The Custom House Museum exhibit in the Bryan Gallery features historic and contemporary works from artists who rented studio space between 1974- 1986 in the decommissioned naval warehouses, machine-shops and residential facilities after the U.S. Navy abandoned its base on the present-day Truman Annex.
“It was a golden age in Key West,” says renowned sculptor John Martini, who enjoyed five years of creating in the 5,000-square-foot 1800s foundry building for which he paid $60 monthly while also operating a sailing school from the nearby dock.
“What was left of Duval Street still had five-and-dimes, small businesses, old schoolers and newcomers. Hippies, smugglers and gay life were in ascendancy. You recognized most everyone on the street and developers were locally based. Rent was low and drinks were cheap.”
John was among an interactive community of artists, ateliers, boat builders, cabinet makers and other creatives who, by mostly word of mouth, stumbled upon the amenity made available by the city of Key West during a decade when it was doing its best to sell the defunct property prior to purchase by Pritam Singh. He, Helen Harrison, Judi Bradford, Grillo Demo, Dalva Duarte and Stephanie Sanchez are featured in the exhibit, with black and white photographs of the annex taken by Monroe County Public Library’s former contract photographer, Adolph Gucinski, serving as the backdrop.
When artists took the helm of the Truman Annex, it “was like a ghost town,” says sculptor Helen Harrison, who sailed into town with her husband, Ben, in 1979 and shortly after rented space for their woodworking.
“The Navy took their papers and walked away from the salt and pepper shakers, tablecloths, plates, silverware and tools,” she says. “The Truman White House was wide open and there was pigeon poop on everything. It was surreal. We had free rein to explore the 90 acres and our own private beach on the point. If you didn’t pay rent of some kind you were not permitted in. It was a gated community for artists and boaters.”
For all the artists, it was an essential and impactful era in their process, providing them with a spacious place in which to explore and create while perpetuating the opening of renowned galleries that include Lucky Street and Harrison Gallery.
“There were endless supplies of material to scavenge on the grounds, and it allowed me to increase my scale, make as much noise as I desired and provide access to a community of writers, artists and craftspeople,” says John.
“It was a great place to launch an arts career,” adds milliner, textile artist and illustrator Judi Bradford, who rented 900 square feet of waterfront space, behind what is now Truman Little White House, from 1980-1983 for her soft sculpture business Lizard Licks with the help of sculptor Reen Stanhouse. “I don’t think the city necessarily intended it for that purpose, but inadvertently, it turned out that way.”
For society curator Cori Convertito, while this forgotten era of history “is but one of several in Key West’s prolonged artistic history,” the exhibit’s focus on Truman Annex and the continuity of our arts community “reinforces the notion that creativity is forever flowing.”
Be sure to flow on over between Jan. 12 and April to check it out.
“On the Waterfront: Truman Annex Artists” will open to the public from 6-8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 12, with a suggested donation of $10 for non-members, and free VIP access and reception from 5:30-6 p.m. for KWAHS members. For more information, call Cori Convertito at 305-295-6616, ext. 112 or visit www.kwahs.org. ¦