Artist Ikki Matsumoto’s whimsical depictions of Sanibel’s wildlife have become like emblems for the island. His Sandpiper pieces, inspired by the birds flocking to the receding tide, pecking at coquinas and scurrying away from the incoming waves, can be found in galleries, businesses and homes across the world. Those needle-beaked birds earned him great acclaim (Ikki was tapped by Nancy Reagan to create an Easter egg for the White House after gaining recognition for the Sandpipers), and they only represent a fraction of the impact he and his wife, Polly, had on Sanibel. Together, they helped shape the island into the colorful place that it is today.
His work, along with resear-ched history and personal stories about his family’s life in Southwest Florida are chronicled in Captivated: The Art of Ikki Matsumoto. Released last fall, the book, which recently won the Richard E. Rice Gold Medal Prize for Visual Arts from the Florida Book Awards, marks the first time the prolific artist’s work has been compiled into a published collection.
Considering the place the Matsumotos hold in island lore, it’s fitting that the project would be born on its sandy shores. A few years after Ikki passed away in 2013, Steve Saari, a creative director and fellow Sanibel resident, called upon Polly and the Matsumotos’ daughter, Amy Matsumoto Urich, to help create a book to span Ikki’s artistic career. “My wife Karen actually said, ‘I wonder why there isn’t a book of Ikki’s work?’” he says. “I called Polly shortly after that and got the idea and ball rolling.” Flipping through the pages, you see how the island developed—and, in many ways, blissfully didn’t develop—with the Matsumotos since their arrival in the ’70s. For anyone who grew up in this area, the lighthearted, delightful appeal of Ikki’s wildlife illustrations serve as a reminder to stop and appreciate our environment. His ability to translate the whimsy of our shores onto paper draws so many of us in. It’s also a quality that we seem to need and long for more these days. That’s in part why earlier this year, I met with Amy and Saari to see the island through Ikki and his family’s eyes.
Driving over the Sanibel Causeway, I can imagine a young Ikki sitting at the Lighthouse Beach with Amy as a child, sketching out plans for a Sandpiper piece. “We lived off of those Sandpipers,” she later tells me as we’re standing by the beach. “That’s what fed us.” Though each of the Matsumoto clan eventually moved away from Sanibel, the island remains a big part of their lives. Amy often visits with her own kids, bringing them to art galleries and to the beaches to look for coquinas in the sand, like she did with her dad as a child. “Dad would make coquina soup,” she says with a laugh. “No one else would eat it, but we loved helping him collect them.”
Amy, Saari and I start our journey at the new campus for BIG ARTS, an organization that Ikki and Polly helped launch in the late ’70s with a handful of fellow artists, who would meet at each other’s homes and host events wherever they could. “But then mom found the cottage,” Amy says. That cottage became the foundation of BIG ARTS, which the arts group eventually built around to include more spaces to showcase. In 2019, the cottage was torn down and a new facility was constructed, fully equipped to host large-scale performances, exhibitions and an assortment of art classes for the community. “It all came from that idea back in the ’70s,” Saari says. “They said, ‘Let’s get something going here, let’s get organized and let’s get together.’”