By Blake Giles
Perhaps Loyd Florence’s artistic talents were first evidenced with the model airplanes he built as a child in Athens.
Florence’s model airplanes were not the plastic toys that were sold by the thousands in toy stores. Childhood acquaintance Pat Epps said the balsa-wood models were “Smithsonian quality.”
Epps, son of Athens aviation legend Ben Epps, knows his airplanes. He’s spent 55 years in the aviation industry, and continues to be involved in the family’s business, Epps Aviation at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport.
“Loyd was a model builder,” Epps said. “They were excellent models. I remember in particular a bi-plane with a two-foot wingspan, a Grumman Gulfhawk.”
Those model airplanes are long gone, but still very much in evidence are Florence’s metal sculptures from later in life. Those sculptures are featured in an art exhibit at the Lyndon House Arts Center, July 24 – October 23, 2021.
His grandson, McGinnis Leathers, has been the driving force in putting together the show, but he admits there is much he does not know about Florence’s artistic endeavors. As for the Florence himself, he seemed to have an appreciation that his aviation exploits might be of interest to the next generation. But he never created a written trail about his metal works. Most of his pieces are unsigned and undated.
Florence died Oct. 2, 2007, in Athens after a brief illness. An extensive 720-word obituary detailed his flying, his business acumen and his community endeavors, but nary a word mentioned that he had sculpted metal.
Three of his children, Ann Marie Leathers and Billy Florence of Athens and Loree Smith of Winter Park, Florida, each know bits and pieces of his artistry.
Loyd Florence was an only child. His parents owned the Dr Pepper Bottling Co. in Athens, along with plants in other southern towns.
Aviation might have been his first love. He was friends with the Epps family. Pat Epps was younger than Florence, but he believed his brother Charles and Loyd were childhood friends.
Family lore said that Charles Lindbergh’s flight over Athens captured Florence’s attention, but his association with the Ben Epps family certainly nurtured his interest in flying. Ann Marie and Billy both believe that he flew out of a small airfield at the crest of Baxter Street near Kroger’s present location. He earned his pilot’s license at age 15.
He was just 18 when in 1939 he graduated from a pioneer civilian pilot training program sponsored by the University of Georgia. He attended UGA, but never earned a degree. During World War II, he was a civilian flight instructor.
After that he was a pioneer flight officer for Pan American. He flew the first commercial flight from New York City to Johannesburg, South Africa. Among the equipment he flew were the revolutionary Boeing 314 Clippers, a flying boat airliner. It had room for 74 passengers, and featured a full-service dining room. Only a dozen of the planes were ever built.
It was while he was flying that he met UGA coed Ann Hunt, a Southern belle from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They were married in a matter of months and moved to New York for his flight career.
Ann Marie Leathers said that her father dreamed of being an architect, but he might have made a career of commercial aviation. However, when his father died unexpectedly, Loyd returned to Athens to help his mother with the bottling plant. Perhaps it was there that he gained his expertise in metalwork.
Admitting his bias, son Billy said, “My dad could do anything. He really could. He did the art; he tap-danced when he was growing up; he was flying before he could drive; he built our house and did the plumbing himself; and later he got into investing. He was a genius with everything he did.”
Loree Smith, the youngest of the three, agreed. “I can’t tell you how many people that were his peers who told me that my Dad was the most brilliant, remarkable man they had ever known,” she said. “Someone is usually gifted in one area. Dad had it all.”
Fowler Products purchased the Dr Pepper business, and for many years, Loyd Florence was the corporate pilot. In fact, he maintained his flying license right up to his death.
In the late ‘50s, he developed Tanglewood subdivision, where he built an ultra-modern home, by his own design. He built a model and sited it as he preferred according to the sun’s angle.
Loree believes she was in high school when her dad started the sculpting. None of the children know why he started or where he got his inspiration. He was friends with renowned artist Lamar Dodd at the University of Georgia, but there is no indication that Florence received any training.
“My guess is that when he was at Fowler Products, he was around the machine shop,” Smith said.
Billy Florence saw his dad use a torch while they were installing the plumbing on their new home. In the basement, in a corner not much larger than a closet, Loyd Florence started to make his creations.
Loree was the last child at home, and she was able to watch her father more than her siblings.
“He enjoyed treating the metal and soaking it in acid and trying to get a different patina,” she said. “Sometimes he would tell me what he was doing to it. It was fascinating to watch.”
Ann Florence caught him in the yard one day crouched like a football center ready to spring forward. He explained that he was trying to observe what the muscles looked like in such a position.
“His first pieces were tiny,” Smith said. “Then he started doing figures, and he was quite into authenticity.”
The culmination of his foray into metal sculpting came when he was admitted to the Winter Park Arts Festival, which had to cancel its 61st festival this year because of the novel coronavirus.
Smith moved there years later, and only then did she appreciate the honor it was for her father to be included in the show, on his first attempt.
“He thought it would be a fun thing to do,” she said.
It turned out to be the end of his love affair with metal art. He sold every piece he had, and then he took orders.
“One of the pieces he had, he must have gotten eight orders for,” Smith said. “He was exasperated. When he got back, he had to fulfill all those orders. I remember him saying, ‘I will never do this again.’ It was like mass production. It was not art. And he never did it again.
“At that point,” continued Smith, “Dad felt like he had reached his pinnacle. He had explored all the avenues, and he was done.”
Ann Marie Leathers said that her father turned his attention to his flight simulator, a state-of-the-art apparatus that he operated in his basement. Billy Florence said that technicians in the simulator business tested their software on Loyd’s machine. Loyd Florence even attended flight simulator conferences. Meanwhile, so many pilots were logging hours on the basement simulator that Ann Florence demanded that a bathroom be installed in the basement for the clients.
The simulator remains in the Florence home, just a few feet away from his idol metalsmithing tools.