Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 1 Mural Art in the Florida Keys

The Spiritual Traveler

         Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 2Driving down the Intercoastal Highway from Key Largo to Key West, I passed a garage near Islamorada with a mural of a sphinx painted on its exterior.  I stopped to take a picture of it, and as I was doing so, the owner of the garage appeared.
       "Pretty interesting, huh?" he prompted.
       "Yeah," I agreed.  On the right side of the garage was the sphinx that had caught my eye, but the left side was even more interesting, depicting mysterious ruins that looked vaguely Egypian, Hindu, or Aztec.
       "Was it a local artist that did it?" I inquired.
       "No.  He was an Englishman.  He just showed up one day and said he had to my building."
       "Just like that?"
        Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 3"Just like that."
       "And you never heard from him again?"
       "Never heard from him again."
       I continued on my journey, wondering what would prompt someone to simply want to paint a building like that.  A few miles up the road, another building caught my eye.  This one was four stories high and had a mural that wrapped around two sides of the building.  The mural was a seascape that featured a mermaid.  I came upon a number of other buildings covered with murals on the way to Key West, so that by the time I arrived I decided to investigate the phenomenon.  
       I first stopped by the Wyland Gallery on Duval Street.  The artist, Wyland, paints whales on a monumental scale.  This is non-profit work, the purpose of which is to educate the public about whales and ecology, in general.  A poster on the wall exhibited pictures of 85 walls painted around the world over a period of nineteen years, with 100 walls projected to be completed by the year 2011-one of the lengthiest art projects in history.  Some of the bigger building looked very impressive, but the theme of whales, whales, whales made a somewhat monotonous impression.  
       "How many of these murals are here in the Keys?" I asked one of the salesgirls in the gallery.  
        Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 4"There are three," she replied.  "One is on a K-Mart in Marathon."
       "I saw that on my way down today."
       "There's another one at the Museum of Natural History in Marathon, and the third is at the Waterfront Market, here in Key West."
       "How does he fund this work?" I wanted to know.
       "The paint is donated.  The labor is contributed by volunteers."
       The motivation for Wyland's murals was clear.  He had a particular cause he was promoting.  I was still thinking about the story the garage owner had told me, of the artist who had just walked up to him and asked to paint his building, and mentioned this to the salesgirl.
        Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 5"There are younger artists who just want to draw attention to themselves," she commented.  "Wyland did some early work like that.  There's a picture in his biography of an Alpine scene he painted on a Dairy Queen, and another one of a big bowl on a meat packing plant."
       I asked her what other murals were worth checking out in town.  She mentioned an interior mural at Neptune Designs, a jewelry store, also on Duval Street.  I found the place.  The mural was a small one of a flamingo and some foliage, which draped the entrance to a storage room behind the jewelry counter.  I asked about the artist, got his name and number, called from a pay phone at the public library, and was told I was welcome to stop by.
       The artist's name was Jim Lehmkuhl.  His house was located in a seedy area of town almost at the very end of Highway 1.  It was surrounded by a locked wooden gate, on which I knocked ineffectually.  I noticed the buzzer just as the artist appeared.
       "That's all right.  It doesn't work, anyway," he said, as I gestured to it.  He was a wiry man, bald on top, with a sleek gray goatee, and a large gold ring in his left ear.  He ushered me into a palatial residence with numerous self-constructed, self-painted rooms, and finally onto a unique veranda, filled with plants and murals.  The interior featured a jacuzzi, numerous hand-painted picnic tables, and what looked like a small dance floor.
       "Wow," I commented.  "This is amazing!"
       "It's a party place," he replied dryly.  
        Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 6I sat down on one of the picnic tables, opposite him.  He got up and fetched me a glass of water while I absorbed the stunning interior.  I was particularly struck by what appeared to be a mural of a native woman selling fruits and vegetables.  When he sat down again, I told him of my drive down to Key West.  I first mentioned the garage with the sphinx.
       "I never noticed that one," he said.
       "Then there was one of a mermaid, a few miles down the road."
       "Yeah, I did that one."
       "You did that one?"  I was surprised at how easily I had found the author of the most grandiose of all the murals I had seen.  "How did that come about?"
       "It was 1987.  A guy approached me from a magazine.  On top it says: 'Welcome to the Florida Keys.'  Underneath there was supposed to me the magazine's name.  But the magazine never got published.  I never got paid for it.  The guy gave me an initial deposit, then went bankrupt, fled to Texas, and gave me a bad check.  It was supposed to be a marine magazine.  That's the reason the mural is of an underwater scene.  The building was supposed to be his headquarters."
        Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 7"But it doesn't have the name of a magazine on it," I remarked.  "It just says: 'Welcome to the Florida Keys.'"
       "That's right," he replied.  "I took the name off when I wasn't paid."    
       "I see," I laughed.
       "So that's actually thirteen years old," Lehmkuhl continued.  "It's held up pretty well."
       I mentioned some of the other murals I had seen, and Wyland's name came up.
       "Actually, while I was doing that one, I had never heard of Wyland.  One day a guy stopped in a car while I was on the scaffold.  He introduced himself, said his name was Wyland, that he was a muralist, and he never liked any other murals, except this one.  I said, 'Well, thank you'," Lehmkuhl ended the story in his dry, no-nonsense manner.
        Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 8I laughed again, and felt like building up to a compliment.  Wyland's work was impressive, and his success must have been somewhat intimidating to other muralists, such as Lehmkuhl, but the latter's work-particularly what I saw on this veranda-was more personable.         "I went into his gallery," I remarked, "and looked at the pictures of all the murals.  Some of them are huge, and very impressive."
       Lehmkuhl nodded his head in agreement.
       "The really huge ones are cool, and they definitely make a statement about whales, and he doesn't make any money off of them, so that's cool…"
       "He makes millions from being published."
       "From being published?"
       "Yes.  He asked me if I was published, and I didn't know what he was talking about.  He has books and calendars and posters.  That's where he makes his money."  There was a touch of envy in his voice.
        Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 9"It's a good cause," I said, still working on my compliment, "and the large size is great, but just on the level of personal taste, whales, whales, whales would get to me after a while.  I mean, this right here," I pointed to the picture of the native woman, "does more for me than the whales."
       "It was for the inside of a store," Lehmkuhl explained.  "It's on a piece of thin wood, called doorskin, an eighth of an inch thick."
       "So it's not really a mural.  It's not painted directly on the building."
       "No.  It was from a store that used to be in Key West called 'Jamaica Me Crazy'.  It was part of a three-dimensional display.  You see in the bottom corner, how the fruit are falling off the stand?"
         "Well, they had a little bus in the shop-it was actually a fire truck that was painted to look like a bus-and it was set it up so that it appeared that the bus was running into the fruit stand.  There was fruit painted all over the floor, too."  
       "I really like that," I told him.  Do you do more interior work than exterior work?"
         He nodded his head.  "There's a chain called Miami Subs.  I was the original muralist for them.  They started in Key West, and grew all throughout Florida, and also in New York."
        Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 10"So part of the concept of the chain is that they have murals inside, and you were the muralist for the whole chain?"
       "I was.  Then they started building stores faster than I could paint them."
       "It sounds lucrative."
       "For me, you mean?"
       "It paid my bills for about ten years.  Retail store design is one of my main ways of making a living.  That includes doing the interior murals, as well as the floors.  But that's to sell merchandise.  It's not an outlet for self-expression."  
        Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 11When I asked what he did for self-expression, he ushered me into his studio, where there were a number of small canvases with strange, twisted designs.
       "You should have been a sculptor," I remarked.
       "That's what I am," he replied, "a frustrated sculptor."
       "Well, some sculptors are frustrated artists," I laughed.
       I asked him if he had any particular artistic inspiration, and he mentioned Salvador Dali, which I had anticipated from viewing the work in his studio.  I thought of some of Dali's work that I had seen, and much of it had a sculptural quality.  "Dali never did murals, though, did he?" I asked.
       "Well, some of his paintings are bigger than my murals."
        Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 12"Can a canvas be stretched that large?"
       "It can be done.  Twenty feet," Lehmkuhl replied.  "You should check out the Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.  It's a surprising collection of work."
       After parting from Mr. Lehmkuhl, I drove back from Key West to Marathon.  Along the way, I noticed another interesting piece of roadside art, done not on a building but on a car.  It was a little Geo Metro, parked on the grass in front of a bar called Boondocks.  I went inside and asked about the artist.  
       "His name is Hugo.  He and his wife live in Key Largo," the bar owner replied.  "They're both artists."
