On the night of a SoCo Cultural District’s Second Saturday event, a crowd has gathered in the gallery of Alliance for the Arts. The evening’s main attraction is a juried photography exhibit, and both the judge of the contest—Florida SouthWestern State College professor Steve Chase—and the winners are on-hand to talk about the work. Hilda Champion, whose side-by-side portraits of oversized hands reaching toward the camera against a black background won second place, explains her process.
“I was looking to express this feeling coming out,” she says. “It was a rainy day and there was nothing to photograph outside, so I set up a tripod, put on a black sweater—”
The professor jumps in. “So it’s a self-portrait?”
SoCo is becoming the go-to cultural district in Fort Myers, an up-and-coming hub for those who love the arts, and it was time we checked it out for ourselves. The people in the Alliance gallery are refreshingly diverse on this particular night, a mix of ages and ethnicities, some in jeans and loafers, the women in funky earrings, one man with a Nikon slung casually over one shoulder. The arts scene is sometimes maligned for it’s arched-eyebrow snootiness, but in SoCo—that’s short for “south of Colonial”—the vibe is more casual than uptight. Lydia Black, executive director of Alliance for the Arts, says this was part of the SoCo founding committee’s goal.
“SoCo, from our perspective, does two things,” Black says. “One, we want to have good relationships with the artists and arts organizations in our immediate area so that the lines of communication are open and we can cross-promote. The other thing—the committee wanted to make sure that we had an event for everyone. Whether you’re the youngest art lover or the oldest, there’s a space for you. Each SoCo Second Saturday reflects something a little different, and we’re trying to provide all different sorts of the arts to a wide spectrum of folks who might pop in and see what’s happening.”
At the Alliance, the group stays in the gallery to examine the third-place winner’s photograph—“You think you have to go to this fantastic place when the answer is right there,” the professor is saying—but I head to the Union Artist Studios housed in the building next door. One of the great things about the SoCo Cultural District and the reason its founder, artist David Acevedo, saw the potential for Second Saturdays is the close proximity of its galleries and theater spaces.
“Having just opened a gallery in Royal Palm Square, I figured we kind of needed it,” Acevedo says. “We had the infrastructure for an event with the Alliance, the Union Artist Studios, Studio Os Urbanos in the Key West Buildings, Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre—there are so many venues in that little area that would be part of it. I figured, why not come up with another art crawl?”
Acevedo helped found the First Friday Art Walk in the downtown Fort Myers River District, but he says SoCo and its Second Saturdays have a different feel.
“Nothing against the art walk,” he says, “but with time it’s become more of a party scene, more of a restaurant-going scene, more of a bar scene. The focus on the actual art is minimal. I’m very pleased to say there’s no distraction in the SoCo Cultural District. We don’t have the bars, we don’t have the plethora of restaurants taking over. People coming here are coming for the cultural aspect. They come to see an exhibit, and they stick around to see the live performances, the music. It’s a completely different environment. Which is fantastic. That’s what it’s intended for.”
At the Union Studios, I make my way to Ocasiocasa, the studio of two of my favorite artists, husband-and-wife team Jeff and Dale Ocasio, known for their painted sculptures.
“He does the sculpting and I do the painting,” Dale is explaining to a middle-aged man with a ponytail when I walk in. “This is where we make most of the stuff. We started off sculpting over old toys, and our art is very character-driven—because of the toys.”
The man nods enthusiastically. “You could make a movie with this stuff.”
His significant other is browsing in another room, and when she walks over to where he’s standing she lays a conspiratorial hand on Dale’s arm and whispers, “You know, you could make a movie with this stuff.”
As Dale goes into her thoughts on movie-making, I step outside. Market lights hang across the building’s courtyard and a string of wish flags snap in the night breeze. “Peace,” one reads, and another: “Good wishes for all the artists.” Down the stairs and across the parking lot to Royal Palm Square, I make my way to DAAS Co-op, a collaborative gallery founded by Acevedo that features the work of 25 artists.
At the gallery, a man holds the door for a tall, striking woman in a short black dress edged in colorful patchwork with glass jewelry around her neck and hanging from her ears.
“Let me get that for you,” he says, “work of art that you are.”
The space inside is divided into several galleries featuring a range of media—photography, paintings, 2-D mixed media, sculpture, ceramics and glassware. A musician plays jazz saxophone in one corner, and a little girl flops down in a chair while another tilts her head for a different perspective on a series of paintings. Snippets of conversation float over.
“A lot of experimental stuff—”
“I love that cozy fireplace feel. That’s what earth tones do for me—”
“She’s just such a talent—”
“All the layers—”
Notes from an electric guitar outside drift through the gallery doors as they open and close, and it occurs to me that there are many ways to consume art. What SoCo has done brilliantly is bring them all together.