drawing inspiration from the state's coastal waters and barrier islands. At 46, Solitario's work with oil paints is already gathering a dedicated following, including attention and acquisition from the permanent collection of the Ogden Museum of Fine Art in New Orleans where he has a flourishing gallery on Magazine Street.

Raised in Gautier on the coast a few miles from Jimmy Buffett's childhood home, boating and fishing was a rite of passage for every local kid. First push-poling on jon boats, then on 14-foot Hobie cats, he grew up secreting off to Round and then Horn Island with friends, always bringing his sketchbooks.

Citrus with 2 Stone II

Solitario's still-life paintings incorporate fresh-caught seafood — whether oysters, blue crab, or redfish from the Mississippi Sound — after running boats on weekends with friends or on longer expeditions out to the islands alone to fish, paint, reflect. While these catches allow him to explore the colors and nobleness of these creatures, it's the larger expanse of nature that truly drives him.

Storm Over Emerald Waters

Solitario's landscapes, with their towering spectacles of building thunderstorms over windswept sand dunes and piney trees on Horn Island, or out over open water with shrimp boats, or oystermen going about their work as the sky grows dark and threatening is where his work becomes truly iconic. From the Pathfinder's tuna tower, he watches afternoon thunderstorms explode up into the thick Gulf Coast atmosphere above the white sandy islands, and these colors and the immensity of nature seem to breathe their way onto canvas.

Akin to the cowboy poets of the west, these coastal artists paint their prose and rhymes on the canvas.

Nature has a way of reminding us that we're not in charge. As large and as big as a shrimp boat or a freighter is, or as strong and as safe as you may feel, when it comes to nature, it's a whole other level larger. And on the water, we're even more subject to the whims of nature."

Shearwater Oysterman

He now takes his 12-year-old son with him on many of these expeditions, or he can be found teaching him to sail on their 13-foot Bravo Hobie cat they keep on Eagle Point on the sound, making water as inescapable and intertwined into his son's life as it was for his own.

Solitario's landscapes perfectly embody that thickness and gravity of the Mississippi and Gulf Coast's atmosphere and waters, but these visuals would be impossible to imagine without his lifetime access to boating. This fact easily comes through in his work, to the point where one can almost taste the saltwater as a squall line freshens the wind and ospreys soar high above. billysolitario.com

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Author

Troy Gilbert

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

An award-winning feature writer, Troy has authored four books of boating stories, and on regional cooking. You can find him either typing on his back porch in Lakeview, New Orleans, while sipping wine from his grandparents old wine glasses, or traveling throughout the Gulf Coast, Caribbean, and Europe writing about boating, culture, and his passion, competitive sailing.