Coloring The World

by Cindy-jo Dietz

THE FORT MYERS GALLERY SCENE has been growing exponentially, solidifying its place among well known artisan benchmark communities such as Naples, Marco Island and Sarasota. These cities, well known for their eclectic social arenas and inspirational atmosphere, have lured many local Florida artists into calling them home. The downtown Fort Myers area is no exception, boasting its own impressive list of shops and storefronts catering to every taste and need — from small galleries displaying the work of several local artists to galleries exhibiting ‘museum quality’ showcases to the artist-owned and operated establishments dotting the side streets of downtown. Here is where you will find artist and gallery owner, Stephen Gray-Blancett.

I sat down with Stephen, who recently received the Lee County Alliance for the Arts’ Angels of the Arts award for Visual Artist of the Year, outside The Hideaway Sports Pub to discuss his background, his work, his gallery and what he thinks of the downtown Fort Myers art scene.

Cindy-jo: We were just in your gallery and it’s super small. Tell me what about that appeals to you.

Stephen Gary-Blancett: I was exhibiting at daas Gallery and I took a break and went to listen to some music at the Hideaway Sports Pub. My friends, who own Hideaway, said “Y’know, you should rent the place next door.” They were using it as their office. I didn’t even say “Yeah, maybe, I’ll look into it.” I said, “OK, lets do it!” I didn’t know how much it was going to cost or anything. So that’s how it came about. Within 30 days we were open. It’s great because, on Saturdays I can sit here [Hideaways] and watch the gallery, have a beer, and if somebody comes by I go in. The downtown area is so nice. It’s quaint. There is always something going on down here. Two weeks ago, there was bike night, which is a little different from the gallery crowd, but it’s still fun.

I’ve exhibited downtown many times over the years. I’ve done very well. I think I’ve exhibited at Arts for Act Gallery maybe four or five times. I’ve held the record there for the most attendance of any opening they’ve had, and also the record for the most sales they’ve had. Arts for Act is a non-profit that’s very close to my heart. I’ve been involved with them for the past ten years and was recently chosen as one of the twelve featured artists for their coming auction this August. So, I’m excited about that.

You received the Angels of the Arts award for Visual Artist of the Year? Do you feel like it’s boosted your recognition in the community?

I’ve been nominated for it in the past, ever since the very first year. The first two years I was nominated for Best New Artist and then every year since then I was nominated for Visual Artist of the Year. And one year I was nominated as Best New Artist and Visual Artist of the Year

Has the award done anything for your art sales or for the gallery?

Well, my stuff has been doing pretty good anyhow. This past year I’ve sold over a hundred paintings which is pretty good considering the economy right now. But I’ve changed what I was doing. Normally my paintings are five, six, seven feet, but those aren’t selling like they used to, back four or five years ago. I was getting good money for those, but that’s not the market right now. So, I’ve downsized the size of the paintings so they’re a lot more reasonable. Those are the ones that are selling. So, for the past two years, I’ve been calling it my recession series.

Can you tell me a little bit about what your style is and how it’s changed over the years?

It’s abstract, but it’s very colorful abstract. I also do portraits. I do some nudes as well, but they’re more abstract in color and more realistic in form. I’m working on two commissioned pieces right now. They’re portraits and they’re going to be realistic, but very abstract in color.

What got you started in art?

I’ve always painted, even as a kid. My first exhibit — I think I was eight years old — I did a watercolor called ‘A Boy and His Dog’. I just did a little self portrait, you know, of myself with my dog. It ended up being selected for showcasing at the local library. So, that was my first exhibit, at eight. Also back in, I guess it would have been seventy three, seventy two or so, I did a cartoon of Richard Nixon. I sent it to the White house. I got a letter back from them thanking me for it, I’m sure it was from his secretary or a staff member, but it was cool to get that.

You’ve been a ‘commercial artist’ for a long time. How does that work inform what you are doing now?

I’ve been in that business for 28 years. I had my own ad agency — and a graphic design business for about nine years down in Naples. I’ve had some really awesome clients. I’ve enjoyed working with them and I still do, but what I love about my fine art is I don’t have to market or brand it. I just do what I want to do. I can breathe free. It’s me being me.

I had a ‘change of life’ thing about ten years ago. My clients, like financial institutions or anything that wasn’t helping others — I just didn’t want to do it any more. I only want to do things that will somehow change the world in some way, or help somebody else. I kept some clients, like the Children’s Advocacy Center in Naples. I’ve had them as client about nine or ten years, maybe longer. I do illustrations and stuff for their promotions. So, that’s fun.

I read on your website that Coloring The World is a charity?

Coloring The World was actually an idea I had before I opened the gallery. In fact, my exhibit at daas Gallery was themed ‘Coloring The World’. The goal was to send art supplies to children in Tanzania.

