MATLACHA, Fla. -- The coconuts made it all possible.
As a young artist, Leoma Lovegrove discovered that painted coconuts sent through the mail were "the perfect tacky Florida souvenir -- under $20 and you don't have to carry it home." She decorated them with flamingos and flip-flops, and business was steady.
But when Walt Disney World began featuring the coconuts at the park, the business took off and Lovegrove found herself with the resources to pursue her fine art. She bought a "falling-down shack" in an old fishing village on Pine Island and opened the Matlacha Art Gallery to sell her work.
"When I showed it to my dad," Lovegrove recalled, "he said, 'You've thrown all your money away!' "
That was 10 years ago. Today, some 500 people pass daily through the gallery in season, Lovegrove said, and monthly art nights in Matlacha (pronounced mat-la-SHAY) draw up to 3,000 visitors. There are 16 galleries and gift shops in the Pine Island Art Gallery Association, most of them clustered by the bridge in Matlacha, one of five villages on the island. The Pine Island Art Association offers classes in painting and drawing year-round and presents an annual show and sale.
Accessible by causeway from Cape Coral, Pine Island is a place where people earn their livings fishing and farming. At 17 miles long and averaging 2 miles wide, it is the largest island on Florida's southwest coast and among the least developed, in large part because it has no swimming beaches. Stringfellow Road runs the length of the island from Bokeelia in the north to Saint James City at the southern tip. The road is dotted with painted telephone poles, decorated with nature scenes, flowers, and pirates, courtesy of Pine Island artists. Tree farms have replaced most of the tropical fruit farms.
The influx of artists, writers, and musicians has earned the island the nickname "the creative coast." As Lovegrove said, "Here, if you don't fish, you paint or you write or you sing."
Lovegrove sold her gallery two years ago, but continues to showcase her art there. The low, clapboard building in fuchsia and yellow is crammed with paintings, glass, silver, jewelry, pottery, and painted furniture, as well as mobiles, fish made from palm tree seed pods, and a larger-than-life carved wooden turtle. The courtyard out back, dubbed "the Oz of Matlacha," is a riot of color and kitsch: a mosaic floor, an upright chandelier of colored glass bottles, walls hung with fish sculptures, tiled birdbaths -- even a dead tree stump lavishly painted and decorated. Like most everything in Matlacha, it's right on the water, and visitors are welcome to take a break in chairs on the dock, perhaps with an ice cream or cold drink from the courtyard cafe.
Next door, WildChild Art Gallery features sculptures and fountains in copper, brass, and steel by owner Peggy Lee McTeague and others, along with pine needle and other unusual baskets, wood carvings, pottery, painted furniture, weaving, and jewelry. The gallery represents 120 artists, most of whom live on Pine Island, said manager Lisa Hopkins.
Julia Morris, who opened Julia's Arts just over a year ago, sells work by some 50 local artists and a few from outside the area.
"I like to stick with Pine Island and Florida," Morris said. "There's just so much here." Julia's specializes in one-of-a-kind pieces, she said, such as the fantasy palm frond fish sculptures by Jack Glos, jewelry in unusual shapes and colors by Valerie Jewell, and painting on silk by Deborah Zwetsch.
Morris, secretary of the art gallery association, said the gallery owners are a collegial group. "We compete with each other, but we all benefit from the increasing recognition of the arts here, so it's a supportive competition."
As if to prove her point, she sent us off to Bokeelia to Koucky Gallery and Gardens, a combination gallery, pottery studio, classroom, and plant nursery. Chuck and Nancy Koucky began their careers as craftspeople in pottery and weaving in the mid-1970s in Michigan. At one point they had a 3,000-square-foot showroom there, Chuck Koucky said, and later a sizable gallery in Naples. But the time came to downsize.
The two-acre setting has a peaceful, tropical feel. A path marked with pottery shards leads from the gallery to the open-air studio in the back, sheltered by only a tin roof. "It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter," Chuck said, "but it's real." The short walk from his home to his studio, he said, "is my idea of a commute."
Writers and musicians also contribute to the "creative coast" vibe. You can find live music most any night of the week at Bert's Bar & Grill in Matlacha or the Tarpon Lodge in Pineland.
The best-known nonvisual artist may be author Randy Wayne White, who has set many of his best-selling mysteries featuring marine biologist/amateur detective Doc Ford in the estuary environment of southwest Florida. White lives in a house built on a Calusa Indian shell mound in Pineland. "I like the fact that people have been telling stories at this site for 2,000 years," he said. "That's what I do, sit on my porch and tell stories. I like that continuity."
He finds the environment a powerful force "visually, intellectually, and emotionally," in particular the interaction of shallow saltwater and sunlight. "Life would have happened in such a place," he said.
Of the island's eclectic mix of creative types, White said, "It's a quirky and fun group."
The Randell Research Center in Pineland is a working archeological site atop another ancient Calusa shell mound, the second-largest such site in southwest Florida and the largest one that can be visited by car.
John Worth, assistant director, showed us around the 200-acre site, which was settled as early as 100 BC and was a big Calusa population and political center. In an area 12 feet above sea level, Brown's Mound, at 30 feet, stands out. Excavation of the mounds shows layers of shell, topped with layers of sand with post holes, Worth said, indicating the Calusa built shelters atop the mounds. They also built a 2 1/2-mile-long canal across Pine Island, sections of which are still visible. Illustrated signs along the self-guided trail describe the Calusa kingdom and its shell tool technology. Guided tours are available.
Along with its archeological significance, the Randell Center is an important nature preserve, teeming with wading birds such as ibises, roseate spoonbills, egrets, and herons. As South Florida develops, Worth said, this mound-hammock habitat with gumbo limbo trees is becoming almost unique. "People come for the archeology," he said, "but they return for the natural beauty."
The Museum of the Islands offers a wide-ranging look at the island's history. A wall mural depicting how the mound village at Pineland might have looked is a nice complement to a visit to the Randell Center. Other exhibits trace the island's fishing heritage and the years of the Florida "crackers," so named for the sound of the whips cattlemen used to flush their stock out of the palmetto scrub. Headsets help visitors get the most out of the exhibits.
There seems to be a fair amount of crossover among the various creative communities on Pine Island. You can buy artwork at the kayak store. The WildChild gallery hosts monthly "Songwriter Sundays." And in January the Randell Center hosted a program called "Art, Authors, and Archeology." The common theme? A genuine affection for what sets Pine Island apart.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.