Key West Art & Historical Society celebrates the legacy of one of the island’s most clever visual artists with “Art & Puns: The Whimsy of Ferron Bell” and a special opening reception from 6-7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 7 in the Bumpus Gallery of the Custom House Museum located at 281 Front St. The exhibit runs through Feb. 10 and spotlights the quirky late artist’s trademark visual wit and whimsy, featuring work from private Key West collectors, personal photographs, and newspaper clippings about the unique personality widely known for his off-the-wall and humorous creations.
A self-taught artist, Thomas Ferron Bell began his career at the age of 16 in Chattanooga,
Tennessee, moved to Fire Island Pines, N.Y. when he was 21, later splitting his time and talents between there and Key West. Bell worked full time as an artist, cultivating his audience and frequently bartering and donating his work to fundraisers in the Key West community.
“Ferron’s work is unlike any other artist in Key West,” says Society Curator Cori Convertito, Ph.D. “It is not idyllic. It is not intended to evoke daydreams in tourists’ minds of swaying palm trees on a pristine beach. Ferron was eccentric, and so was his artwork.”
That said, Bell had a self-professed love of palm trees and made them the subject of his final Key West exhibit — “Palm Sunday Show” — held on April Fools’ Day, 2012, a year before his death. The three-hour pop-up held at Smokin’ Tuna Saloon was a benefit for The Sister Season Fund and the Gay/ Straight Alliance at Key West High School, and (by his account) the largest collection of his work ever gathered for one show.
“There are many palms in the world and we have a great selection here in Key West,” Ferron wrote on his Facebook page when promoting his show. “We have Lipstick, Feather Duster, Gingerbread, Christmas, Old Man, Royal, Bottle Palms, and others… and each of them is unique and beautiful.”
True to his wit, paintings included a palm tree with its top shaped like a hand (“Palm Tree Dee”) and feather dusters flanking a lighthouse in lieu of feather duster palm trees (“Lighthouse Keeping”), among many other puninspired paintings.
“Ferron loved puns; his artwork typically involved a pun or a play on words,” says Convertito. “He took the lovely scenery around him and incorporated elements of nature (particularly birds) in a pun. For example, he created various examples of a work he called ‘The Crow Bar’ which was, essentially, a murder of crows standing alongside a bar with cocktails in hand.”
Bell’s passion and creativity were embraced by both of the island communities where he lived and worked. In Key West, he was commissioned to paint entire rooms with tropical motifs and sold many of his pieces to friends who supported his quirky vision and nature.
The Dec. 7 opening event for “Art & Puns: The Whimsy of Ferron Bell” is open to the public with a suggested donation of $10 for non-members and free VIP access and reception from 5:30-6 p.m. for Society members. ¦