Walk into the Michelle Nicole Lowe Art Gallery in Islamorada and there’s a great chance a smiling Michelle will take a break from painting her latest watercolor creation of colorful marine life to greet you.
The 29-year-old Keys native is one of several artists who have opened their own galleries over the past couple of years in the island tourist town — which is billed as the Sports Fishing Capital of the World, but also has a lesser known but vibrant, growing art community.
“The ocean inspires a lot of the artists who are here,” said Lowe, an avid diver and snorkeler who takes off two days a week to “do research” for her art.
Along a short stretch of the Overseas Highway, between mile markers 81 and 87, art lovers can find an eclectic mix of galleries, public art and studios that offer classes in painting, ceramics and glass blowing. About 80 miles from downtown Miami, it’s an easy and scenic drive for an artsy getaway.
There are places that feature lobster trap art and others that sell oil paintings for thousands. And last year the Keys History & Discovery Center, which exhibits local and Florida art, opened at the Guy Harvey Outpost Islander Resort.
But the places all have one aspect in common: super-friendly artists, owners and curators who are happy to talk art with visitors.
“Come inside,” said Samantha Decker-Hoppen, a ceramics artist and partner in Morada Way Clay, a fine arts gallery and ceramics studio housed in a warehouse. Its slogan: “An adventure in art.”
“Families can come here and play in the clay,” Decker-Hoppen said.
“One day we had a family of 11, and six were kids,” added Frank Shaw, a ceramics artist and partner in the business. “That was a crazy day.”
Morada Way Clay offers classes that include Raku Friday, during which participants can choose a piece of pottery to glaze and then relax outside as it is fired in a special raku kiln. The process created by the Japanese uses both fire and smoke to create unique patterns and designs.
The gallery and studio are part of the Morada Way Arts & Cultural District, which was formed three years ago to create cultural events and get the word out about the tight-knit art community.
“We offer something to do that’s different than being out on the water,” said Besty Keteltas, the art district’s executive director.
The heart of the district is a pedestrian-friendly, six-block stretch around mile marker 81.5.
It includes the Roberto “Pasta” Pantaleos Signature Gallery. His paintings of sea turtles, sail fish and mangroves showcase the beauty of the water world of the Keys.
Another mainstay is the Redbone Saltwater Art Gallery, owned by Capt. Gary and Susan Ellis. They began collecting artwork to use as prizes for their Redbone fishing tournaments to raise money to find a cure for cystic fibrosis, a disease that inflicts their daughter.
Their first grand prize was an original Millard Wells watercolor, Fisherman’s Sunrise. Their gallery now features the works of about 20 artists.
Gallery Morada is a fine American craft gallery owned by Laurie Wickham. “Almost everything is handmade in the United States, with a few things made in Europe,” she said.
The gallery is packed with one-of-a-kind pieces representing the works of about 200 artists. There’s blown glass by Randy Solin, wind-driven sculptures by Mark White and jewelry made from molds of soapstone sculptures created by Somers Randolph, a nationally recognized sculptor.
Behind the building is an exquisite garden with garden boxes created by Jennifer Hagood. In the garden, work is now being finished on an outdoor culinary lab, where classes will be taught. “You can learn how to prepare Japanese sushi, French cooking, farm to table, tandoori and more,” Keteltas said. “The best way to grow culture is through food.”
The art district also includes OASIS, which stands for “Outreach Art Studio Island Style.” The nonprofit studio exhibits the works of emerging artists and serves as a space to teach painting and other types of art classes.
Other artsy places to explore in Islamorada: The Gallery inside Ocean Sotheby’s International Realty displays rotating exhibits of artists, most of them regional. The Stacie Krupa Gallery features her fine art inside and amusing signs outside. One says: “I feel strongly that the visual arts are of vast and incalculable importance. Of course I am prejudiced. I am a visual art.” — Kermit the Frog.
Also worth checking out is The Banyan Tree, a tropical garden and boutique that includes some unique orchid/pottery combinations.
The art district also hosts the popular ArtWalk every third Thursday of the month and organizes other special events. Information: www.moradaway.org.