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Quirks of Art

Café society

When Sandra Vacca left her native Rhode Island and moved to Naples a decade ago, what she missed most was the café society she'd left behind. In Providence, she explains, there were always plenty of little cafés ideal for lingering over good coffee, meeting old and new friends and listening to hot music or cool poetry. Here, there only seemed to be bars.

"I'm 38, and I've done the bar scene. I didn't think there were any places here where you could just go and meet people," she says. Then one day four years ago, she discovered downtown Fort Myers. "The buildings were beautiful, and I fell in love with them," she recalls. "It had always been my dream to own my own business."

The time and place seemed right for Vacca to launch her version of café society. Today her cozy Liquid Café provides a haven for musicians, poets, painters and all manner of fringe and would-be artists-so much so, in fact, that Vacca opened a second Liquid at the Pavilion Shopping Center in Naples two years ago. "The Liquids aren't a typical bar atmosphere," Vacca notes. "They're places you feel comfortable going to by yourself."

Vacca also wanted to make Liquid a place for the arts. She started by seeking out area musicians and hosting open-mike nights. She also looked for visual artists and offered her walls as exhibition space. "I don't do much advertising, but word-of-mouth got around," she says. "Now I have musicians coming from West Palm Beach and Miami."

Go into either of the Liquids any evening of the week and you'll see art on the walls and hear someone making music or reading poetry. Much of the work is from up-and-comers, artists whose work is too new or too different to find a home in a traditional gallery or performance space. The cafés have exhibited metal sculptures, 3-D collages and extreme close-up portraits; and performers range from guitar-violin duo and rock bands playing original music to poets who rant, read and boldly create on the spot.

Vacca holds open-mike nights every Tuesday at both Liquids. When acts develop a following, she books them for a Saturday night in Fort Myers. Every Thursday (alternating between Naples and Fort Myers) is "Meet the Artist Night," introducing the work of a new visual artist. Mondays in Naples bring "No Sweat Poetry." The Fort Myers counterpart, "Lyricists' Lounge" happens on Wednesdays. She also offers "Singles Game Night" (Mondays in Fort Myers) and "Latin Dance Night" (Fridays in Naples).

Lunch is served daily in Fort Myers, and daytime hours in Naples vary with the season. But whenever you visit the Liquids, you can count on a great selection of coffee, beer and wine-and the freshest art around.

Liquid Café/Fort Myers is located at the corner of Hendry and First Streets in the heart of downtown. (941) 461-0444. Liquid Café/Naples is in the Pavilion Shopping Center. (941) 514-1700.

Orpheus ascending

When the greek hero Orpheus descended into the Underworld in search of his dead wife Eurydice, his music so charmed the ghosts that they allowed him to enter and plea for her to be returned to life.

Rob Rosenberger has no immediate plans to make a similar trip, but he does admit to a desire to explore uncharted territory with his art. And that's just what his Orpheus Players are doing-presenting innovative works seldom seen outside of big cities-and certainly not on Fort Myers Beach.

Actually, the theater troupe, which was started last year, takes its name not from the mythical character but from the Greek restaurant that has given it a home. "One of the owners, Tony Mallous, has always been a gentle artistic soul," Rosenberger says. "He had this dream to make his place a cultural center on the beach. They have jazz every Monday and poetry and storytelling."

After the theater group Rosenberger had been directing was left without a venue, Mallous offered them the chance to perform at the Orpheus.

Rosenberger, who has worked in most of the local theaters, says the opportunity allowed him to do edgy work that often doesn't get presented, including an original stage adaptation of the film Sex, Lies and Videotape. Although the productions have been well received, the material has occasionally led to some tensions.

"Our second show was 'Sexual Perversity in Chicago,'" Rosenberger recalls, "and we almost got cancelled on the eve of our opening. We did open, and it was by far our most successful production. We even extended the run for a few weeks, and the last performance was as exciting as the first." But the owners of Orpheus did shut down another of his troupe's productions, "Drinking in America," two nights before opening.

"I don't want to paint them as the bad guys," stresses Rosenberger. "They have concerns about their business; I understand that. And we were able to take the production somewhere else, to Paul Longua's Scope Shack. With the next show, we were back at the Orpheus."

The Orpheus Players went on to present "The God Buffet," a compilation of original and existing works, and "Jack Lemmon: A Tribute," which included re-creations from some of Lemmon's greatest works, from Some Like It Hot to Grumpy Old Men. This season, the group will tackle "Extremities," and Rosenberger would also like to produce a piece he's written that deals with relationships but carries a political undercurrent.

