Nearly 20 years ago, The Studios of Key West was born out of a simple but vital necessity: to preserve affordable artist housing so that creative brains of all media could continue to make art on an ever-increasingly expensive island. Over the last few decades, The Studios has dedicated itself to bringing together artists from near and far and to inspiring the creation of new work and conversations about art’s power in a community. Today, creative minds from a variety of arenas flock to The Studios’ residences for one-month stays, where they can tap into the restorative spirit of the island and focus on their work.
The Studios’ 14,000-square-foot pink and white-striped home features a 200- seat theater, multiple gallery spaces, classrooms for art classes, artist’s studios, a bookstore, and the only free rooftop terrace in Key West, the newly completed Hugh’s View. The organization continues to balance the pressure to rely on the local arts scene of Key West, employing Key West resident artists to teach almost half its classes, while also making sure that fresh outsider voices are given a platform from which to share their knowledge by having out of town visiting artists teach workshops or participate in artist talks during their residencies.
Recognized for its efforts in bringing high caliber art to the community, The Studios is frequently credited as the creative heart of Key West. For a community whose official motto, “One Human Family,” is often mentioned alongside its unofficial one, “Key West: Where the Weird Go Pro,” it’s a matter of principle for Executive Director Jed Dodds that his organization live both mottos as a kind of mission statement, never making anyone feel unwelcome or inexperienced.
“At The Studios, we try to blur the lines between who’s an artist and who’s the audience. Who cares? We’d rather see someone picking up a paintbrush themselves, or writing their first short story,” says Dodds. “And whether it’s from on stage, or in their studios, we try to create opportunities for people to meet and talk to the artists themselves, to see how they do it.”
It is Dodds’ firm belief that one shouldn’t need a prior knowledge of art in order for it to have a transformative effect on their life; as a result, the programming at The Studios is constantly scrutinized to ensure that it is simultaneously challenging and approachable, with the goal of persistently identifying new audiences and tailoring a season’s worth of events to be as inclusive as possible.
“Our goal is not just to hang art on the walls to be looked at,” says Dodds. “We use art to start conversations, spark new ideas, and build a sense of community. People are hungry for that, especially here in Key West, so it’s become a fantastic scene. You never know what you’ll see or hear, or who you’ll meet, but it’s likely to make for an experience you won’t forget.”
Each of the gallery’s three floors is utilized nearly year-round for exhibits, making The Studios Key West’s best example of a contemporary arts museum. Coupled with The Studios’ adherence to a strict attendance policy, the ability to spread out over the three floors and four gallery spaces is more attractive than ever. And late last year, The Studios opened its newest addition, Hugh’s View, a rooftop terrace with a panoramic vista across the rooftops of Old Town. The project was a long time in the making, but its completion could not have come at a more perfect time considering the premium placed on outdoor space these days. For as long as COVID imposes restrictions on in-person events, Hugh’s View will be the venue for all performances. Instead of individual seats, tickets will be sold for “Pods,” which consist of four chairs around a small table. Each pod is spaced six feet away from its neighbors, so guests can feel safe attending events with their chosen podmates.
“We’re blessed with an incredible campus, with outdoor spaces where we can gather in relative safety,” Dodds said. “Hugh’s View, our rooftop terrace, remains the capstone of our facilities. Though we’ve had to scale back our plans for it somewhat his season, it remains a wonderful gathering place for small groups.”
Hugh’s View is free and open to the public during the day and will serve as an occasional outdoor classroom space as well. In addition, on Monday, Feb. 1, and 15, Hugh’s View will be open for Glow Hours, a private sunset party on the roof. Admission is free and the bar is open, but capacity is limited so advanced registration is required. Glow Hours begin one hour before sunset and end 30 minutes after.
Back inside, The Studios has four galleries where art is on display year-round: Sanger Gallery, XOJ Gallery, Zabar Project Gallery and Zabar Lobby Gallery.
Having four distinctive gallery spaces enables The Studios to exhibit multiple artists simultaneously and this year, the emphasis is on creating as much opportunity for patrons to enjoy what the local arts scene has to offer — and doing so safely.
“Though we’re still open during normal gallery hours, we’re opening our galleries for a few extra hours on Sundays for our friends and neighbors who prefer a more private art-viewing experience,” added Deputy Director Elena Devers. “Groups of up to 10 can start with mimosas or a glass of wine on the roof, then walk through the galleries with a knowledgeable guide. Sunday gallery tours must be booked in advance.”
