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Walkable outdoor art and history museum becomes a new and diverse feature of Artfest

Mural 11 Nelson & Ellen Tillis
Dawn Webb
Mural 11 Nelson & Ellen Tillis

Each year, ArtFest Fort Myers draws tens of thousands of art lovers to the downtown Fort Myers River District. This year, the city has a special surprise in store for ArtFest attendees. Work is under way to install a walkable outdoor art and history museum on the stanchions and obelisks that encircle the river basin that’s wedged between the Luminary Hotel and Hendry Street.

When it’s completed, the outdoor gallery will feature 57 murals depicting people and scenes from the days when Fort Myers was a waterfront community dominated by seven long piers extending into the Caloosahatchee River.

This past Sunday, the 39 artists who participated in the project met at Arts & Eats at the Alliance to talk about their experiences in researching and rendering their murals. Five takeaways emerged from their discussions.

The first was the diversity and quality of the art they produced. Muralist Erik Schlake is one of the artists who is installing the completed paintings, and couldn’t be more impressed by his fellow artists.

“Looking at the art as a whole as you walk around, one of the things that hits me … is the diversity of art and amount of artists that we have living here in Fort Myers," he said. "There’s not many venues in town for people to see the depth of art and artists we have. This puts it all in one place.”

The artists worked under the umbrella of the Fort Myers Mural Society, whose director, Shari Shifrin, is equally thrilled by the diversity of genres and styles the public will see when they tour this new outdoor mural museum.

“We have all the way from abstract artists to fine artists that do sort of neo-realism, classical artists, some pop art in there," said Shifrin. "There’s probably 10 or more genres included across the ideas, and the portrait artists are of course focused on the realism aspects, their own take on realism, along with the history.”

Muralist Michelle McDonald’s believes that Fort Myers is a new creative hot spot that will draw vacationers and heritage tourists. “Fort Myers is now becoming a forefront to the art world. It is a beautiful city. There is a lot to do here. There is a lot of creative people here. So I hope more people visit.”

Another theme that emerges from the murals is the diversity that has characterized Fort Myers from the moment of its birth. Of the town’s first four settlers, two were Latino. And though interracial marriage would not become legal for another hundred years, Fort Myers' first interracial couple, Nelson and Ellen Tillis, arrived on Christmas Day in 1867.

“History defines us all and this place is no different. It is a culmination of many cultures coming together and creating something beautiful,” said muralist Jacqueline Virtue.

The project was underwritten by the Fort Myers Community Redevelopment Agency. Its Executive Director, Michele Hylton-Terry, is gratified that the murals underscore Fort Myers’ inclusivity.

“I love the diversity in the selections of the murals and the story that is inclusive of all citizens of Fort Myers,” said Hylton-Terry.

When it comes to takeaways, the artists who participated in the project were amazed by how much they learned about our town. That’s precisely what they expect people to experience as they walk around the river basin, taking in and listening to the explanation of their work on Otocast, a free mobile phone app that tells the stories of our early relationship to the Caloosahatchee River.

Muralist and retired art instructor Ava Roeder has lived in Fort Myers for more than 50 years.

“Every mural is based on the development of Fort Myers because of the river and the activities that happened on the river," said Roeder. "Even for me, who’s been here so long, I never knew about all the piers on the river. I never knew about the packing plants … So it’s all new news to me about the city that I’ve lived in for decades.”

Muralist Lorrie Bennett agrees. “I’ve lived here for over 50 years, and I did not know about the majority of what is being presented and I’m sad about that but I’m excited now of everything that I’ve learned.”

Leila Mesdaghi is the Chairperson of the City’s Public Art Committee. She points out that revisiting our early history in an outdoor setting is especially important now, as we collectively work to rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Ian.

“Public art is meant to be, I think, first educational – not education as far as telling us how things are, but rather the experience we have while we look at something while we are in a space," said Mesdaghi. "This project, what it does is gives a little window of history through time and that is very important for our local community as we are rebuilding – to reintroduce Fort Myers.”

Another aspect of the project that will appeal to the general public is the ability to enjoy art and history in a non-museum, non-gallery setting. People can walk the basin at their leisure, take a break for a cup of coffee or a bite of lunch, and take selfies and photo ops to their hearts content as they listen to stories about the murals on Otocast.

“People want to see art where they actually interact and live and work. So taking it out of the gallery setting and putting it right down on the street, I think makes our history a lot more accessible to anybody that comes and visits,” said muralist Erik Schlake.

Because of the process being used, the murals are expected to last 50 or more years with minimal maintenance. This means they’re likely to be around long after the artists have either moved or passed away.

“I’d say the word is legacy. It gave me an opportunity to create something that’s going to be there for a long time, and my vision is my daughter coming with her children, my grandchildren, and pointing out that’s something that their grandmother made,” said Muralist, art educator, and Public Art Committee member Carolyn Gora.

