BY EMMA TRELLES
September 23, 2007
We find it even before we begin the 18-mile drive that bridges the mainland to Key Largo. Robert is Here is an open-air tropical fruit stand busking shakes and seasonal specialties (at the moment, tomatoes). Its bins brim with mamey, sapodilla, star fruit and the ubiquitous mango. What it also offers is a number of paintings, which most visitors probably miss while poring over the produce.
The studies are crude, filled with the flat perspectives used by many self-taught artists and also the charm that accompanies doing things for fun. While Mark trolls for jam and raw honey, I take a closer look at the imagery: canned cukes, a flatbed truck piled high with strawberries, a kitchen stacked with squash and pies cooling on the shelf.
Brushed on wood, the pictures are fading, but the message is clear. Paint how you live, what you see — art enters through the eye; it flows from what surrounds you.
Before developmentThe mile markers staked along U.S. 1 throughout the Keys were placed there by the Florida East Coast Railway in the early 20th century. Back then they probably didn't have the nod-and-wink adage: "Patience pays; only 3 minutes to passing zone." In those days there were no bikers bunched on the highway, no vans or campers, no telephone poles, bulldozers or barricades.
What there was, and what remains, is the green and blue of this place, the light, the stands of wild mangroves that fringe the bay side. Today they twitch in the wind as if they're anxious to keep growing, to creep across the asphalt and choke the road, cover it all with root and peat and leaf, the way it was here in the beginning.
We eat cashews and finish our shakes, just as we cross into Largo.
Audubon was a pioneerThe Upper Keys is storied in visual art. John James Audubon was one of the first known artists to work here, visiting Indian Key in 1832 and painting the birds that populate the area as readily as clouds: brown pelicans, great white herons, an assortment of terns and doves. All of them found fame in his naturalist tome, The Birds of America.
"…seldom have I experienced greater pleasures than when on the Florida Keys," he wrote about his time here, "under a burning sun, after pushing my bark for miles over a soapy flat."
In the 1930s the Works Progress Administration left its own indelible mark when it sent more than a dozen artists to the Keys with a mission: create works for its public buildings and paint its flora and fauna.
Some of the images were reproduced in postcards and posters and spread across the nation by a government eager to launch the Keys as a tourist mecca, and to save it from the Great Depression. The WPA even had its artists teach classes on how to make ashtrays out of shells and weave baskets and hats out of coconut fronds. Tourists needed trinkets to buy.
After checking into our hotel, we head out to see some of the art from this time. It is hung above the fiction and magazine stacks of the Monroe County Public Library in Islamorada. Set abreast a marshy inlet, the library is snug and cooled by AC units affixed to the wall, an unassuming place to hide and read.
The six bas reliefs in the back rooms were made by Joan van Breeman and depict children at play. Girls on swings or spinning globes, young men charging forth with footballs or boxing gloves.
In French, bas relief literally means low-raised work; it's sort of like a sculpture slightly bursting from a flat backdrop. With their simple compositions and white facades, the reliefs also bring to mind line drawings; they are both hopeful and humble, from another era altogether.
Across the street we find one final WPA work: a monument and crypt set in a triangular patch of grass between the north and southbound highways. The site is dedicated to the civilians and soldiers who died in the hurricane of 1935; some of their remains are buried here as well.
The obelisk part of the memorial is made from native keystone and spikes about 20 feet toward the sky, its top crowned with a relief of coconut palms bending before fierce winds. I've lived in Florida all my life and sped by this place on my way to other stops, not once seeing its sad and textured beauty.
We hardly say a word while we're here. A storm is rolling in and we're tired. The mosquitoes are biting my ankles. But on the drive back to the hotel I suddenly notice murals, everywhere; sponge coral and parrot fish sprawl across the sides of dive shops, store and garage facades are scrolled with manatees, dolphins, an Egyptian pharaoh.
At the dock behind our room, even a simple piling is transformed into a somber pelican. The seeds planted by the WPA long ago have taken root. In the Keys, art isn't just something to visit or display; it's part of everyday life.
Chillaxing at Snapper'sIt is worth noting that the neon sign for Snapper's restaurant evokes a sense of '60s pop-art panache when set against a darkening sky. Or maybe it's just that I'm starving and the promise of food and drink is exhilarating.
The tabletops at Snapper's are laminated maps, and kerosene candles and pinpricks of lamps give the oceanside eatery a comforting elegance. Our waiter J.J. suggests the pinot grigio. Here there is no Skynyrd blaring from a jukebox, or drunks slinging shots at the bar. There is hot bread on the table, grilled yellowtail and prime rib, potatoes baked and mashed.
