‘Brushes with fame’: Paul Arsenault opens Marco Island show with personal reminisces

It’s always sunny in Arsenault land. Looking at the 30-plus original canvases displayed in the gallery at the Marco Island Historical Museum, at the opening of artist Paul Arsenault’s one-man show, you can’t help being struck by the plethora of pastel hues and the pervasive glow that drenches his work, not only reflecting the sunny Southwest Florida life, but to some extent, defining it. More than any other artist, a Paul Arsenault painting says “Naples.”

The artist himself was on hand, both to open the show, and to present a talk to a roomful at the Rose Auditorium attached to the museum. Entitled “Brushes with Fame,” the lecture, or really a series of reminisces illustrated by PowerPoint slides of his own and other’s works, shared stories of the famous artists and art collectors Arsenault has had occasion to meet and interact with over his career in, as he put it, “the art game.”

As a young, aspiring painter, Paul Arsenault told the group, he followed someone’s advice, and sent a letter with a self-addressed stamped envelope to ten of his favorite artists, asking for “ten minutes of your time” to help him. One of those he contacted was Captiva artist and titan of 20th century art Robert Rauschenberg.

Ten years later, as Arsenault was painting on Captiva, who should bike by but Robert Rauschenberg. He stopped to look at Paul’s canvas, and Paul told him of writing to him a decade earlier.

“Did I respond?” asked Rauschenberg.

“None of you did,” replied Arsenault.

“So he pinched me on the bottom, said ‘you should have enclosed a picture,” and rode off on his bike,” said Arsenault. “That was my brush with Rauschenberg.”

He told of trading a painting to Mel Fisher for a treasure coin recovered from the Spanish galleon Atocha, and coming back to Key West a year later to find his work tacked to the bulkhead of Fisher’s replica galleon, “with all sorts of crud dripping down” on it. Still later, the galleon sunk at the dock.

Arsenault recounted passing on the chance to buy a painting of his own house by artist Emile Gruppe for $350, a painting that later sold for $50,000. He told the story of traveling to Maine with a fellow student at the Art Institute of Boston, who was related to Andrew Wyeth’s model Christina Olsen, immortalized in “Christina’s World,” as well as 16-year old Siri, another of his muses.

“Siri was washing her hair at the pump, her mom was pulling apple dumplings from the oven, and then Andrew Wyeth walked in the door,” he said.

“I loved hearing that, because we went to see Andrew Wyeth when I was a girl, and I wouldn’t get out of the car until Mrs. Wyeth came out and persuaded me,” said Betsy Manchester after the talk.

Arsenault spoke to him of coming to the museum as a “homecoming,” stressing his strong affinity to the institution and the Marco community, said Historical Society stalwart Alan Sandlin. Arsenault painted the canvas that served as the basis for the museum’s enormous mural along the front wall, which Sandlin said is the largest tiled mural in the country.

Many of the canvases on display in the museum’s gallery feature local scenes, with Goodland, Everglades City and Chokoloskee well-represented. The show will be up through May, said museum spokesperson Lisa Marciano. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.

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