The Studios typically bring in new artists every month and hosts a members’ exhibition each summer. On view until Jan. 28, exhibits range from repurposed metal sculptures to ceramic and mixed media paintings.
Christie Fifer’s exhibit, “A Novel Idea,” includes paintings and sculptures that all revolve around books — their history and their contents, all woven together with puns, puzzles and didactic intent to both amuse and encourage conversation. The exhibit is like Alice’s wonderland — paintings and sculptures take the viewer down a delightful rabbit hole of wonderment and visual entertainment.
Still life paintings of precariously stacked first editions are simultaneously realistic and surreal, promoting extended investigation. The novels balance with quirky objects like prayer cards, animals, timepieces and lily pads. The overall effect is the figurative discovery of meanings and messages, a visual treasure trove the artist concocted just for the viewer.
Leaping from the canvas, Fifer’s sculptures use actual books suffering from wear or neglect that have been repurposed to create playful and thoughtful sculptures in search of their own Renaissance. “They are like a million little self-portraits to me,” Fifer said of “Smallways,” her series of hanging book pieces. Each book is carved with an altar-like window containing a miniature doll nestled inside. Her other book sculptures, “The Bookmark Series,” also draw the viewer to the power of what we find in books. Fifer places photos, bits of paper and small, sentimental objects on and in the books, suggesting curiosity and importance to what a book holds secret.
“None of the Above” features Sally Binard’s portraits, which combine painting with ceramic and mixed media to comment on the tension between one’s identity in the eyes of others, and the one we choose ourselves. Intensely personal, the pieces touch on Binard’s racial and cultural history.
“This body of work is an exploration of the decisions others have made and continue to make regarding my identity,” Binard said. “Being mixed-race and being nonidentifiable as either of the cultures or races that I am comprised of, so often I am questioned or even brazenly told what I am. It is only recently that this personal phenomenon has begun to unsettle and agitate me. In my youth, I outwardly accepted what others labeled me, never questioning those who had the power to define me, even though, at the core, I felt something just wasn’t right.
“When certain age and life-related seismic shifts occurred and I chose to look inward a little deeper, I noticed myself getting offended and frustrated and questioning much of what I had accepted. This series of portraits is a means for me to voice what I am uncovering about my complicated racial and cultural past and share my private dialog about the effects of allowing others to decide for you what and who you are. It is also my way of making my identity just that — mine.”
Former artist in residence Cynthia Back returned to Key West this January with “Color Cuts,” a series of reduction woodcuts and collages based on the twisted mangroves and crystalline waters she discovered during her month on the island. And sculptor David Dunn rounds out the January exhibits with his collection of metal sculptures, “Creatures of the Deep.”
Dunn is known for his ability to turn anything into primordial creatures — bike chains, tools, bolts. His latest series has him repurposing metal castoffs into imaginative representations of the beasts who rule the ocean’s depths. Characterized by spiked steel edges and imbued with a dose of midcentury B-movie curiosity, these creatures serve as a reflection of the both dangers and wonders contained below the surface of the sea.
On view Feb. 4-25, February’s exhibits are a study in mixed media. Jill Caldwell’s newest collection of mixed media paintings, “Island Musings,” capture the exuberance of an island bursting with color: the endless shades of green foliage, the magnificent variety of flowers, the amazing aqua-teal-turquoise water, the billowing clouds highlighted peach-pink with the last rays of sun, followed by the blue-purple-indigo of nightfall. They are made of layers of water-based paint, graphite, markers and scraps of paper, which add texture and evoke the feeling of experiences and relationships that are built over time.
Maxine Makover and Michael Philip’s “Beloved, Bedazzled, Bejeweled” is a collaboration that celebrates Makover’s wearable art and Philip’s photography. To the artists, jewelry is a universally integrated form of artwork, reflecting individual details of a person’s personality, while hinting at broader cultural implications. Makover taps into this potential with her creative wearable art, while Philip’s classical contemporary photographic element captures the life themes — joy, loss, sensuality — portrayed by the wearer. “Beloved, Bedazzled, Bejeweled” is comprised of three chapters. In “Beloved,” Philip, inspired by classic and modern photographers like Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon, poses Makover wearing the necklaces and recreating themes in a woman’s life: love, joy, happiness, sensuality, loss, anger, fear, sadness, deception with the goal of dispelling the stereotypical conception of jewelry as mere decorative object and useless accessory. The necklaces in this series function as carriers of socio-cultural and emotional meaning the photographs show how to create, subvert and magnify that meaning.