I can feel what locals call "Keys disease" setting in, a technical term for blowing off to-do lists and savoring the moment. Also known as "chillaxing."
The sky outside our window is now a cool and muted blue, and we play a game describing it with each passing minute as its palette changes.
"Deep whale blue," Mark says.
"Van Gogh's Starry Night."
Abstract, impressionisticFrom the car, it's easy to sweep the Rain Barrel into the same bin as many of the shops on the highway; with its weathered barn facade, it appears as if it could very well hawk the tourist kitsch of shell chimes and plastic lobsters. Although these things can tempt, it's a luster that fades when compared to the pieces made by the artists and craftsmen of this roadside village.
It is approximately 1,000 degrees when we pull up. The shaded maze of shops and studios was built 30 years ago and its courtyards are covered with the canopy of Jamaican dogwood, gumbo limbo, oaks and the light fragrance of their barks. We wander past spheres of blown glass, many beautiful bowls, a steel chair shaped like a peacock. When we come to John David Hawver's gallery, it feels as if we've stepped outside again.
Hawver's pastels and paintings are like windows filled with natural light and color. I can't call them landscapes because so many of them hold the waters that ribbon around these islands, whether the bay or the Gulf or even a hidden inlet, filled with a cathedral stand of mangroves.
Whether of bridges or shorelines, all of Hawver's shapes are made of tiny lines and marks; his surfaces are almost sculptural. Both abstract and impressionistic, the work is often stamped with a current of clouds or leaves — the soft motion of tropical life.
"I do a lot of canoeing and kayaking and take a camera," he tells me later over the phone. "I take a lot of pictures from the waters. Some of these places seem like they're far away, but they're really just off the shore. The same place can be completely different two hours later, just because the light changes.
"So many people around here paint derelict boats and old conch houses; I don't think there's any more need for that. I feel here, in Florida, there aren't enough paintings of the land."
Rough-hewn workBreakfast at the Tropical Café consists of buttered hotcakes and more art, most of it of the motel lobby variety. But there's a great painting from the 1950s by Harry Sonntag, an Upper Keys artist whose work was rediscovered about a decade ago. The story is, and there's always a story around here, that more than 160 of his paintings were found packed away in a storage unit in Central Florida.
Whether any of this true or not doesn't detract from Sonntag's work in the cafe, a rough-hewn take on mid-century fishing life.
I ask the waitress with the pretty dark hair and missing front teeth why everywhere we go there's original artwork, most of it mirroring some part of the land and sea around it.
"Why is everyone compelled to transform mailboxes and parking bumpers into something more?"
"There's not much to do here except drink, fish and paint," she says with a laugh.
Reminded of artWhen I announce to Mark that it's time for a post-breakfast nap, I look over and see he's already on it. I leave him beneath the shade of one of the many coconut palms that give our hotel its name and do laps in the pool.
Now everything reminds me of art, made here and elsewhere. I see the sun-splattered brushwork of David Hockney's swimming pools; when I float on my back I see the deep blue of O'Keeffe's skies. From the patio I see how the flat sheen of the Florida Bay and the anchored dots of boats have worked their way into the dreamy watercolors of Millard Wells.
This place seeps into its art the same way its art has infused the place. They are not two things, but one shape, expanding and contracting, floating to the shallower points of coffee shops and strip malls, and out to the depths of private homes and grander galleries.
The collectorsThe Kona-Kai Resort and Gallery boasts the only fine-art venue in the Upper Keys. When owners Joe and Ronnie Harris opened the gallery in 1997, they also made it the lobby. Checking into the Kona-Kai means hanging out with original Clyde Butcher photographs and the contemporary art the couple collects on their frequent trips to Europe.
It was in France the Harrises met Dirk Verdoorn, and his realist canvases are striking; they give a mythic sort of beauty to the hulls of working freighters and tugboats. Some of the paintings depict the ships and commerce of the Miami River, which he painted earlier this year during a stint in South Florida.
Just as lovely as its artwork are the grounds of the resort. They are thick with tropical fruit trees and exotic palms, all tended by Veronika, a transplant from the Czech Republic who came to visit the Keys 10 years ago and never left.
She guides us through the gardens at a brisk clip, pointing out fig, guava and soursop trees. She plucks bright yellow starfruit and Jamaican cherries from their branches, and we eat them under the hot sun. In the orchid house, she detangles the plants as we move through them.
"This one looks a little like a goat," she explains. "This one smells like chocolate. This one like berries. Can you tell?"
Emma Trelles can be reached at 954-356-4689 or email@example.com