Category Archives: Key West

The Florida Keys: An Intriguing Arts Destination


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.

Peter Vey, Rain Hawks, 2013, palette knife oil on canvas, 38" x 38". Gallery on Greene.

Peter Vey, Rain Hawks, 2013, palette knife oil on canvas, 38″ x 38″.

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.

Sandra Ramos, 90 Millas, 2011, installation, 60 x 90 x 900 cm

Sandra Ramos, 90 Millas, 2011,
installation, 60 x 90 x 900 cm

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.

Eric Anfinson, Red Line to Harvard Square, 2013, oil on canvas, 36" x 24".

Eric Anfinson, Red Line to Harvard
, 2013, oil on canvas, 36″ x 24″.

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.

Sal Salinero, Paradise Valley Rendezvous, 1998, oil on canvas, 24" x 40"

Sal Salinero, Paradise Valley Rendezvous,
1998, oil on canvas, 24″ x 40″

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.

Michael Haykin, Ascension of a Cricket, 2013, oil on canvas, 36" x 36"

Michael Haykin, Ascension of a Cricket,
2013, oil on canvas, 36″ x 36″.

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.”

Noel Skiba, Sombrero Beach, 2013 Acrylic on canvas, 8” x 48”.

Noel Skiba, Sombrero Beach, 2013
Acrylic on canvas, 8” x 48”.

Poison Cup: Authentic artifact from the famous Spanish treasure galleon, Atocha, which sank off the coast of Key West in 1622.

Poison Cup: Authentic artifact from the
famous Spanish treasure galleon, Atocha,
which sank off the coast of Key West in

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.

Additional artwork from The Florida Keys:

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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.