Loggerhead sea turtle nesting season is over, yet 50 turtles have been seen around Collier County since November.

Even stranger, many of the turtles sport colors that loggerheads don’t normally have in nature, and many have been spotted miles from the beach.

These 50 individuals are the Turtles on the Town, a public art project and fundraiser on display until the end of February in locations all around Collier County. While the sculpture bases are identical, the collection represents 50 different approaches and imaginations to expand upon the idea of the original sculptor.

Similar public sculpture projects and auctions have been held in Naples in the past, and these projects create the opportunity for a scavenger hunt to visit the locations to see all of the unique artworks. Artist Justin Ungar painted his turtle with a luchador (Mexican wrestling) mask and tattoo designs. His turtle is on display in Immokalee’s Zocalo Plaza.

“The skeleton was there, but we were all creating the skin of the pieces,” Ungar said. “You have everything from traditional oil painting to mosaics and architectural enhancements to the turtles, so there’s quite a wide variety.

“Something that impressed me was the wide scope of art that this project brings into the public eye,” Ungar said. “In a project like this, it brings to light so many different artist and perspectives of what can be defined as art in so many different styles.


“Projects like this are important to our local scene, not just from the charitable standpoint, but from the learning standpoint and people being able to learn and know about different styles and perspectives that they didn’t before,” he said. “I would hope that someone would walk away from seeing this massive collection of turtles with a broader understanding of art outside of the parameters of what’s considered fine art in our area.”

The turtles will be auctioned at a gala in March, with proceeds to benefit the three nonprofits involved in producing the exhibition — the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Community Foundation of Collier County and the United Arts Council of Collier County. The project began as a way to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the community foundation.

“We were looking at the things we wanted to do (for the anniversary),” said Eileen Connolly-Keesler, president and CEO of the community foundation. “Give Where You Live was one of the things, but we thought it would be great to do an arts project because there hadn’t been one here for twelve years.”

Loggerhead sea turtles were chosen because Florida is one of only two places in the world where the turtles come ashore to nest, making them a unique symbol of the area. The conservancy studies and helps to protect this endangered species.

“We started having discussions about what we would do and what would the object be,” Connolly-Keesler said. “Once we determined the turtle was the route to go, obviously the conservancy and the arts council were the two partners that made most sense for us, so we have been partners working on this for the last 18 months.”

The turtles were molded of fiberglass-reinforced polyester from an original bronze sculpture, and they stand about five foot tall. Fifty different artists painted, and sometimes added additional sculptural embellishments to, the polyester replicas, thus creating 50 very different sculptures based upon the original.


“When you first look at the turtle and see the structure of it and its size, it’s very imposing as opposed to when you saw it on paper for the perspective design,” Ungar said. “Then you actually see the piece in front of you. It wasn’t intimidating, but you get lost in the possibilities of what you could do, and then you have to scale back your ideas and think what you can realistically accomplish.”

It takes a community of many different people and organizations contributing different things to make a project of this size happen. Among those contributing were 50 patrons who gave $5,000 each to sponsor a turtle. While many of these patrons are businesses that have their sponsored turtles on site for the public exhibition, other patrons are individuals and those sculptures are on exhibit at area parks and nonprofits.

The late Naples artist Kathy Spalding created and contributed the original bronze sculpture, which will also be offered for auction at the gala. Fifty artists contributed their time to embellish the molded replicas.

The sculptures had to be moved around, numerous times, in the process of creating the exhibit. Moving services were donated by William C. Huff Moving & Storage. Members of the Naples- Pelican Bay Rotary Club contributed the instillation work at the 50 exhibit sites.

“They had an open house in the moving company’s warehouse (before the installations), and they invited all the artists,” Ungar said. “It was a gigantic walk-through of all 50 of the turtles side by side, and we got to see the other artists’ work and meet artists we didn’t know about.”

The artists’ work also had to be protected from weather and potential nicks during handling. The employees of Supreme Auto Collision in Naples contributed their expertise by applying automotive clear coat donated by their supplier, Axalta Coating Systems, to the sculptures. Owner J.R. Nocera said this is the same grade of clear coat he uses when he performs bodywork on Bentleys.

“It lays out nicer,” Nocera said. “Those artists put so much time into the turtles, and a bad batch of clear coat would make them look bad.

“It was a team effort,” he said. “It’s tough to fit these kinds of things in, but when they asked, I couldn’t say no. We’re always trying to help the public. I asked my guys if we could work late, and they said, ‘Let’s line them up and get them done.’”

So pull up the interactive map on the project’s website, and go out on a scavenger hunt to see as many of the turtles as you can while they’re still free and available for the public to enjoy. If you wait until March, you’ll need a gala ticket to see them.

“Not only is it great fun to look at each turtle, I think that you really gain a true appreciation for the scope of this project when you see each individual one,” Ungar said. “If you take the time to go out and see each one of these individual pieces, each one tells a different story about the arts community and the experience of the artist, and you really gain a true appreciation of the massive scope of the project.”

Connect with this writer: @Laura TichySmith (Twitter)

If you go

What: Turtles on the Town

public art exhibit

When: On public exhibit until Monday, Feb. 29

Where: See website for the 50 locations

Cost: Most are in locations with no admission fee

Info: 250-1688; turtlesonthetown. com

What: Turtles on the Town Gala and Auction

When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday,

March 9

Where: The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, 1495 Smith Preserve Way, Naples

Cost: $500 per person


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