Rosenberger now thinks he may have reached the limits of artistic experimentation in Lee County and plans to move on to someplace more cosmopolitan within the year. Like the mythical Orpheus, he'll be leaving a love behind, but he says his love-the theater group-will be in the capable hands of fellow director Donna McDonald. "I hope the Orpheus Players will be strong enough to continue without me," he says. "It's the only live theater on the beach, and there's a place for it."

The Orpheus Players perform at the Orpheus Café, Fort Myers Beach. For information, call (941) 890-4033.

Musician on a mission

"I've always had an itch for political activism," says guitarist/songwriter Chris Foster. "I've written the occasional letter to my congressman, and politics show up on an isolated basis in my music. But it hasn't really defined my music. A lot of my music is just about life in general."

It's funny, though, how life in general gets intertwined with politics. That's a lesson Foster learned last summer, when the Naples City Council considered a ban on outdoor amplified music. Foster suddenly found himself at the center of a political storm, organizing a response to the situation.

"I don't know how I got to the head of the pack," Foster says with a laugh. "Someone at Tommy Bahama's expressed concern about the proposed ban and asked if I could check it out. When I checked, I thought, 'I'm going to be out of work!'"

Foster met with other concerned people, and found himself drafted to head up the organization, which dubbed itself CODA-Citizens Organized to Defend the Arts. The hastily drawn-together members mounted e-mail, letter and telephone campaigns and showed up in force on the day the council was to debate the matter. The officials quickly decided not to enact a music ban, but the incident convinced Foster and friends that a strong, unified voice for artists was imperative.

"Musicians are constantly on the defensive in this arena [public performance]," Foster explains. "The initial concept of CODA was to respond to this threat, but the long-term goal is to establish a flag we can rally behind, so governments will know they're dealing with this force. It's being able to deliver one big shot across the bow, instead of all of us coming in individually, carrying slingshots."

Because all arts and artists need an advocacy group, Foster says CODA will continue to grow and evolve. The acronym has already been broadened to stand for Citizens Organized to Defend and Develop the Arts. And the group plans to keep an eye on such issues as censorship and protecting school arts programs from budget cuts. Foster hopes the local efforts will eventually grow into a national movement.

In the meantime, there's music to be made and played. Foster, who began playing guitar at 12, figures he's written more than 150 songs, ranging from Latin sambas to orchestral pieces to New Age melodies to pop tunes and ballads. In addition to regular solo gigs at local restaurants, he's a member of the Bungalow Band (named for one of Tommy Bahama's house brews), which plays country clubs and events.

"It's a good hybrid band," Foster says. "We can play anything from the styles of Miles Davis to Jimmy Buffett. And the musicianship of the band members-Stu Shelton, Craig Christman, Dave McNabb and Steve Friedman-is very skilled. We can shift gears at any time in a show."

Such creative flexibility is important for artists-whether they're responding to an audience or making a political statement.

For more information about Chris Foster or to hear selections from his CD, visit www.chrisfostermusic.com or call (941) 403-5494.

Like a candle on the wall

Lynn Flathers has always considered herself an artist, but her move to Naples a year and a half ago led her to discover a whole new form of creative expression-"painting" with wax.

Flathers, who has created woodcarvings since she was a little girl in Louisville, Kentucky, has experimented with other media over the years, too-including making candles. Those candles-in rainbow and composite block styles-caught the attention of Liquid Café owner Sandra Vacca, who asked Flathers to exhibit her candles and perhaps some paintings at the Naples café.

"I tried doing some paintings, but I couldn't get what I wanted," recalls Flathers. "Then I put wax on the canvas and found my niche."

Flathers dubs her waxy canvases "dimensional wax mosaics." Once she has a design in mind, Flathers begins by pouring out regular paraffin wax in sheets. After a sheet hardens, she breaks pieces off or cuts them out with a knife and lays them on canvas. She repeats the process until she's created a mosaic. Finally, she melts the wax into the canvas, using heat guns and hair dryers.

Flathers' wax mosaics range from expressionistic flowers and butterflies to realistic palms and sailboats. The ones created with broken wax have a rough texture she especially likes. She mixes her own dyes into the wax, using a variety of colors to convey a range of moods, and the pieces have a remarkable luster and sheen-particularly when illuminated by candlelight.

She makes sure those candles don't get too close. Flathers doesn't use sealants, so too much heat is a concern. "I suggest people not hang them in direct sunlight or in temperatures above 98 degrees," she says. "I did a little experiment on my back porch. The sun there raised the temperature to 144 degrees, and I had a piece liquefy. Some of the wax stayed in place, so it was kind of interesting. But I wouldn't recommend it."

Flathers continues to explore the potential of her new medium. She says she's always experimenting with designs and techniques and hopes to have other exhibitions this season.

Pictures of Lynn Flathers' wax mosaics and candles are posted on her website: www.n2candles.com. Or call (941) 775-2157.

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