Art of the Dig: Wells Sawyer’s Watercolors opens Oct. 26

Will Watts
Pepper-Hearst Expedition leader Frank Hamilton Cushing aboard the expedition’s Silver Spray schooner. Watercolor by Wells Sawyer.

The Marco Island Historical Museum (MIHM) presents “Art of the Dig: Wells Sawyer’s Watercolors,” starting Wednesday and running through Jan. 19.

An opening reception will be held from 5 until 6:30 p.m., Wednesday. For those who would like to test their artistic skills, free watercolor kits will be available to MIHM visitors while supplies last. 

Wells Moses Sawyer, an American painter, was the expedition artist for the famed 1896 Pepper-Hearst expedition to Marco Island that discovered the world-famous Key Marco Cat – currently on exhibit at MIHM through 2026.  

Painted wooden Calusa mask found at Key Marco. Watercolor by Wells Sawyer.

Six of Sawyer’s original watercolors depicting the Key Marco artifacts as they were discovered are on loan from the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. In addition, 25 reproductions of his works are on loan for the exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Anthropological Archives and University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

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Because they were buried in an oxygen-free muck that preserved them for hundreds of years, the Key Marco artifacts were remarkably intact down to their original paint colors. While many disintegrated upon exposure to the air, Sawyer captured them in his paintings and black and white photographs before they were lost forever. 

According to Austin Bell, Curator of Collections for the Marco Island Historical Society, “Sawyer’s works not only document some of the best-known evidence of Florida’s early Native peoples, but also demonstrate his immense skill and talent as an artist. The now-iconic watercolors, which first melded the arts and sciences more than a century ago, continue to provoke inquiry while serving as timeless visual connections to Florida’s past.”

The Key Marco Cat, one of the finest pieces of Pre-Columbian Native American art ever discovered in North America, is on exhibit at the Marco Island Historical Museum now through 2026.

The Key Marco Cat is reunited on Marco Island with many of the other rare 500-to-1,500-year-old pre-Columbian Native American artifacts discovered with it by Smithsonian anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing. Known as one of the most important finds in the history of American archaeology, the enigmatic feline is on loan to MIHM from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History through 2026. Sixteen additional Key Marco Artifacts are on loan from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology now through 2024.

The Key Marco Artifacts are showcased in the MIHM award-winning permanent exhibit Paradise Found: 6,000 Years of People on Marco Island. This exhibit features a life-size Calusa village and more than 300 pre-Columbian Native American artifacts from Marco Island. Original artwork depicts the lives and ceremonies of the Calusa and the 1896 archaeological expedition that unearthed the artifacts that reveal some of their long-hidden stories. A Calusa-inspired soundtrack by Emmy and Peabody Award-winning composer Kat Epple enhances the immersive visitor experience.

The Marco Island Historical Museum is located at 180 S. Heathwood Drive. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Admission is free.

For information, call 239-389-6447 or visit

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