Art, history – and water: Arsenault show at Rookery Bay ‘covers the waterfront’

Lance Shearer

Longtime Naples painter Paul Arsenault exhibiting at Rookery Bay during Collier County’s centennial year brings together a lot of threads – nature, history, art, and ecological stewardship – all in one forum.

The Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center (ELC) is hosting “Paul Arsenault’s Reflections of Collier County: Celebrating 100 Years of Our Waterfronts,” from May 2 to July 28.

The one-man show features some of the paintings Arsenault has created in 50 years of painting in Collier County, from Everglades City to Marco Island, Goodland, and Naples, as well as pieces from his new collection titled “For the Love of Water.”

Water has been a recurring motif and subject of Arsenault’s art, even before he first came to Florida as a deckhand on an oceanographic vessel from Woods Hole in 1973, discovered Naples and fell in love with it. Sitting on the front porch of his century-old home just up from the Naples Pier, Paul talked history, painting, and water. The beautiful, tranquil surroundings look like an Arsenault canvas come to life, and Paul has painted the house numerous times. You would never guess that the home was inundated with over three feet of seawater seven months ago during Hurricane Ian.

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“Part of my bent, part of my message with my art, is ‘for the love of water.’ While I have been based out of Naples for 49 years, and based out of Florida for 50, this is what I’ve been concentrating on. This is where the title of the show comes from – reflecting on the waterfront.

“My family heritage has to do with the schooner trade. My grandfather had a schooner and it was featured in a very famous photograph in the heyday of the sailing trade in Cape Cod. It’s been a lifelong thing.”

Arsenault’s art, and his wanderlust, have taken him all around the world, painting from New England to the Bahamas and the Caribbean, to the South Pacific, South America, Greece, Indonesia and Africa, often painting islands, marine and harbor scenes. But even with all his travels, he has returned time and time again to his adopted home in Collier County and painted its infinitely varied waterscapes over and over. “Naples has afforded a wonderful base of operations,” he said. “Our oasis under the banyan tree has been a wonderful home front.”

In an Arsenault canvas, the water is typically depicted in his signature palette of lush pastels, with flowering plants and dazzling sunlight. The title painting of the Rookery Bay exhibit, “Birds in the Backwater,” shows an Edenic vista of palm trees, mangroves, roseate spoonbills, herons, and black skimmers with the water just a little brighter and bluer than it might appear in real life. Oils of the Goodland waterfront and the notorious Watson homestead at Chatham Bend feature royal poinciana trees bursting with scarlet and crimson blossoms.

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Arsenault’s brush has memorialized a significant chunk of Collier County’s history. Many of the scenes in his Naples area paintings depict things that are no more, swept away by the tide of “progress” or development.

“We were so fortunate in the timing we had here. We saw the paradise, we lived the paradise, and we have a great memory of what the place can be, and that’s why we’re involved with the environment,” he said. “We’re doing what we can as people with the experience and devotion to the place.”

Paul’s wife Eileen is president of Audubon of the Western Everglades and has long been a leader with environmental causes and organizations including Cypress Cove Conservancy, the Southwest Florida Land Preservation Trust, Friends of Fakahatchee, Preserve Our Paradise, and Mangrove Action Group. Paul is a board member of Collier County Waterkeeper, but he has let his artwork do most of his talking.

“Rookery Bay is a bright light. Many strands are coming together with this show,” said Eileen Arsenault. “The preserve came about by campaigning against a coastal road” that threatened to cut across the swath of undeveloped coastal estuary. “It shows what people can do.”

“The intersection of art and the environment is an important part of what we do,” said Athan Barkoukis, executive director of the Friends of Rookery Bay. “The Friends are honored to present Paul’s work, especially on his 50th year painting here. His work ties in exceptionally well to the land and the water in our 110,000 acre preserve.”

Most of the paintings in the exhibit are for sale, and a portion of the proceeds will go to the Friends of Rookery Bay, said Barkoukis. In addition, Arsenault notecards, giclees, and books will be available in the ELC giftshop, also supporting the Friends group, both for the duration of the exhibit, and during the opening reception which will be held May 4 from 5:30 to 7 p.m., with wine, beer, light bites and a book signing by the artist. The event is free, but registration is requested, by going online to

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Arsenault has stories from his 50 years here, including forming a connection after a less than auspicious meeting on Keewaydin Island with Naples pioneer Lester Norris, who is credited with saving and preserving the Rookery Bay reserve, and his daughter Laverne Gaynor.

“I’ve been here for half of the county’s centennial, the chronicler of Naples as it was, and I’ve been supported by the community. My art has been my vehicle all along, and it’s given my life a rich and rewarding purpose. Because of Naples being Naples, it’s given me the world,” said Paul.

The Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center is located at 300 Tower Road, off of State Road 951between Naples and Marco Island. The ELC provides a comprehensive, carefully curated and easily digested presentation of the region’s natural beauty and ecosystems. Starting May 1, the ELC will be open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. The center will be closed on Sundays and Mondays.