KEY WEST, Florida Keys — In the mid-1930s, when the Great Depression had devastated the Florida Keys and much of the United States, the federal Works Progress Administration helped bring artists and writers to Key West to paint murals, write guidebooks and teach craft classes to help revitalize the economy.
Some of those classes were taught at the Key West Community Art Center, believed to be the WPA’s first public art project, which eventually grew into the Key West Art Center. Today the facility, housed since 1960 in a historic structure at 301 Front St., is renowned as the oldest artists’ membership organization in the Keys.
Inside the picturesque wooden gallery building, which dates back to the 1890s and features the work of more than 50 Keys artists, a visual tapestry of color and creativity awaits visitors. Paintings in many mediums are arranged on the walls in well-designed profusion, interspersed with ceramics and sculptures on cool white pedestals, prints in bins and even handcrafted jewelry.
Art lovers can view Maggie Ruley’s vibrantly colorful paintings, shipwright artisan Thomas Avery’s multigenre creations, Jane Grannis’s sculptural and functional “Keysware” ceramics, Kim Workman’s gyotaku fish prints, Abigail White’s imaginative “conch shell home” images, Dawn Wilkins’ nature-print designs and much more.
The building’s upstairs gallery houses a permanent exhibit spotlighting the center’s history and the works of the late Martha Watson Sauer, who was employed by the WPA to teach weaving and watercolor classes. Prolific as well as extremely talented, she produced artwork for WPA tourist brochures as well as for the Key West Aquarium and other attractions launched in the 1930s and later. Her fine art is distinctive and rich in sun-dappled light, evoking an almost dreamlike sense of the past.
The Key West Art Center’s other offerings are as enticing as the works on display. Artist members offer classes and workshops, taught primarily online via Zoom, to share insights into multiple aspects and disciplines of visual artistry.
In addition, the center is known for presenting the annual open-air Key West Craft Show and Old Island Days Art Festival. The highly acclaimed events are a longstanding tradition for both art lovers and talented exhibitors from the Florida Keys and around North America.
In fact, several hundred artists and artisans from the U.S. and Canada apply each year to display their creations in Key West’s sunny subtropical setting. The nationally recognized shows are juried to ensure high quality, and approximately 100 exhibitors are chosen for each.
This year, the two are to be combined into a single two-day event blending unique art and fine crafts in a variety of genres. Scheduled Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 27-28, it is to take place at Key West’s spacious Truman Waterfront Park to allow ample room for social distancing.
According to organizers, the first Old Island Days Art Show was conceived decades ago to raise funds to restore the building that became the Key West Art Center’s gallery. Proceeds continue to support the organization’s programs and maintain the historic building.
From the WPA era throughout its venerable history, the nonprofit center has remained true to its mission: providing a year-round “home” for local artists and their work, and safeguarding the heritage of Key West as a city of artists.