Key West's visual arts scene is a sight to see
Painters, sculptors and photographers prove the Conch Republic isn't just a literary haven.
In the gift shop of the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, there’s a book for sale: Write Like Hemingway: Writing Lessons You Can Learn from the Master.
Indeed, many literary masters have called the Conch Republic home, including playwright Tennessee Williams and poets Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop and Shel Silverstein.
“Key West supports the arts,” said the author Judy Blume, founder of the island’s nonprofit Books & Books, in an email. “Maybe it’s something in the water? Maybe it’s being surrounded by water. Or maybe it’s being a part of a creative community. I can’t imagine a better place than Key West to think, write, make art.”
But while Key West’s literary cred often gets top billing, its visual arts scene has been bubbling up for nearly a century. The push for the arts began in the 1930s, as the federal Works Progress Administration sought to beautify the island in order attract tourists after the Great Depression. More recently, 3.8 million domestic overnight visitors flocked to Key West in 2017, according to the Monroe County Tourist Development Council.
But those who simply stumble down Duval Street are missing out.
“I describe Key West as Greenwich Village in the summer,” said Elizabeth Young, executive director Florida Keys Council of the Arts. “You can walk it, you can bike it, and it’s all very eclectic,” she said, noting that art galleries, historic buildings, Publix, Home Depot and a military base are “all mixed up in 2 miles by 4 miles.”
That small footprint leaves a big impression. The annual gallery guide published by Young’s organization, available at keysarts.com, maps out more than two-dozen fine art spaces in Key West alone.
Art collector Nance Frank owns Gallery on Greene, which showcases works by artists living within 100 miles of Key West, from Big Pine Key to Havana, Cuba. She’s partial to the work of the late Cuban-American folk artist Mario Sanchez, known for his colorful depictions of island life. In 2017, Sanchez became the first Key West artist inducted into the Smithsonian; his image of a Key West cigar factory hangs there today.
Even for masters like Sanchez, there’s no getting around certain Key West tropes, Frank said.
“It’s not the subject matter. It’s what you do with it,” Frank said. “Mario did palm trees. Everybody does palm trees because, you know, we’re here.”
Painter Fran Decker embraces the conch houses and flamingoes that come with island life.
“I love painting local scenes and seascapes and… the things that make Key West, Key West,” Decker said.
She displays her paintings and the work of other Keys artists in her Frangipani Gallery on Upper Duval Street — nearly a mile from the cruise ship docks and touristy bars that dominate Lower Duval. Upper Duval, Decker noted, is quieter and populated by revered art spaces like Gingerbread Square Gallery, which was founded in 1974 and is the oldest private gallery on the island.
“I’m happy to be on the main drag,” Decker said. But Upper Duval has “a completely different feeling and flavor from Lower Duval.”
Alan Maltz agrees. The fine art photographer and publisher owns Alan S. Maltz Gallery, three blocks south of Frangipani. He likes the high-end feel of Upper Duval, while still savoring the creative freedom that comes from living in Key West.
“It’s a very free, open society,” Maltz said. “I came from New York in 1977, and I’m just a free thinker and an artist, so Key West hit me exactly right. I love it as much now as I did then.”
Still, much of the artistic action has moved off Duval Street completely, to perpendicular Caroline Street, home to contemporary galleries like Art @ 830 and Maggie Ruley — Island Inspirations, which are “off the beaten path and a little more authentic and charming,” Young noted.
Even farther off the beaten path is Stock Island, separated from downtown Key West by the narrow Cow Key Channel. Key West International Airport sits on Stock Island, and for art lovers, the airport is a destination unto itself.
Avis Gloriae et Lavdis (Bird of Glory and Praise), a sculpture by Sheila Berger, is one of eight large-scale works that comprise the new Florida Keys Sculpture Trail. After seeing the pieces in 2016 in New York City, Key West philanthropists John Padget and Jacob Dekker paid to transport them from Manhattan’s Riverside Park to the Keys. Installation of the sculptures is ongoing.
There’s plenty more to see on Stock Island, like Dazzle, a 2014 mural by Key West artist David Harrison Wright, on the facade of the Stock Island Fire Station, that pays homage to Key West’s military and first responders.
Wright also created two paintings that are part of the airport’s permanent collection. The mural and paintings are part of Monroe County’s Art in Public Places program, which specifies that 1 percent of most county construction and renovation projects must be “set aside for the acquisition, commission, installation and maintenance of works of art in said buildings.”
Even non-mandated buildings are getting in on the artsy act. Take the Perry Hotel, which overlooks Stock Island Marina. Architectural Digest named the Perry one of the world’s 12 best-designed hotels to open in 2017, “turning the island into a destination almost overnight,” the magazine raved.
Perhaps for tourists, but “there was an amazingly deep group of talented artist that live and work on Stock Island long before the hotel opened,” said Perry partner and developer Brad Weiser.
One such artist is Daniel Siefert, whose hanging sculpture is the centerpiece of the Perry’s lobby. In addition, the lobby, guest rooms and gift shop feature works by Key West photographers Leo Gullick and Alan Kennish, Key West watercolorist Susan Sugar and South Florida artist Christian Bernard. The hotel provides guests with a map of local art studios so they can explore the island’s art scene, starting with a handful of galleries located right at Stock Island Marina Village.
While Key West’s fine art scene continues to grow, there’s still plenty of room for the kitschy souvenirs many tourists have come to expect from Key West.
“I don’t want to say it’s tacky,” Young said, “but it’s the end of the world.”