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10 Treasure Coast Artists And Art Enthusiasts Gather Over Dinner To Discuss The Outlook Of The Industry

Record rainfall. Toxic discharges. Dark plumes. Algae blooms. Fish kills. Dolphin deaths. Faltering businesses. Diminishing property values. Public outrage. Political promises. High-dollar projects.

The situation reads as though ripped from today’s headlines. But artist Janeen Mason is referring to the “Lost Summer” of 2013 as she recalls the sentiment shared by so many—a desire to do something that makes a positive difference, yet uncertainty as to what, and how.

“I thought, ‘What can I do?’” the artist says as she looks around the table at her contemporaries. “What I can do is paint fish.”

Each year, Stuart Magazine unites local leaders in a specific field to enjoy an exclusive setting, a delicious dinner and the chance to create compelling conversation. This panel of leading lights and talents in the Treasure Coast arts community mused about the purpose and possibilities of art, the tension between the socioeconomic conditions necessary to both sustain and inspire art, government support of the arts, and even the big questions of what is and isn’t art.

The Guest List

Jeanette and Skip Hartzell
Kathleen Fredrick

Darryl Bey
Nancy Turrell
Linda Fasano and Gus Gutierrez
Bob Townsend and Lisa Young
Janeen Mason

Placement of the arts

Overlooking the North Fork of the St. Lucie River, the striking architecture of Jeanette and Skip Hartzell’s home beautifully balances tough with tender. Its rustic, even industrial design and exposed concrete block interior harmonizes masterfully with the elegant furnishings. The spacious screened-in back patio—beside the black lap pool—proved a perfect place to dine on flatware supplied by Tentlogix and a table setting beautified by Kimberly Perron Interiors.

First, arriving guests tour the works in Skip Hartzell’s adjoining studio. The accomplished artist makes dogs the object of his paintings and sculptures. A strong supporter of Big Dog Ranch Rescue in Palm Beach, his creations capture that canine sense of devotion, perpetual motion and abiding eagerness to please—so much so that you can practically hear them pant with expectation.

In his stark-white studio, arriving guests give their wine preference to servers with Ooo La La Catering. It’s a who’s who of the arts world: Kathleen Fredrick, executive director for the A.E. Backus Museum & Gallery in Fort Pierce; Darryl Bey, a jazz and blues musician whose BlueBird Education Foundation provides musical lessons and scholarships primarily to students in Fort Pierce; Nancy Turrell, executive director of The Arts Council of Martin County; Linda Fasano, public arts administrator for Martin County and a volunteer arts consultant for the City of Fort Pierce; Fasano’s guest, Gus Gutierrez, who’s launching an effort to establish an artsy enclave in Fort Pierce; Janeen Mason, an award-winning artist, author and illustrator; and Bob Townsend, who escorted Lisa Young, an award-winning painter.

After hors d’oeuvres of smoked salmon on mini-corn cakes and escargot with prosciutto Parmesan and lemon, guests sat down for a Mediterranean salad dressed with pickled-vegetable vinaigrette. Then chef-owner Lorna Day served a dinner that was itself a work of art—Gruyere potato cups, medley of freshly roasted tri-colored corn, radishes and peas, mini pesto crab cakes and fish in lobster beurre blanc topped with cornmeal-crusted shrimp.

Patrons of the arts

As with any enterprise, patrons remain vital, enabling both the professional artists and the promising talents opportunities to flourish. On the Treasure Coast, patrons favor one medium in particular, Bey says.

“Visual arts is the dominate art in the area,” he says. “There’s little doubt. But each of the arts plays off the other.”

They certainly did at ArtsFest. Staged days earlier, The Arts Council of Martin County’s signature annual event attracted more than 15,000 people to downtown Stuart with a lineup that included multiple forms of artistic expression.

“Culinary arts, literary arts, performing arts, visual arts,” Turrell says of the chef contest modeled after “Chopped” and the literary village featuring local authors, musicians and theatrical performances. “There was a strong field.”

Events such as ArtsFest introduce large audiences to the artists. Securing steady sales still requires the author cultivating a ready and capable clientele.

“I need to know my art is valued, but I need to make a living,” says Young, who after the sudden deaths of her husband, best friend and several loved ones left success in the corporate world to pursue her dream of painting. “For the culture to thrive, the artists need to thrive.”

Fortunately for the artists, serious buyers populate the area.

“We have an enormous amount of quiet wealth from Vero Beach to Jupiter Island,” Young says.

“It kind of jumps St. Lucie County though,” Fredrick says.

While the individual financial means of patrons may vary, the value an art lover places on a piece is relative, and as Young shares, revealing.

“My prices have to appeal to the hurting middle class,” Young says. “I don’t command as high prices as I used to. Big pieces are still what I can do. But I knew the economy was starting to heal when I met a woman who had just gotten a job. She felt she had enough discretionary funds that she could buy a $50 piece of art.”

“I like that kind of person,” Turrell adds.

