Sanibel's Artist Co-Op Survives

by Jeri Magg

THE LITTLE AQUA-BLUE BUILDING with yellow trim, nestled between the towering palms, is home to 23 local artists: painters, sculptors, photographers and doll makers, to name just a few. The Tower Gallery attracts visitors who seek professional artwork that’s unusual and sometimes whimsical.

It was an uphill battle to establish a firm foundation for this cooperative venture, but the Tower Gallery celebrated its 25th anniversary this past February. Begun in the Bell Tower Mall in 1982, hence the name Tower Gallery, it moved to Sanibel in 1993.

Perry Thompson, President of the cooperative, explains the concept. “It allows artists to exhibit their work in a profitable manner while offering the community an opportunity to experience all types of visual art.” Thompson’s style typifies the uniqueness of the gallery. His emulsion art starts with film from a photo that is in a liquid state. By moving and painting with film emulsion, he creates a distorted fluid image that is transferred to a large sheet of watercolor paper. He then adds pastels or paints to the paper.

Susan Sadler, Vice-President of the cooperative, enjoys being a member of the gallery. “Everyone here is dedicated to making it work—there’s lots of heart. For some of us, it’s our income. We’re professional painters as opposed to Sunday painters.” Sadler works in water-base paints to create colorful, two-dimensional pieces that are capricious and offbeat. Her style, which evolved as a result of her hand painted apparel business, is impressionistic and full of rich textures and vibrant colors.

Sculptor Ralph Bigletti, a metal shop teacher for more than forty years, is happy to be part of the co-op. “It’s a good crew. Everyone gets involved and takes turns manning the gallery.” His works, done with welded metal, are selling well. He doesn’t have a particular idea when he starts sculpting, but allows the material to dictate his piece.

Shirley Vale, an oil and acrylic artist, is noted for her style of impressionistic palette knife painting with a contemporary look. A twenty-year-plus member of the gallery, she’s chronicled the interesting history of Tower Gallery.

The cooperative was the result of an idea prompted by the Bell Tower Mall owners in 1982. They tried to induce prominent artists in downtown Fort Myers to place artwork in vacant storefronts. Instead the artists smartly negotiated to rent a large space at the mall on a month to month basis, for a nominal fee.

Eighteen artists formed the original Tower Gallery cooperative, incorporated and became a nonprofit. Vale, who joined in September of 1983, describes this first space as a fluorescent lighted barn with gray walls and concrete floor. The artists transformed the area by hanging a collection of colorful artwork and filling the empty spaces with zigzagged 4ft x 8ft particle board panels, providing room for more artists.

During this period, Tower Gallery Cooperative organized and built a fine reputation. However, in 1988 the artists lost the area when another tenant agreed to pay full price. As a consolation, mall owners offered free rental in a smaller spot opposite T.G.I. Friday’s. Vale reported that the new gallery reminded her of a one-lane bowling alley. Unfortunately, every time the group moved, several artists resigned.

Later that year, with more money in their pockets, fourteen artists opened a beautiful 2,432 square foot new Tower Gallery. Now in an “elegant surrounding” the group prospered holding two popular shows a year. They’d finally found a home.

But not for long. Tower Gallery was asked to vacate in 1993 when a new tenant, paying higher rent, wanted the space. Fast on their feet, members decided to accept an offer from artists Polly and Ikki Matsumoto, and moved to the building behind their gallery on Sanibel. Only eleven artists were willing to relocate.

After renovating, they learned that a restaurant wanted to rent the building.

Feeling like poor stepchildren, Tower Gallery members took solace by settling into the front three rooms of the Matsumoto Gallery. This was 1994, a time of great stress and turnover. Members felt that their sense of identity and autonomy was compromised because few visitors realized that Tower and Matsumoto galleries were separate.

In 1997 members heard that Matsumoto’s Gallery was sold; another move was surely imminent. But the sale fell through, forcing members to make a decision that would change their lives and fortunes.

After much discussion the co-op took over the entire building, added more artists and sublet a room to a framer. But, it was not a time without conflict.

An exclusivity clause was added to the gallery’s contract. Seven artists opposed and resigned, and the framer packed up with five months remaining on her lease. Then came September 11, 2001.

These events prompted a severe financial crisis. To avoid total failure, additional artists filled the void caused by the departure of the framer. Without money to advertise, foot traffic and sales were generated by setting up a gift shop.

Two years later the gallery was prospering, and a congenial group of artists were happily creating—until disaster struck—Hurricane Charley.

Miraculously, the gallery was spared but three more hurricanes put a damper on recovery. Hoping to change their economic fortunes, members put their collective heads together and came up with a marketing plan. “We had excellent leadership with Charlie Freeze and Perry Thompson, “ states Sadler. Their plan added six to eight art events a year. Each one, based on a special theme, some with a cocktail reception, generated visitors to the gallery. “We’re a destination gallery, so we have to entice the people to come,“ says Sadler.
Now fully recovered from the hurricanes, the gallery enjoyed a banner season in 2007. Monthly events, a new logo and an improved web site with Pay-Pal escalated visits to the gallery.

The artists at Tower Gallery are quite optimistic about the future. There’s renewed discussion about opening another gallery in South Fort Myers.

After being so well received by the public on Sanibel, many members are expanding their horizons.

Perry Thompson finished the last painting for his show on August 9 at New York City’s Amsterdam Whitney Gallery. He also plans to hold two or three local shows and is experimenting with emulsion painting. Since the film he’s used is no longer available, he’s working on a different type of process to ensure the same result.

Susan Sadler, whose clothing business is on hold, plans to spend the summer painting in order to accumulate a larger body of work in hopes of holding her own art shows.

Shirley Vale continues to paint thick, rich, multi-layered surfaces of brilliant and subtle colors, creating an almost sculptural effect. Her work is represented in numerous private collections throughout the United States and abroad.

Bigletti’s sculptures adorn many local offices and homes, and this November he’ll be ‘The Open Door Sculptor’ at Barrier Island Group of the Arts.

Tower Gallery members are already working on events for the coming year.

Two on the drawing board for the fall are sure to attract a crowd. On Saturday, October 20, ‘Art From the Artists,’ will be an all-day event. A theme show, ‘Something’s Fishy at Tower Gallery,‘ is scheduled for November 17 from 5 to 9.

Artistic whimsy will be used on old windows discarded after a recent renovation on the building. Each artist will create a scene and bring the windows back for an event called, ‘Looking Through Windows of the Tower Gallery.’ No date is set.

Thompson invites the public to pay a call at the little aqua-blue building on Tarpon Bay Road. “Come visit our casual gallery and have fun viewing the professional art work. Browse as long as you want and enjoy.“ With so much history and diverse art, it’s certainly worth the trip.

For more information about Tower Gallery, call 472-4557. •

from the September-October 2007 issue

Perry Thompson's
'Yin Yang Beach Day'

Charles Lister's
'Golden Glow'

Charlie Brown's
"Everyone here is dedicated
to making it work —
there's lots of heart."