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Crashing on Culture in Southwest Florida

How much can you see and hear in one weekend here? Our writer needed her fix and reports on what her journey did for her soul.



Several years ago, I took a monthlong sabbatical in Paris. I went alone, rented an apartment near the Parc Monceau and set about spending four weeks immersed in the great cultural river of that place. My time there was like a waking dream in which I wandered between the city’s galleries and theaters, steeped in art and beauty, coming up for air only when I finally stepped on the plane home. Back in Southwest Florida I found myself invigorated, my mind buzzing with a cultural high from all that I had seen and experienced. I hoped it would last.

You never know who you might run into during the Fort Myers Art Walk. (Photos by Mila Bridger.)

It did. For a while. But eventually the effect started to fade, and though I’d manage to squeeze in some moments for the arts here in Southwest Florida, everything else seemed to get in the way. The dual obligations of work and social life were forever eating my time, and there was little left over for a new exhibit or a fine piece of music. The part of me that craves art and culture—considers it a necessity for life, really—was starting to rebel. When I couldn’t go any longer without a heavy dose of cultural immersion, I cleared my calendar one weekend. Instead of letting the hours dribble away on pulling weeds or having the oil changed in my car, I decided to dedicate my time to the arts. I would be diligent and plan out an itinerary in advance. If I was going to recharge my depleted creative batteries, I would need a lot of cultural activities.

Where to begin this weekend-long session? In downtown Fort Myers, of course, with a visit to the monthly Art Walk. Though I live within walking distance of downtown, I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never been to Art Walk. It was perennially on my to-do list, much talked about among my friends, and I always swore—swore— each month that I’d go. This time, my cultural weekend left no room for negotiation. I arrived downtown early in the evening, and the streets were already closed for the event. People gathered in pockets. I hadn’t gone far when I noticed a small crowd in front of the display windows for the Franklin Shops. Behind the glass, a young woman draped in neon cloth, paint streaked across her face, stood in front of a white canvas.

“Is she going to paint?” I asked the man standing next to me.

He shrugged. “Hard to say.”

Before I could ask anything else, music began playing from the woman’s sound system. The song had a quick drum beat and a sinuous flute like the tracks you’d hear in the souks of Marrakech. Instead of painting, the woman began dancing. She moved her body in a motion that was both sensuous and athletic, as if she were part belly dancer and part master yogini. The crowd stood entranced as she swayed her hips to the drums, fast and then slow, and there was a ripple of nervous excitement when she picked up a curved saber.

“I bet she’s going to swallow it,” the man next to me leaned over and whispered.

She didn’t. Instead, she balanced the sword on the crown of her head, still swaying, still moving her hips, then paused in her motions to assume a yogic pose with one leg planted on the ground and the other arched over her head. I think the entire audience held a collective breath. Finally, the song ended and the young woman removed the sword from her head and took a graceful bow. As people applauded, I was reminded of the way a particular performance can draw people together. I had forgotten that the arts not only fill our individual wells but also create community.

 

After the dance, I walked along First Street and admired what was for sale from individual artists. A black and white pen and ink sketch of a fox caught my eye, and I stopped to take in the entire collection of whimsical drawings. At the next table, colorful glass pendants were laid out in neat rows, each threaded on a black cord, and at the next table sat a collection of earthenware cups and bowls glazed in shades of green and blue. A crowd streamed into the Patio de Leon area, and I made my way with them until I stood in front of a band. A frontman in a charcoal gray suit and a ducktail hairdo bantered into a microphone while another man in a black Western shirt with silver pearl snaps tuned his guitar. I wasn’t there long before they began playing a Johnny Cash tune, not one I recognized immediately, but the cords had that unmistakable Cash riff and the singer sang in a voice that was rough-edged and smoky. It felt exactly right for that space with its cobbled alleys and ’50s-era architecture.

There was more to the evening. The Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center hosted the 10th anniversary exhibition of a group show called Dark Arts, and many of the paintings and sculptures were, indeed, grim. But eerily enchanting. I strolled through the gallery as a DJ played house music, and many of the artists were present—some in black masks, others in macabre costumes.

A masking tape sculpture at Ocasiocasa studio.

Back outside, a group of young men played salsa down a side street, the saxophone and trumpet wailing in the balmy air, and I absorbed as much as I could, drinking in the music. Art and culture spread across the downtown streets, and I went home that night satisfied.

