As an island community, Marco Island is all about the waterfront. This was even more true in the old days before bridges connected Marco with the low-lying swamps across the river, and the rest of the world behind them.
So the Marco Island Historical Museum is the ideal venue for a new exhibit of paintings and artifacts by renowned area artist Paul Arsenault, whose connection to the area, and life as a mariner, was solidified when he first arrived in Florida as a deckhand on a “rust bucket” research vessel.
Titled “Coastal Trade: Bounty, Booty, and Boats of the Gulf and Glades from Naples to Key West,” the exhibit includes 38 original Arsenault paintings, plus historical images and artifacts from his personal collection, including woodcarvings by area pioneer Rob Storter, the “Cracker in the Glades” who was recently the subject of his own one-man show at the museum.
Arsenault’s oils depict many scenes from Naples, Marco, Goodland and Everglades City that now exist only in memory, or in the pigments on his canvases. The entire assemblage comes from his own trove of paintings, plucked from the walls of his Old Naples home, the nearby gallery or dug out of storage. A number were newly painted for the exhibit, which runs through March 3.
The works are not necessarily for sale, Arsenault said at the exhibit's opening reception Wednesday evening, but make an offer because you never know.
“It’s easier to paint them than to sell them,” the artist said with a smile, although his paintings are something of an institution in Southwest Florida, and therefore command hefty prices.
Marco Island-specific paintings in the exhibit include a depiction of the bygone clam cannery at Caxambas Pass, which opened in 1905 next to Jim Barfield’s store, and Captain Horr's house on Horr’s Island, now known in real estate parlance as Key Marco. A more recent piece of history is the still-extant Old Marco Inn (now Old English-ed as the “Olde Marco Inn”), along with a 1981 painting of a boat rental facility in Goodland.
The notes that accompany each painting offer fascinating historical tidbits: “To this day, Goodland retains the funk, function and ambiance of a genuine working waterfront,” the placard reads.
“We’re truly combining art and history,” Pat Rutledge, the museum's executive director, said. “We’re telling stories of Marco Island and our past.”
Arsenault has a longstanding connection with the historical museum; a painting of his was used as the model for the massive tiled mural on the outer wall of the building, and he contributed five paintings to the two dozen that circle the museum on the outside.
Arsenault’s art has taken him all over the world, often focusing on islands and waterfronts. From a second home he and his wife Eileen purchased on Maui to his longtime summer residence in Nantucket, the artist has journeyed and painted in farflung locales including Domenica and numerous Caribbean islands, Central and South America, Greece and Indonesia.
But regardless of what's depicted in the painting, it's instantly recognizable as an Arsenault original.
“Up close they look like colorful blobs of paint, but then you back up and it just snaps together,” Judy Zacharski said. “It’s fascinating how that works.”
“Paul is a remarkably talented artist,” Austin Bell, the museum's curator, said. “He’s been in this area so long, and he has a unique perspective.”
“I wanted to show this area, the boats and the buildings, and the things that are gone forever,” Arsenault said. “For the last 40 years I’ve been painting the waterfront. These paintings are windows into how it was back in the day.”
If You Go
Marco Island Historical Museum
Where: 180 S. Heathwood Drive
When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday
Information: themihs.org or 239-642-1440