       I got the telephone number, called, and arranged to drop by the next time I was back in Key Largo.  A few days later, I found the place.   Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 13This time, the exterior of the brightly colored house clearly advertised the fact that its occupants were of the artistic profession.  An extremely friendly couple greeted me-Hugo and Dominga Villanueva-the husband Argentinian, his wife Haitian.  The interior of their house was hand-painted, just as Jim Lehmkuhl's was, but in a more methodical, systematic fashion.  The colors-gold, peach, aquamarine, fuchsia, orange, and lime-were not pastels, but deep and rich.  Some startling paintings hung on the walls, including a monstrous red and white mottled fish with bug eyes.  Another wall hanging was a representation of two giant parrots, made of pounded sheet metal, meticulously painted in red, blue, green, gold, and other colors.  Dominga offered me a seat.  It was she who spoke English while her husband mainly listened to our conversation, nodded his assent, and occasionally repeated his wife's words for emphasis.
       I told Dominga about my conversation with Jim Lehmkuhl, and the story of the artist who painted the sphinx on the garage.  I asked her the same question I had asked him: "Do you ever just have the desire to paint something-a building for instance-for no other reason than that it's there?"  
         Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 14"Oh, of course," she replied.  "There are things that you see that you'd like to paint.  We've seen building that we'd like to paint.  It's not just about money.  Some people become very businesslike, very hard.  But it would be nice to do something for free.  That's where you get to express yourself, really.  There's a place called Samuel House, at the entrance to Key West.  It's a place for homeless women and children.  "Every time we drive into Key West, I always tell Hugo, "I think it would be so neat to give these women a bright place, you know, a painted building… We've never, of course, approached them."
         "But you could," I suggested.
         "Well, we don't have the time, of course, to go ahead and do that, because we have to work so hard.  Hugo has to work so hard, and I have to manage the business."
         I asked about the car that I had seen at Boondocks.
         Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 15"We were commissioned to do that," Dominga replied.  "It was a red car, a red Geo.  From red, we went to metallic blue."
         You did the whole thing in metallic blue, just as a background?"
         "That's right.  The owner wanted three mermaids on it.  He had three daughters, so he wanted three mermaids."  They showed me some pictures of other commissioned works.  One was of a large motor home with a picture of The Little Mermaid on one side and Goofy on the other.  "It was kind of frustrating to do the cartoons," Dominga said.  
         "Why was that?"
         "Well, how artistic can you get copying something that's already been done?" Dominga asked rhetorically.
         "And how do people hear of you?" I wanted to know.
         "They see our work.  We exhibit in over fifteen galleries as far away as Annapolis, Maryland, and Cape Cod."
         Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 16One of the pictures they showed me was of Sherman's Marine Supply, which I had also passed on Big Pine Key.  It featured a huge mural of a sun disc with a human face, painted in vivid colors.
         "We can't paint pastels," Dominga said.  "We have a hard time with pastels."
         "You mean it's hard just because it goes against your nature?"
         "I guess so," she replied.  "It's just really hard."
         I asked them how long they had lived in the United States.
         "Hugo has been here six years, and I've been here for ten," Dominga told me.  "He was in the military before that.  He used to have a gun instead of a paintbrush, but I changed that.  He was fourteen years in the military in Argentina, and worked for the United Nations as a police monitor.  And now he's painting!"
         Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 17The bulk of their art turned out mainly to consist of the metal work, of which the giant parrots on the wall were an example.  Hugo and Dominga took me out in back to see their work area.  The place was littered with the sheet metal forms of animals, giant lizards, salamanders, and frogs, especially.  Hugo and Dominga showed me a large machine that made a noise like a compressor, which they called a plasma cutter.  After throwing a switch on the machine, Hugo picked up a blowtorch attached to the machine and showed me how it was able to cut the sheet metal in a meticulous pattern.  
         "This is a traditional Haitian form of art," Dominga explained.  "But what I've done is to take if further.  Instead of doing what they do in Haiti, I've modernized it a little bit.  In Haiti, it was very primitive.  They did figurines, and the metal art was considered voodoo art.  They worked it in the shapes of spirits, to put on graves in the cemeteries.  That's how it started.  Then they started making flowers and fish.  They commercialized it to take it out of Haiti."
         Mural Art in the Florida Keys, 18I walked around the scattered pieces, taking photographs.  I particularly liked the smaller salamanders and a little green frog, which they gave me.  We talked a little about life in the United States.  They said that they preferred life in the Dominican Republic, where they had a second home.  
         "There is more culture there," Dominga said.  "In this country, people are not aware of other cultures.  That's what you could do with your web site-make people more aware of the rest of the world."        
         I promised them that I would try to do that.
Date Submitted:
2004-01-02 00:00:00
Copyright Information:
Copyright The Spiritual Traveler, 2001