Florida Keys

‘Monkey Tom,’ who chose poverty over selling his art commercially, has died at 76

Monkey Tom in earlier days.
Monkey Tom in earlier days. Facebook

Tom Forshier, a Key West artist known as Monkey Tom who sold his works for a few bucks and sometimes for a pack of cigarettes or food, died Thursday. He was 76.

Forshier would paint on driftwood and other found materials. His subject was often Key West, especially the ships that dock there. He painted a mural on the outside of the San Carlos Institute, 516 Duval St. His works also appear on the walls of Key West restaurants and homes.

But Forshier, a Navy veteran who was a junior Olympic swimmer in those days, was mostly homeless in Key West. Over the years, he lived in the mangroves, in lean-tos and in boats. In recent years, he lived in a trailer park on Stock Island.

“He made art for the love of art, not to sell it,” said Erika Biddle, who met Forshier when she moved to Key West in 1992. “He would ask, ‘What is it worth to you?’ ”

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“Monkey Tom” Forshier Facebook

Forshier helped shape the island as a haven for those who feel out of place anywhere else. Famous for its acceptance, the Key West community adopted Tom in many ways. People like Biddle looked out for him while celebrating his talents.

“People all around the country have his art work,” said Shanon Gaytan. “He lived on the street, rode his three-wheel bicycle and hung out.”

Gaytan said Forshier, who was legally blind, had been in the hospital three times in the past week.

“He was barely getting around,” said Gaytan. “I’m surprised he could still ride his bike but he rode it every day.”

Gaytan remembers Forshier as a gentle soul.

“Just a calm, sweet, nice dude,” he said. “The mellowest guy you ever met in your life.”

People always made sure Forshier had a seat at the Hogfish bar on Stock Island, his hangout in recent years. His favorite beer was Pabst Blue Ribbon, Gaytan said.

He indeed once had a pet monkey, Egor, who friends said Forshier would place on his back as he swam from his makeshift home on the undeveloped Wisteria Island to nearby Key West.

Forshier wasn’t a promoter of his own art. As popular as his paintings are, he could have joined a list of Key West artists who make a decent living selling their works and appearing in galleries on Duval Street.

“He probably could have,” said Don DeMaria, who knew Tom since 1978. “That wasn’t him though. I don’t think money meant a lot to him other than just to make enough to get by.”

DeMaria said Forshier’s art, particularly the ones that capture shrimp boats off the coast of Key West, represent part of the “old” Key West of the 1970s.

“The world as he finds it gives to him and in return he paints,” Forshier wrote on his Facebook page.

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Monkey Tom did this mural on the outside of the San Carlos Institute, 516 Duval St. Erika Biddle

Thomas Lee Forshier was born Dec. 5, 1941, in Hoopeston, Illinois. By 1965 he had landed in Key West and never looked back.

When he was younger, Forshier had his scrapes with the law and was known to be barred from a tavern or two.

“He used to say, ‘If I ever remember what I was trying to forget, I’d probably stop drinking,’ ” DeMaria said.

When he was 35, the Associated Press ran a story from Key West about a “driftwood painter” who winds up in jail several times a year.

That was Monkey Tom, who when faced with a conviction of operating a sailboat under the influence of alcohol, donated his paintings to pay his fines. One official called it creative sentencing.

“He’s a hell of a talented boy,” bondsman Bill Ryan is quoted as saying. “I think basically he’s a very religious man. He’s not a bum.”

After all this is Key West, where a homeless man scraping by to eat and drink and smoke is allowed to be an artist.

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