Passion of the arts

Mild debate ensued over the key ingredient society needs to support a thriving arts environment.

“Passion,” Bey says.

“Leadership,” Mason adds.

“Money,” Bey offers.

 “Passion comes before money,” Skip Hartzell says.

Accompanying an artist’s passion is confidence, he adds.

“I try to imagine my stuff not in a home, but in a museum,” Skip Hartzell says. “Call me egotistical, but that’s my goal.”

“Hey,” replies Mason, “welcome to the world of art.”

A passion for the arts emanates from sources beyond the artists and even the patrons. For the last 17 years, Fredrick has served as executive director of the Backus Museum. She started out as a volunteer.

“Never in a million years did I think I’d be the director of an art museum,” she says. “I do absolutely everything that needs to be done there, as everyone does.”

Her passion for the local cultural icon, who created an estimated 7,000 works of art, is obvious. The museum is home to the largest collection of Backus originals.

“He painted prolifically, even when he was in the Navy, because his captain loved art work,” she says. “Backus paintings literally fall out of the sky. They are everywhere. (They’re valued) because they’re so beautiful or because of their historical significance.”

Describing Backus as “the first Florida artist,” Fredrick remains amazed at how his artwork continues to communicate the story of our region to natives and newcomers.

“I think a lot of people, no matter where they come from, want to know about the place they visit,” she says. “Art is a great way to build bridges, break down barriers and it exists long after people are gone. It’s a great way to get to know where they stand.”

Purpose of the arts

Building bridges. Tearing down obstacles. Uncovering the essence of a people and a time. The power of art is undisputed. Not so its definition, a timeless debate where the struggle for a precise description mystifies even masters of the craft. And on the subject of crafts, Skip Hartzell bristles.

“I’m going to be politically incorrect,” he says. “That’s not art to me. That’s a craft that goes in your beach house. Art is something with more involvement.”

So, what exactly is art?

“Here’s how I think about art,” Mason says. “It’s like your mother. You don’t appreciate your mother until you don’t have a mother.”

In a way, that describes the impact of Bey’s BlueBird Educational Foundation. The charitable partner to his BlueBird Productions performing business, he formed the foundation to counter “decreasing funding to schools and communities” and “help young people and others in their pursuit of music.” He frequently teams top-level talent with school bands in St. Lucie County and after several rehearsals, arranges for them to perform together publicly.

“One year, we worked with Port St. Lucie High School,” he recalls. “We brought in an artist who played with Prince. That night at the Black Box (Theatre in Fort Pierce), they performed with him at the show. It was like, ‘Is this the same band I’ve been listening to?’ It’s just that exposure to a national artist.”

A rise in talent is one way to measure the impact of the arts. When it concerns ensuring cultural programs supported by local governments remain prioritized for funding, different metrics factor into play.

“We all know the value of the arts,” Young says, “but (official) meetings and having debates on the budget—we know what happens. So we have to educate our communities as well.”

Before members of the public can stand strong in support of public spending on the arts, they need detailed, factual information to augment their positions. Turrell says The Arts Council recently signed onto a regional study exploring how the arts positively impact their communities.

“We’re part of a 300-county effort to measure the economic impact of art,” she says.

As persuasive as all these efforts are, Fasano most prefers the “show me” approach. Right now, she’s investing time at Fort Piece Magnet School of the Arts, Frances K. Sweet Elementary and Fairlawn Elementary to introduce arts education into the classrooms. Government prioritization of the arts is only part of the effort, she says.

“We have to do it,” Fasano says.

An artist who’s owned and operated several galleries, Fasano sold high-end art to the well-heeled, where cultural appreciation for the arts was ingrained.

“It’s very different in an underserved county,” she says, “but it’s most gratifying because they really appreciate it.”

That appreciation for the arts can assume some surprising manifestations, as Mason’s recollection on the Lost Summer revealed. The acclaimed Port Salerno artist—who’s authored and illustrated award-wining children’s books on environmental matters—teamed up with other local artists and several volunteers to create what’s become a symbol of the river-advocacy movement.

Dubbed the “Solidary Fish,” she created the carving of a fish with a black-and-white skeletal design on one side and the other side—often painted by children she teaches and works with—splashed in vivid colors. Solidary Fish regularly appears on protest signs, River Warrior T-shirts, even arm bands, one of which Mason wore to the dinner.

The fish have carried the message of the St. Lucie River’s plight far and wide. Hundreds were positioned on the Capitol steps in Tallahassee. And in 2014, Mason was selected to create ornaments for Florida’s Christmas Tree, which was featured at the National Christmas Tree display in Washington, D.C. She made miniature Solidary Fish and tapped an army of child artists to provide the color.

“It was,” Mason says, “a peaceful protest.”

By embodying both distress and hope, this artwork’s wordless statement still rings relevant today.

“That’s a wonderful thing you’re doing here,” Skip Hartzell says. “You have a cause. You’re not just painting to paint. You’re creating awareness artistically as well as politically.”