There’s a myth about artists and Key West, one that has been perpetuated for decades. It’s a great one, as far as myths go. It’s very positive. It’s the kind of myth you don’t mind throwing your weight behind. You’ll hear it spoken by trolley tour directors, local business owners, third generation Conchs, and many so-called “snowbirds” who’ll plop down a few million to purchase a second home in Key West specifically because of this myth. We all benefit from it, really. But the truth?
Contrary to popular belief, Key West has not always been the wonderfully strange haven for artists that it is today.
Of course, it is now, and we love to point out our current status as a creative hub for the fantastically weird. But stories of bohemian artists making their way to the southernmost city for centuries in order to form a kind of artist’s community are greatly exaggerated. Yes, we’ve played host to a few famous faces and bylines, but for many, many years, Key West existed as a city rich in — well, riches.
Thanks to a flourishing trade in sponges, shipwreck salvaging, pineapple canning and cigar making, our beautiful town was at one point the wealthiest city per capita in the United States. But all those plays, plein air painting classes, gallery openings and concerts — the much-lauded costume-loving, free-to-be-you-and-me stuff — is a much more recent acquisition. Until the mid-1930s, there wasn’t even an art gallery in town.
It wasn’t until the Great Depression hit (and in the case of Key West, the hit was more of an epic knock-out) that our island began to re-brand itself as a beautiful paradise for tourists. With the city bankrupt, and more than 80 percent of residents on relief aid, Monroe County turned to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration for help. With most of its once-profitable businesses now obsolete, FERA determined the only way to save Key West would be to market it to the public not as a booming business town, but as a postcard perfect vacation spot. By 1934, then- President Franklin D. Roosevelt had begun implementing the beginning phases of his New Deal program, which aimed to provide relief and aid in the recovery of the decimated American economy through a series of projects, including Social Security. One of the New Deal’s most ambitious and now famous endeavors, the Work Projects Administration, was conceived as a way to get Americans back to work, and fast. With a budget of $4.8 billion behind it, the WPA hired millions of mostly male unemployed workers to construct a series of public works projects, such as roads and buildings, and — in the case of one smaller, specialized group of jobs collectively referred to as Federal Project Number One — to make art. Federal Project Number One, having been granted $25 million of the WPA’s total budget, encompassed a series of programs dedicated to employing workers in the areas of theater, music, fine art and writing. For Key West, Federal Project Number One would be not only restorative, but transformative.
With WPA artists from across the nation brought in to beautify the island, the town, once famous for salvaging and sponges, was reborn as an artist-approved Eden. Public murals, sculptures, theater troupes, paintings for public buildings, choral groups, post cards, and even brochures touting the island’s new status as a vacation destination, began to appear. WPA workers taught art classes for community members, both of whom began to sell their work in the island’s first art gallery. In total, the WPA continued its artistic programming in Key West until the 1940s, by which time the island had reestablished itself as the art-loving, lively tropical tourist destination it is today.
Of course, today’s Key West visitors need no convincing that the island is a happening place. Museums, galleries and festivals abound, Duval Street has become a 24-hour party, and the streets have become so crowded that finding a parking spot downtown is like a gift from the gods. Real estate, fully recovered (and then some) has become some of the most expensive in the country, with the ironic result that many of the artists who traveled to Key West to participate in its famously creative culture can no longer afford to live here.
The result is a kind of mass migration of working artists to neighboring Stock Island, where studio space rents are cheaper, streets are quieter, and a community of working artists has, in setting up shop and churning out consistently excellent artwork, become a hot destination for those seeking a Key West that feels authentically alive and artistic. In fact, the Studios of Key West, a local arts umbrella organization that hosts visiting artists for residencies, gallery shows, theater performances, concerts, readings and lectures, began a partnership with Old Town Trolley for a series of Stock Island Artist Studio Tours. Now in its third year, the tour has proven to be a great success, offering intimate access to some of Stock Island’s most prolific artists and their studio spaces. On Saturday, March 25, Stock Island Artist Studio Tour ticket holders can hitch a ride on one of Old Town Trolley’s signature open air trolleys as it ferries them from the Studios of Key West’s downtown headquarters to Stock Island, where more than two dozen artist’s studios will be open to the public for demonstrations, dialogue, and, of course, the opportunity to purchase art directly from the artist and to see where each piece was made.
It’s the kind of event that draws attention from both locals and out-of-towers, according to Studios of Key West Deputy Director Elena Devers, due to the universality of the subject matter. “Artists have so much to show us, and stepping into an artist’s studio is one of the best ways to understand her world,” Ms. Devers says. “From touching raw materials — paint, clay, metal and wood — to asking questions and seeing works-in-progress, you can get a true sense of the story an artist is trying to tell.”
Tour participants range from art novices to seasoned collectors and fellow artists looking to mingle with a crowd that appreciated the creative arts. “You walk away with fresh inspiration, new ideas, and if you’re lucky, you might find a piece so special you want to live with it forever,” Ms. Devers says.
Tickets to the event are $20, which covers trolley transportation from the Studios’ headquarters at 533 Eaton St., though Ms. Devers notes that ticket holders may also decline trolley transportation in favor of a self-guided tour. The Studios has laid out Saturday’s schedule as follows:
The trolley will depart The Studios of Key West for Stock Island at 10:45 a.m. (first-come, first-served) and will return to The Studios at 1:30 p.m., after which a second trolley will return to The Studios at 3 p.m. Trolleys will do loops around the seven Stock Island tour stops from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and ticket holders can hop on and off the bus as they like. Tour tickets are $20 and can be purchased in advance at www.tskw.org or (305) 296-0458, or on the day of the tour at The Studios of Key West in Old Town, or at Tour Stop No. 1, 5700 4th Ave., Stock Island.
Visitors can expect to tour workshops across a wide range of mediums, including woodworking, ceramics, painting, jewelry-making and even welding. This year’s artists include Cindy Wynn, Jimmy Wray, Perry Arnold, Derek Arnold, Craig Berube Gray, Steven King, Pamela Kostmayer, Rudi Repenning, A.D. Tinkham, Simone Lasswell and Pam Bluth of Renegade Clay, the craftsmen of Coast Projects. For more information, visit tskw.org. ¦