The photographs in “Bedazzled” show the necklaces seemingly flattened into two-dimensional works, framing them as art to be looked at and allowing the viewer to contemplate how to engage with artwork that cannot be touched. The last chapter, “Bejeweled,” focuses on Makover’s handcrafted wearable art and the inspiration she draws from her personal life. These concepts are expressed in the way the necklaces are fashioned and shaped and in the materials used. Parallels are drawn between these works and the works of the successful female jewelry designers of the 20th century who paved the way to consider this artform worthy of being exhibited in art galleries and museums all over the world, and as desirable additions to private collections.
One of Cuba’s leading cultural figures since bursting onto the scene as a young sculptor in the early ’90s, Esterio Segura is an artist and community organizer of volcanic talent and seismic impact, known for his sharp critiques of Cuban politics and society. Among many international commissions is his installation at Tampa International Airport of a flotilla of cherry red airplanes, with hearts for fuselages, symbolizing the Cuban diaspora that began with the “Peter Pan” children airlifted to the U.S. in the early ’60s. Segura will also host a gallery talk on Saturday, Feb. 6, at 3 p.m. to accompany his display.
The Anne McKee Auction, typically a live art auction to benefit the Anne McKee Artists Fund, which supports artists of all media through grants, will be held completely virtually this year. But from Feb. 4 to 17, the works will be on display at The Studios and available for online bidding in advance of the auction.
From Feb. 20 to 27, the Studios will exhibit the photography of late Key West photographer Jeane Larance. Her work presents a breadth of images — of her beloved Haiti, her adopted hometown of Key West and of indigenous populations in the American West. Proceeds from this special exhibition will directly benefit The Studios’ scholarship program.
In addition to the exhibitions, The Studios also plans to host a number of virtual events this winter. “Between Two Palms,” a Livestream series of intimate conversations between award-winning art makers from the performing, visual and literary arts, will continue with conversations with Annie Golden on Jan. 27, Emma Manners, Duchess of Rutland on Feb. 3, Dylan and Becky Ann Baker on Feb. 10 and Telly Leung on Feb. 17.
The Old Town, New Folk series has also returned with a number of exciting performances. Called “one of the most innovative songwriters working today” by The Chicago Tribune, Susan Werner crafts lyrics that are as sharp as thistles, and every bit as funny as they are on point. A giant on the acoustic scene, Werner is by turns wry and passionate on stage, and famous for her live shows. As she says, “If you can’t laugh about it, you might be in the wrong line of work.” Werner’s concert will be live-streamed at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 5.
Local musician Ben Harrison will present his (virtual) folk offerings on Sunday, Feb. 14, at 8 p.m. A Ben Harrison concert featuring original music from his most recent album, “Side Effects,” as well as selections from his musicals, including “Undying Love,” “Key West, A Musical Tour About Town” and “Clouds Over the Sunshine Inn,” with a few old chestnuts from his early days as an everyday performer thrown in. The music Harrison writes is original, humorous and indigenous to the Florida Keys.
From “Bum Farto,” “Air Sunshine,” “Treasure Salvors,” “The Poultry Operetta” and “Affordable Housing” to “Stanley Papio,” his songs are about the island he has called home since 1979. Harrison has spent his quarantine days perfecting a complex new style of picking. To show off his new skills, he’ll offer songs in the vein of John Prine and Paul Simon.
Despite the challenges presented by limitations on indoor gatherings, The Studios has embraced the opportunity to provide its standard programming in new, distance-friendly ways. For the first time in The Studios’ history, each piece on display in the galleries can be viewed — and purchased — online. And all concerts and plays that would have otherwise been offered live and in-person are now going to be live-streamed instead.
“Flexibility has been the operative word this season,” said Deputy Director Elena Devers. “We’re using the outdoor courtyard of our residency guesthouse to hold small, distanced classes, plus we’ve taken a number of our programs online, and have created complete online galleries for every exhibition. In addition to in-person classes, we’re offering online classes in Photography, Writing, and Cultural Studies, plus we’re doing digital premieres of brand-new theater, including a play called ‘Smithtown,’ streaming from Feb. 13-27 and starring Michael Urie.”
The Studios of Key West is at 533 Eaton St. The galleries are free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Private receptions and viewings can be arranged by calling 305-296-0458 or visiting www.tskw.org.¦