Down By The River:
Art Galleries Downtown

by Cindy-jo Dietz

ESTABLISHED IN 2008 and still going strong 6-10pm every first Friday of the month — year round — Art Walk has taken the downtown Fort Myers River District by storm. In the current poor economy, art sales have taken a hard hit, but you would never know it by attending this art event.

Visitors can expect to see everything from street musicians to belly dancers as they walk the sidewalks and streets from gallery to gallery. Local restaurants keep their doors open late and some also provide outdoor kiosks where passersby can stop for a quick drink.

I arrived downtown a little after 7:30pm, meeting up with friends at Cafe’ Matisse at the corner of Hendry & First Streets. It’s an ideal place to start. From this intersection you find yourself pretty much in the center of the event. Although a restaurant, not a gallery, Cafe’ Matisse holds exhibitions, with a monthly rotation of new artists. Opening night for each exhibition coincides with Art Walk. And it has outside seating perfect for people watching. After a glass of wine and a quick bite, we were off to investigate what Art Walk had to offer. We visited several galleries taking in as much as we could over the next few hours.

First stop: Space 39. I got the feeling I was walking into a swank ‘big city’ gallery.

Space 39 houses various styles of art from ‘Contemporary to Edgy to Outsider’, hosting artists such as Clark Fox (pop art) and Lilly & David Hatchett (contemporary sculpture and painting). Space 39 is also teaming up with Professor Patricia Fay, from the Ceramics Department of FGCU, with the intention of introducing young artists to the public. In February, Space 39 hosts artist Hal Bukner, who will be showing sculptures representing the female nude.

Terry Tincher, has been a Fort Myers resident since the 80s and has owned Space 39 since 2005. Asked about Art Walk, Terry confirmed, “You see the results. Downtown is packed. It’s what we have dreamed about. The restaurants are full. The bars are full. The streets are full.”

Stop two: Howl Gallery/Tattoo. Howl promotes its edgy, rock-n-roll-ish image, with an eclectic array of exhibitions. Not only an art gallery, Howl designs and creates custom tatoos and presents musical performances on the patio by groups such as Cosmic Mountain.

Andy Howl describes the art in his gallery as “Pop, contemporary, low-brow, a little bit of west coast, etc...”

Beginning January 1, Howl presents work by Rene Miville, photographer for music groups such as Fugazi and Pantera, and magazines such as Italian Vogue. In February, the gallery presents ‘Rework and Recycle’, art purchased from thrift stores and ‘reworked’. Submissions are currently being accepted for the exhibition. In March, artist Eric Talbot (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) will have a show and there will be a book signing by X-Men writer Chris Claremont).

On to the Broadway Arts & Culture Display. Unfortunately, the gallery was being reorganized, but we did get to speak to local artist Joe LeMay who was manning the door and handing out information. Joe is a local illustrator and surrealist-abstract painter. He’s been working in the area for two years and sees the possibilities Art Walk offers. “It’s been helping a great deal,’ says Joe. “Probably about 80% of our business has been due to Art Walk — either on that night or information is exchanged and buyers follow through later.” He continues, “It’s the main contribution to the area, artistically, and the big cultural event right now.”

Joe LeMay’s work is on display at daas Gallery and at Cafe’ Matisse.

That brings us to daas Gallery. Like many east coast galleries from Palm Beach to Miami, daas is located in a long, narrow space. As usual, artwork is presented at eye level, but a host of additional pieces hang higher, near the ceiling. More work is displayed down the center of the room, allowing for a constant flow of the crowd.

David Acevedo, owner and curator of the Gallery as well as an artist himself sees a newly emerging art scene in Fort Myers. “After I opened the gallery, I realized there are a lot of excellent, quality, local artists that people don’t know about because they haven’t had the exposure, or they haven’t had enough exposure,” explains David.

David also sees the benefits of Art Walk, noting, “If we didn’t have Art Walk it would be very difficult for us to survive.”

Upcoming at daas Gallery are solo exhibition by Stephen Gray Blanchett in January, sculptor Kirk Vaughn in February, and Paul Rodino in March.

As we approached the Arts for ACT Gallery & Boutique, we found local singer/songwriter Joe Verta strumming his guitar welcoming everyone who entered. The Arts for ACT space appears to be a small venue when you first walk in, but you quickly realize there is more than what first catches the eye. There are several smaller display rooms, each having its own flavor and feeling. In addition to paintings, drawings and sculptures, there is also clothing, accessories and nick-knacks on display.

Arts for ACT is the only non-profit gallery in downtown, owned by the Domestic Violence Sexual Assault Center.

Currently on display are artists such as Kim Craft (mixed media) and Tom McNabb (digital), among the more than 75 artists the gallery shows. Curator Claudia Goode praises the event. “Art Walk has helped us tremendously. It brings people in. It brings the buyer in.”

We walked east down First Street for our last stop of the evening to the Sidney & Berne Davis Art Center. Established in 2006, the gallery is housed inside the historic former Fort Myers post office and Florida Federal Building, built in 1933. The Art Center is a spectacular example of ongoing renovation to historic architecture. The main display area is massive, with tall ceilings and granite flooring, allowing for artwork on a large scale.

The Center has also adopted a theatre program, ‘One Act’.

The Center tries to match the art on display with the theme of the ‘One Act’ performances. For instance, for the production of A Clockwork Orange, the display had a mechanical theme. Themes run for a month, loosely coinciding with Art Walk.

The Center also has plans to expand into teaching art, presenting dance performances, and creating a sculpture garden.

Upcoming ‘One Act’ performances include Women Beware Women, by Thomas Middleton, February 3-13; and Talk Radio, by Eric Bogosian, March 11-20.

Upcoming gallery exhibitions at the Art Center include: ‘Slave to Vanity,’ by artist Michael St. Amand, January 1-14; and ‘Four Photographers and Friends,’ by Sokol Projects, February 5-26.

As we walked down the marble steps in front of the Berne Art Center we stumbled into a makeshift drum circle complete with dancers and children laughing and jumping.

The night was getting late and we hadn’t seen all the galleries — we didn’t make it to the Art League of Fort Myers gallery — but the after-party was just getting started around the corner at Spirits of Bacchus.

Annette Trossbach, Director of Theatre, is a fan of Art Walk. “I think it’s wonderful. I know people that come from Port Charlotte, Naples, Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres,” she says.”They’re having dinner, checking out art, coming to see ‘One Act’ plays, going out for a drink, and hanging out all evening. It’s the place to be every first Friday of the month.”

And now the fun of first Fridays’ Art Walk has given rise to a new first Saturday afternoon Art Fair, with local artists displaying their work in Patio de Leon off First Street. Galleries in the area will be open, with some offering ‘Make-It & Take-It’ projects for children.

The art scene in Fort Myers is not only alive and well, it’s thriving. Spend an evening walking through the historic River District in downtown Fort Myers and have a great time seeing new art, tasting new foods and making new friends. •

from the January-February 2010 issue

Space 39
Terry Tincher

Howl Gallery
Andy Howl

daas Gallery
David Acevedo

Arts for ACT Gallery
Claudia Goode

1451 Monroe Street

2265 First Street

1542 Broadway

1514 Broadway

39 Patio de Leon

2301 First Street

2031 Jackson Street