Key West

The Florida Keys: Inspiring Art

And they do, capturing depths of color and intricacies of sun and shadow, the unpredictable dance of sunlight on water, and the personalities and politics of people.

“I sell soul. I put Key West’s soul into people’s homes,” says Nance Frank, who owns the renowned Gallery on Greene and is preparing for one of the most exciting exhibitions of her career. “A Fisherman’s Dream: Folk Art by Mario Sanchez” will open this month at New York’s South Street Seaport Museum. Sanchez––who was born in 1908 in Key West to parents of Cuban lineage––wasn’t seeking worldwide recognition; he simply wanted to capture the personalities, political nuances, and poignance of the hometown he cherished. A self-taught artist, he used painted wood carvings to depict scenes from his childhood: fishermen selling their catches from handcarts, a horse-drawn carriage supplying ice, and Sanchez’s father, el lector, standing on a raised pedestal, reading aloud in Spanish to Cuban cigar rollers in a Key West factory.

“In Sanchez’s work, we glimpse a little-known Key West, a multicultural and yet deeply self-contained place,” writes Susan Henshaw Jones, president of the South Street Seaport Museum.

The show features 35 intaglios on loan from the Key West Art & Historical Society and private collectors around the world. “This show isn’t just for Mario; it’s for all of Key West,” says Frank, adding that “A Fisherman’s Dream” brings the island a step closer to “re-establishing the cultural bridge between Key West and Cuba.”

While many of Sanchez’s works will be in New York this year, the Gallery on Greene still overflows with the work of numerous Key West artists. Peter Vey’s paintings, for example, bring the warmth and color of the tropics indoors, transporting walls in any northern town into a place where palm trees thrive, poincianas bloom, and historic homes need not be white. “There’s plenty of art that throws you into an introspective tailspin. I like to celebrate life. That’s important to me,” says Vey.

William Bradley Thompson’s works celebrate life just as vividly, turning a living room remembered from his childhood into an absorbing array of colors, making it abstract while still realistic and inviting.

In a more tonalist style, Priscilla Coote deftly re-creates the nuances of sunlit water as it shimmers on the surface, pours onto beaches, or swirls around aging wooden piers.

And no discussion of Key West’s artists is complete without mention of the playwright Tennessee Williams, who was also an accomplished painter. His nude image of Mister Paradise demonstrates his artistic skill.

Key West’s galleries are surrounded by stunning vistas, and boast intriguing collections of paintings, sculpture, pottery, wood, and glass. Offering all the above, Gingerbread Square Gallery stands over Duval Street as it has since 1974, displaying the work of artists whose styles often reflect the island’s tropical and multicultural flavors.

Painting outside year round, Pam Folsom fully immerses herself in the tropical surroundings, capturing the movement of clouds, water, and grass; while Michael Palmer offers a delightfully stylized architectural theme. He paints aerial views that show geometric rooflines often overlooking crisp blue water. “The sun-drenched white roofs, the charming architectural details, the abundant greenery, the water in the far background—all suggest a small, quiet, southern coastal town in the summer,” notes Gingerbread owner Jeff Birn.

As a Key West native, Sal Salinero grew up amid the island’s beauty, and has a deep appreciation for tropical wildlife and foliage. His paintings of rainforests and their inhabitants depict both their beauty and threatened existence.

Like the wildlife, the Keys’ coastal landscapes must be preserved too, and not just in paint. Jane Washburn wants viewers of her work to be reminded of the region’s tropical heritage and help prevent its disappearance. She shows us the unexpected, everyday beauty of the region in colorful bicycles leaned against a picket fence and the fiery blur of a Key West rooster.

John Whitney’s paintings are more figurative: he shows an image’s movement by creating various views of the subject. “My work is a fusion between Surrealism and abstraction, using dreamscapes as a base,” he says. “Emotion is the bond between the artwork and the viewer. This necessary psychological essence is the basis of my work.”

Keys artist David Scott Meier’s paintings and prints are also figurative, often including collage and gold leaf in themes that include fishermen and mermaids. His works reveal a sense of humor, and intriguing details tell a story and engage the viewer. “The textures and designs, and humor, invite many more collectors to visit (and revisit) my near-sighted worlds,” said Meier, who recently opened a working studio on Simonton Street in Key West.

Some of Meier’s original paintings can also be found at Wet Paint Gallery on Duval Street. “David’s tropical themes explore fishermen, mermaids and mermen. His mature palette and varied subjects make his work a favorite to collectors in all climes,” said Jennifer Badry of Wet Paint Gallery, which she describes as “100 percent local and 100 percent fun.” Badry also owns Mango Season Key West Jewelry, and is Wet Paint Gallery’s resident jewelry designer.

Wet Paint Gallery now represents the artists who were formerly partners in 7 Artists co-op gallery, plus a few others, including Meier, Pam Hobbs, Maggie Ruley, Chris Carroll, EGG, Lynne Fischer, Noelle Rose, Tony Scullin, Kristen Carroll and Mary O’Shea. Their varied and refreshing work includes hand-painted rugs, sculpture, glass work, jewelry, paintings and photography, making the gallery a fresh and inviting place for collectors of all experience, taste and budgets. The work is constantly changing and expanding to reflect the current body of work being produced by local artists.

Some of that work is produced in a historic armory building where The Studios of Key West offer studio space, lectures, workshops, residencies, partnership projects and nurture the creation of work. The Studios recently expanded their outdoor sculpture and nature garden and are hosting the exhibition “The Sinking World,” by Austrian Andreas Franke, which features work previously shown in a sunken ship. Franke explains that he turned the Vandenberg shipwreck off Key West into an underwater gallery when he installed a series of waterproofed photographs showing “mystified scenes of the past that play in a fictional space.”

There’s nothing fictional, however, about the Audubon House Gallery on Whitehead Street, where history is accurately re-created to demonstrate life in Key West in the 1800s. The gallery features a collection of John James Audubon art and limited-edition prints by the famed naturalist who painted detailed images of the birds and vegetation he discovered in the Florida Keys in the 1830s.

While the Audubon House represents Key West’s storied history, Lucky Street Gallery offers a view of today’s Key West. For 30 years, the gallery has sought to engage, educate, excite, and challenge viewers with sculpture, paintings, pottery, construction and mixed media works by Key West’s best local artists. Lucky Street showcases inviting paintings by Rick Worth, intriguing sculptures by John Martini and metal creations by Cindy Wynn among many other local talents.

From historic wood carvings and sun-drenched palm trees to whimsical characters, detailed sketches, and everything in between, the art of the Florida Keys is as diverse and intriguing as the islands and their artists.