Artistic inspiration in the Florida Keys is deeply rooted in the coral bedrock, blown in on the winds from Cuba and the Bahamas and shaped by a bohemian spirit that thrived for decades on the islands’ end-of-the road isolation.
Today, with the Keys more easily accessible, the islands’ artistic influences have broadened. The result is a richly layered aesthetic that encompasses multi-cultural influences from overseas, the lushness of the islands, and the sensibilities of artists and writers who come to visit and stay a lifetime.
Nance Frank, owner of the renowned Gallery on Greene in Key West, handpicks works by local artists including Peter Vey, whose dazzling water and sky paintings as well as architectural studies interpret the exotic hues of the tropics. Vey uses a palette knife to build layers of paint with crisp lines, vivid splashes of color, and bold use of dark colors against sun-drenched seas.
Priscilla Coote captures the light and hues of the Keys combining subtle and somber tones with the neon highlights of the sunlit trees and water. For years Coote has lived and painted in the Keys creating unique works that balance shadow and the brilliance of her beach surroundings.
Also at Frank’s gallery, the works of Key West native and nationally-lauded folk artist Mario Sanchez explore the ties between Cuba and Key West. Though Sanchez died in 2005, a solo exhibition of his work will open at Havana’s Museo Nacional de Belles Artes this month. Sanchez’s works focus on the dignity of everyday people—from fishermen to cigar rollers. His sometimes humorous examination of the island’s history offers insight into the daily lives of its residents.
The multi-cultural mix continues throughout Frank’s gallery. William Bradley Thompson’s bold assemblages and paintings bridge the abstract and representational. Cuban artist Roberto Fabelo questions the division between fantasy and reality in surreal and distorted drawings, paintings, and installation pieces. And three-person artist group, The Merger creates Pop Art-inspired sculptures that poke fun at masculinity and power.
Works by The Merger, Fabelo, and other Cuban artists will all be part of One Race, The Human Race, a special project that seeks to build bridges between Cuba and Key West. The exhibition opens in February and is coordinated by The Studios of Key West, an organization that connects artists from around the globe with local audiences and artists. The show will also feature the works of major Cuban art figures including Manuel Mendive Hoyo, Rocio Garcia, and Sandra Ramos.
The project includes imaginative use of some uniquely Key West locations: The Merger will exhibit at Ernest Hemingway’s home; Ramos will show at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum; a collective known as Stainless will exhibit at Key West’s Oldest House & Garden Museum; and painter Ruben Alpízar and caricaturist Reynerio Tamayo will present work at a former cigar factory.
The live-and-let-live attitude in the Florida Keys attracts those who need time and space to create. For painter Eric Anfinson, who moved to Key West from Minnesota, island life allows him an unrivaled tranquility—though it’s the island residents, not the landscape, who inspire his work.
“I paint aspects of the human experience. In Key West, there is an authenticity to the people,” says Anfinson, whose introspective and powerful portraits are shown at Fleming Street Gallery. “Not good or bad—simply an issue of clarity. Those around me bring a certain quality to my work.”
Painter Gabriella Fiabane, also at Fleming Street Gallery, makes deeply atmospheric art with a dreamlike quality. Known for her seascapes, landscapes, and interiors, she splits her time between Nantucket and Key West and pulls inspiration from both.
Fleming Street owner, Sheila Mullins, an artist and former Key West Mayor, believes civic life includes art. Her gallery is a comfortable space where she focuses on one artist at a time, allowing for a deeper understanding of the work.
One of Key West’s longest-established galleries, Gingerbread Square Gallery, opened in 1974 and helped lay the groundwork for today’s art scene. The gallery’s glass art, paintings, and jewelry range from traditional to contemporary, representational to abstract.
At Gingerbread, avid gardener and Key West native Sal Salinero is known for his paintings of lush tropical foliage and verdant rainforests, which he hopes will raise awareness of endangered lands. Michael Palmer focuses on the built world, examining village life with an architectural approach, and John Whitney’s figurative oil paintings generate emotion through movement. “We offer very personal attention and give people a comfortable experience,” says Gingerbread owner Jeff Birn.
At Lucky Street Gallery, owner Sandra McMannis chooses art from Keys artists as well as artists around the globe, seeking the unexpected and even shocking. Inspired by insects, Michael Haykin builds micro-layers of pigment on canvas creating a shimmering translucency, while Roberta Marks’s works are an exploration of compartmentalization. She creates complex assemblages of squares cut from 1960s French magazines.
Key West Pottery features ceramic art and functional pottery—from enormous, upside-down fish glistening with turquoise and mango scales to palm-decorated bowls and vibrant orange-banded vases. Husband and wife owners and artists Adam Russell and Kelly Lever contribute to the cultural fabric of the island offering pottery classes and exhibiting local and regional painters and photographers in their Old Town gallery.
Art moves outdoors for Sculpture Key West’s 18th annual exhibition, which runs through March and takes place at the Key West Garden Club’s historical West Martello Tower. This year, seventeen sculptors and a video artist created works inspired by the site—a Civil War fort. Giant, five-foot shells lie in the sand as if thrown by the surf and science and art mingle in organic forms lit from within.
Inspired by the island light, Noel Skiba’s Plein Air paintings capture moments when the shell pink of the sky turns turquoise like the water. Working in both Key West and Mackinac Island, Skiba uses an impasto technique with acrylics and oil to convey the changing tones of tropical light, and often paints while standing in the ocean. “I’m truly an island girl,” she says. “I’m inspired by the water and its ever-changing colors. It’s an exploration that never ends.”
This year the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum will focus on the island’s history with three new exhibitions. Spanish Coins New World Treasure, which opened in October, presents the history of Spain’s coins, which were mined and forged in the New World. Pirates & the New World features the “real” pirates of the Caribbean who sought to plunder treasure ships. And The Science of Shipwrecks, opening this month, tells the intriguing story of underwater archaeological and artifact conservation, the museum’s ongoing research project that features the shipwreck Santa Clara which sank off the coast of Key West in 1564. All three exhibitions are part of the Key West Sunken Treasure series which runs through 2014.
For decades, the Florida Keys’ legendary multi-colored sunsets and open-hearted embrace of eccentricity have created fertile ground for artistic inspiration. Today that’s truer than ever as the arts community encompasses a widening circle of influences, from ceramic art and Cuban sculpture to flea market assemblages. This confluence of creativity makes the Keys an intriguing arts destination.
Amy Driscoll is a writer and editor in Miami.
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