Saturday morning I had an unhurried brunch with friends, took an easy approach to the afternoon and by early evening was back on the arts scene. This time I started in the SoCo—short for “south of Colonial”—cultural district in Fort Myers for its monthly Second Saturday event. Intended to mirror Art Walk downtown, SoCo’s Second Saturdays bring together visual artists, actors and musicians at a geographic hub centered around the Alliance for the Arts and Royal Palm Square. I began the second day of my cultural weekend at DAAS Co-Op, a cooperative art gallery created by artist David Acevedo. The gallery was crowded with people, many of them the artists whose work was displayed, and as I strolled from room to room I caught snatches of their conversation as they posed for photos or explained how they captured a particular light. There was a vibrancy to the evening, a light-heartedness both in the artists and in the work, that it was impossible not to appreciate. So often we have the impression that good art must take itself seriously, that a certain dourness is required for legitimacy. Here, thankfully, that wasn’t the case. 

From the DAAS Co-Op I made my way to the artist studios beside the Alliance for the Arts. I love open studio events and the way they offer the public a chance to peek into the private world of an artist. At Ocasiocasa, the studio of husband and wife visual artists Jeff and Dale Ocasio, a crowd had gathered to hear Jeff Ocasio explain his process for making masking tape sculptures. People oohed and aahed as I peered into another room, this one filled with sculptures that had yet to be painted. I felt as if I had caught the artists midway through their creative process, and I was sneakily spying into their minds. It was delightful. I stopped by two more studios and would have liked to stay longer, but I had an 8 p.m. theater date in Naples. A full weekend of cultural activities, I was finding, requires careful time management.

In Naples, I slid into my seat at the Gulfshore Playhouse just as the house lights dimmed. It was opening night for Constellations, a two-person show written by Nick Payne that approached the story’s narrative in an experimental, nonlinear way. As I sat in the dark watching the performance, I felt my emotions flowing with the piece, erratic at times, spiking and descending. Art can be a powerful emotional outlet, I remembered, peeling back the layers of our everyday selves to expose some deep vulnerable place.

One of the top theater companies in the area is Gulfshore Playhouse in Naples.

By the time the play ended, I had been wrung out. I could have gone home, but I was saddled with the particular melancholy that comes at the conclusion of a great performance. Going home didn’t feel right. So I drove back to Fort Myers, to a concert at the Howl gallery and tattoo parlor, where the gritty guitar rock playing on stage felt like just the thing. The space was blue-lit and dim, hung with taxidermied deer heads and surrealist oil paintings. It was the perfect cap on the day. Still, in one evening I’d crossed two counties and experienced three separate events; I was starting to wonder if I’d had my fill.

Sunday morning came early, and I dragged under the weight of what felt like a culture hangover. If there is a limit to how much art a person can take, I feared I had reached it. I climbed reluctantly into my car and drove slowly to The Baker Museum in Naples, where I wanted to see the Olga Hirshhorn exhibit, an extensive bequest of modern and contemporary art from the late collector. I arrived just as the museum’s doors opened, and—apart from the security guards and the young woman working in the boutique—I was the only one there.

At the top of a flight of stairs, past the spilling Chihuly done in bright blues, were the rooms housing Mrs. Hirshhorn’s collection. There were paintings and sketches from some of the great names of the last century, many of them personalized to Hirshhorn, like an endearing freehand drawing by William de Kooning signed, “Love, Bill.” At a glass case, I pressed my face close to see the fine details in a small bronze hand sculpted by Rodin, and further on I found myself entranced by a mask from New Guinea and a pair of Oceanic ceremonial shields.

There is a stillness and quietude to be found in museums, especially empty museums, that can serve as a balm to the soul. I sat on a bench in one of the galleries for a long while, grateful for the solitude, and reveled in the Picassos and Miros spread out before me. In the way that a good massage can open up our bodies, those works served to open up my mind.

I might have finished there but I had one more stop on my weekend itinerary, and I wasn’t about to call it quits. Back in Fort Myers, at the Alliance for the Arts, I slipped into the theater. On stage, a bluegrass quartet—banjo, guitar, mandolin and standing base—was deep into their set. I have a cellist friend who says that when he plays it’s one of the only times in life that he feels ecstatic. Looking at the faces of the four people on stage, I recognized that ecstasy. It came through in their music.

Before I had set out on my cultural weekend, I told a friend about my plans.

“I’m not sure if it’s worth setting aside the time,” I confessed. “I mean, what does art do for us?”

She looked at me with her sternest don’t-back-out-on-this expression. “It makes us feel.”

Sitting in that darkened theater, tapping my feet to the sounds of ecstatic bluegrass, I knew she was right. So much of our modern lives is constructed so that we never have to look up from the screens in our hands to experience authentic emotion. Art does just the opposite. It forces us to look up. When we see a fine performance or admire visual work, we’re required to engage—with the people seated next to us or standing in the crowd, with ourselves as we sit alone in a gallery. Southwest Florida has many diverse options for exploring the arts. There’s no reason—no good reason—not to dip ourselves in the culture available here. Even if it’s not for the entire weekend.

 

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