My ‘change of life’ experience? I went mountain climbing, as part of a fundraising trip to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. The funds we raised benefitted the children’s hospital here. Our goal was to originally raise $30,000 dollars, but instead we raised close to $400,000. We got to tour an orphanage over there. They told us to bring pencils, that the kids needed things like that. As we were leaving the orphanage, I gave the kids pencils but also colored pencils. They had never seen them. They were just so in awe of these colored pencils. Just going over there and visiting the orphanage and seeing how these kids are, looking at how colored pencils were such a huge thing for them. So, my goal was to provide art supplies to them. But I also wanted to help children locally. This past September, when back-to -school season came , ‘I Can’, another organization I am very close to, put the call out. They needed school supplies for some of their clients. I called them up and we supplied them with backpacks and school supplies for the kids. That was kind of nice to be able to work locally as well.

When I had to think of a name for the gallery it was a no-brainer.

What is the craziest feedback you’ve gotten on a painting?

I think the most insulting one was “That’s a nice frame. I love the frame.” Because I do abstract, I get a lot of different feedback.

If I’m in a funk, either at the gallery or if I’m exhibiting somewhere else, when somebody’s looking at my work and talking I like to walk up and listen to what they’re saying without them knowing that I’m the artist of the piece. I was exhibiting in Naples a couple years ago and I had this: It was a political painting, ‘Ron and the Moron’. It was George W. and Ronald Reagan. This woman was looking at her friend. They were talking about the painting. Y’know, it’s a very conservative area here between Fort Myers and Naples, so I had to listen to what they were saying. So, I walked up behind her. What she said totally surprised me. She said, “Oh, I’d like to shake the hand of the person who painted that.” So, I tapped her on the shoulder and I shook her hand. It’s fun to get feedback from people who don’t know that I’m getting feedback from them.

I’ve had some back issues so I haven’t had anything of my own up in the gallery in over five months, maybe a couple of little pieces, but I just haven’t been able to paint. I’ve been receiving treatment for like eight weeks and it’s really been helping — so I’m back to painting now. The one thing that I’ve gotten from people who are regulars at the gallery is, “It’s not the same without your work. When are you going to get your stuff in?” So you know, it’s kind of nice to hear that kind of feedback. People see your work and they recognize when they don’t see it. They miss it.

Does the gallery ever put out a call to artists or does it keep with solicited material by artists you know personally?

Since we’ve opened we’ve always had a guest artist every month. We have one more booked for September, but other than that we’re going to keep it “Coloring The World” featuring the artist Stephen Gray-Blancett. It’s just easier. I’ve enjoyed having other artists, but because of our size, and my stuff does sell, I’d rather have my own work in there.

What do you think makes your work different? When your customers purchase a piece, what are they telling you they’re purchasing it for?

It’s the feeling. It’s really what it is. It is because for the most part they are very colorful, but some are very mood invoking. I do have a following. This couple from England has bought four of my paintings now. This one gentlemen bought up to seven of my paintings. It’s kind of odd when I go to his house. He invited me over because he was having a reception party for the hanging of some of my new work. He gets his friends and neighbors over. It’s kind of like walking around in my own gallery.

What are your goals for the next year, and coming years? Are you looking for a larger space for the gallery?

I don’t have any real desire to move from where I’m at. I like the size of the gallery although I’m planning on raising the ceiling and making some modifications. I would like to rip out the floor, maybe put hardwood floors in — just spruce it up a little bit.

In December I bought a home in Alva , which is a place I always wanted to be, either Buckingham or Alva. I wanted to have a place where I could have a garden. I love to cook. Recently, I wrote a cook book called Artist in the Kitchen and currently I’m developing the website Artist in the Kitchen as well.

Being in Alva — because I have a studio on the second floor — I’ve noticed I’m more in tune with nature. I’m going to be doing more abstract stuff, but I’m going to be hiding more nature pieces in there, maybe different animals and stuff in some of my work.

Is Fort Myers a good place to call home if you are looking to get going in the gallery business?

It is. I would like to see every lawyer and every real estate office on the first floor of some of these buildings here downtown move to the second floor so we could have more galleries down here. Like today we have the car show and we have a lot of people coming down here for that, but it would be so nice to see every storefront open with a gallery or something eclectic, something like the Franklin Shops. What they do over there is great!

The thing is, there is so much talent in this community. The gallery owners are all friends. We all know each other. We all admire each other. We inspire each other to do more art. Like David [Aceveda] who owns daas Gallery, I love his work. It’s great. His work is so inspiring to be around. So much art, so many artists and so much creativity.

I love coming down here. Y’know, it’s just a great little town. •

from the July-August 2011 issue

1422 Dean St.
historic River District
downtown Fort Myers