Ron Yrabedra, beloved Tallahassee painter, FAMU art teacher, dies at 78

Tallahassee just became less erudite, talented and witty.

Florida A&M University painter and art professor Ron Yrabedra died at his Midtown home of a genetically inherited liver disease early Friday morning. He was 78 years old.

“The world isn’t as interesting without him,” said longtime friend Patricia Collins. “I don’t think Tallahassee will ever be the same.”

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Yrabedra, a Spanish name pronounced “ear-uh-bed-drah”, is best known for creating gold-leaf bordered paintings that used ancient Aegean imagery such as bulls, rowing boats, lilies and palm trees. The paintings, some of which cost over $5,000, became highly sought after in city and Southeast collections.

“When I started using gold leaf (early 1980s) I didn’t know what I was doing, I had to figure out my own method.” Yrabedra said in 2016 as he stood in his art-filled studio. “I had about $60 worth of gold leaf taped to my hands. And $60 was a lot of money back then.

St. John’s Gold Leaf Triptych

Yrabedra’s last public appearance was the dedication of his tree-lined triptych commissionedtitled “From Eden to Gethsemane,” at St. John’s Episcopal Church downtown in the fall of 2020.

He was also active with the nearby LeMoyne Art Foundation, showing his art in the gallery and being its director in the mid-1980s. LeMoyne paid tribute by naming one of his thoroughfares Ron Yrabedra Lane in his honor during the festival annual Art in the Parks.

In October 1981, Yrabedra rented a former band rehearsal space in the Warehouse District that would blossom into the thriving Railroad Square Art Park. During the first monthly Gallery Hop Friday, Yrabedra’s studio became a living room as the artist held court with a variety of students, locals, onlookers, tourists and close friends.

“Ron had friends across the spectrum,” Collins observed. “It was an easy slide for him.”

During weekdays, Yrabedra used the studio for work as well as a sanctuary.

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Retired teacher and artist, Ron Yrabedra in his 35-year-old studio at Railroad Square Art Park.

Studio a sanctuary and a living room

“When the world goes crazy, I can come in here, put on some Bach and lock the door,” Yrabedra once said. “And then I can bring order to the world when I bring order to the canvas.”

Teaching was his other passion. His first jobs were in the education of young students from impoverished backgrounds. The experience of working with children who did not own winter coats or who ran hot water at home deeply affected Yrabédra. It gave him a sense of charity that lasted throughout his life.

Arriving in Tallahassee to earn a doctorate from Florida State University in the early 70s, Yrabédra landed a job at Famous in 1974. He taught generations of art and life history, as well than the management of the university gallery.

“He was a gifted master teacher and artist who cared deeply for his students,” said FAMU Past President and FAMU graduate James Ammons. “My sincere condolences to the family and friends of Dr. Yrabedra.”

During his years at FAMU, Yradebra received a scholarship for a sabbatical while researching the subjects of affluent African Americans in Tallahassee posing in the photograph of Alvan S. Harper (1847-1911). Even after his retirement in 2008, Yrabedra held public lectures on topics ranging from the Grand Tour of the 1800s to paintings by the Impressionists.

“Funnily Funny Stories”

“When Ron walked into a room, he owned it with his presence, his good looks and his tight-fitting attire,” said friend and former Leon County Commissioner Mary Ann Lindley. “He could tell wickedly funny stories that were often so laden with metaphors from art, literature and history that recognizing his steel trap memory would sometimes take your breath away.”

Born in Mobile, Alabama, and educated at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where he once met guest artist Andy Warhol, Yrabedra was a born Southern storyteller. On his Facebook page, he hilariously wrote about a mower shop in Mobile that was sued for scaring customers with a fake mongoose or his adoring Tom Jones cousin named Otyce.

“She was a ringtone for the portrait of George Washington on the $1 bill,” Yrabedra wrote.

Yrabedra could also express himself on a range of subjects as diverse as Pablo Picasso, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, Native American pottery from New Mexico or the Prado Museum in Madrid, which he visited often.

His ability to converse on any topic came in handy when the non-alcoholic, never-married Yrabedra became a fixture at the now defunct Pastime Tavern in the heart of the Tennessee Street Strip in the 70s and early 80s. His Southern Charm Gun was still dazed.

“All of God’s children were there,” Collins said. “God, Ron really could tell a story and he was funny as hell. … He had a keen eye for human frailties.

Besides Yrabedra, Pastime’s clientele included bikers, intellectuals, gay men, poet Charles Bukowski, teachers, drug dealers, writer William S. Burroughs, artists, CBS journalist Charles Kuralt, and a young visiting banjo player named Steve Martin.

Milestone birthday parties

Always a gracious host, Yrabedra’s milestone birthday parties were the stuff of legends. His 50th had a mid-19th century costume theme and guests showed up dressed as Abe Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Pope. Another birthday party had a Titanic theme. His last 76th birthday party was a doozy and worked on a “Music Man” pattern.

“He got a permit from the city to close East Georgia Street (in front of his house) on a Sunday afternoon,” Lindley said. “His orchestrated rendition of ’76 Trombones’ included a parade with a few hundred costumed friends and admirers bringing Mardi Gras enthusiasm to the marching activity.”

Beaming, Yrabedra, dressed in a bright red uniform, joined the raucous parade. He looked happy surrounded by kazoos, trombonists, drummers and hundreds of well-wishers.

“He loved the classics and he was a classic,” as his friend Burt Cox said.

A memorial filled with readings of some of Yrabedra’s favorite poems will take place at the Goodwood Museum at a later date.

Mark Hinson is a former editor of the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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