Artist Deb Lawless went one step farther. When she painted a mural of a poster for a USO-sponsored dance at the Hall of 50 States, she used as her muses an old family photo of her grandmother, her grandmother’s twin sister, and their brother in uniform. Now they’re part of the legacy of the Fort Myers.

This is something that also appeals to muralist Lorrie Bennett. “It’s very exciting that it’s going to live on for years and years, even after I’m gone my work will still be here – and amongst so many amazing artists that I just love.”

CRA Director Michelle Hylton-Terry can’t wait for the public to interact with and enjoy the murals.

“It’s been a great collaboration with the Public Art Committee of the City of Fort Myers and the Mural Society," said Hylton-Terry. "Once that’s finalized and in place we are going to really be able to get the word out to our community, to tourists about the beautiful history that Fort Myers has.”

Here are the murals and muralists you will see when you tour the Fort Myers River Basin Mural Project:

On the Stanchions

  • 1. Calusa Warrior Sounding Alarm by David Meo
  • 2. Calusa Chief with Arms Folded by David Meo
  • 3. Chief Billy Bowlegs by Sherry Lynn Diaz

  • 4.Chief Billy Bowlegs by Lorrie Bennett
  • 5. Miccosukee Warrior Billy Fuel by Eric Riemenschneider
  • 6. Colonel Abraham C. Myers by Claudia Goode
  • 7. Block House and McKinstry Map of Fort Myers – Rod Acosta

  • 8. Command. Officer’s Qrters/Gonzalez-Heitman Home -David Acevedo
  • 9. Evalina Gonzalez by Tarek Patton
  • 10. John Alexander Weatherford by Lesley Morrow
  • 11. Nelson and Ellen Tillis by Dawn Webb

  • 12 Captain Francis A. Hendry – Sam Taylor
  • 13 Cattle Being Driven Down Riverside Drive – W. White & R. Ruocco
  • 14 Jehu Blount’s Grocery Store – Lorrie Bennett

  • 15 Major James Evans – Sherry Lynn Diaz
  • 16 Aerial of the Piers of Fort Myers by Diane Lady Light Tormey
  • 17 Recreation Pier - Jacqueline Virtue
  • 18 Promenade on the Royal Palm Hotel Pier by Ava Roeder
  • 19 Fashionista Flossie Hill – Pat Collins
  • 20 Royal Palm Hotel – Jacqueline Virtue
  • 21 Tootie McGregor Terry Driving First Seawall Piling by Pat Collins
  • 22 Man with 7’ Tarpon by Victor Dotres
  • 23 Sheriff Frank Tippins with City Pier in Background by Rod Acosta
  • 24 City Dock by J.P. Almonacid
  • 25 Menges Brothers Steamship Suwanee by J.P. Almonacid
  • 26 Coca Cola Bottling Plant on City Dock by Diane Lady Light Tormey
  • 27 Two Men in a Boat w/ Ireland’s Dock in Background by Carolyn Gora
  • 28 Shacks on Ireland’s Dock by Jacqueline Virtue
  • 29 City Transfer/Railway Express by Bill Kreutz
  • 30 Lee County Packing House with Railroad Spur – Cesar Aguilera
  • 31 Thomas A. Edison Steamboat by Sanaa Bezzaz
  • 32 Lee County Packing House Shipping Label – Annie Crouch
  • 33 Lee County Packing House 1953 Memorial Day Fire – Roland Ruocco

  • 34 Atlantic Coast Line Railroad Pier by Donna Kreutz
  • 35 Kinzie Bros. St. Lucie Steamboat by Alex Wilkinson
  • 36 First Train by Danilo Rubias

  • 37 Pleasure Pier Panorama by Tim Lowry
  • 38 Pleasure Palace Entrance by Davis Rost
  • 39 Wes Nott and Diver by Israel Alpizar
  • 40 USO at Hall of 50 States by Deb Lawless
  • 41 Shuffleboard Courts – Roland Ruocco
  • 42 People on Edison Pier by Michelle McDonald

  • 43 Thomas and Charles Edison Fishing from Pier by Monika Urbanska
  • 44 Henry Ford in 1916 Model T by Ruben Dimas

  • 45 City of Palms Steamboat by David Acevedo
  • 46 Boats Docked at Yacht Basin by Tom Rost
  • 47 Elvis at City Auditorium by Sam Taylor
  • 48 Shrimp Boat by Shari Shifrin

  • 49 Edward Evans at Heitman-Evans Hardware Store – Doug Stewart
  • 50 Gator Hunt by Brian Weaver
  • 51 Turkey Hunt – Pat Collins
  • 52 Having A-Barrel-of-Fun in Fort Myers FLA by Holland King
  • 53 Florida Fun by Wendy White

On the Obelisks

  • 1 Harvie Heitman – Roland Ruocco
  • 2 Manuel A. Gonzalez-Erik Schlake
  • 3 Tootie McGregor Terry –Erik Schlake
  • 4 Dr. Ella Mae Piper – Roland Ruocco

To read more stories about the arts in Southwest Florida visit Tom Hall's website: SWFL Art in the News.