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Ian-wrought rubble on Fort Myers Beach given new life as artwork

Gretchen Kilburn painted the Fort Myers Beach pier on a brick she found in the sand near Times Square.
Gretchen Kilburn
Special to WGCU
Gretchen Kilburn painted the Fort Myers Beach pier on a brick she found in the sand near Times Square.

Rubble and debris on Fort Myers Beach leftover from Hurricane Ian have been reimagined as unique paintings and other works of art.

Five years ago, Gretchen Kilburn began leaving her painted rocks on the beaches of Southwest Florida. Now, she’s turning to the leftover pieces of island remains, including the bricks from Times Square.

“I'm kind of trying to do to preserve memories and preserve those things that people don't see anymore,” Kilburn said.

Kilburn was walking with a friend on Estero Boulevard in December when she came across a palm frond and pictured a reindeer instead of the leaf. After bringing it home, she quickly got to work with a pocket knife to carve out antlers and a nose. She later began using paint on Times Square bricks she had picked up from her visits to the island.

“I just happened to get lucky enough to find a couple of bricks in the debris and instantly just thought I need to paint something on these and make them pretty,” Kilburn said. “It is basically an artifact at this point.”

The Fort Myers Beach memorabilia has even made its way to Seattle, Washington, in Diana Higginbotham’s home.

“I just thought it was completely amazing,” Higginbotham said. “And it was coming from such a great person too. I thought that I just had to get something.”

Kilburn had made a family of mermaids out of the branches for Diana’s newly constructed tropical-themed tiki bar.

“I think it brings me some peace to keep them alive, to put them out there and know that people are still going get to see it,” Kilburn said.

The former hairdresser wants her art to be in good hands. Kilburn has plans to gift some pieces to Fort Myers Beach Mayor Dan Allers and other notable figures and businesses on the island.

“There are people asking me about these [pieces], and I feel very protective over these Times Square pavers and feel that I really want them to be in very special places,” Kilburn said.

Several of the painted bricks depict scenes from the Matanzas Pass Bridge and the blue clock that marked the area as Times Square.

Kilburn always wanted to pursue art but kept it as a hobby until she began her art page, Art Rocks the Beach, documenting her painted rocks and art journey.

“I probably have left every bit of 300 rocks on beaches around the Gulf Coast. And now I do shells too,” Kilburn said. “I've got a slew of shells that I just left on Sanibel the other day.”

Nicole Benninghoff of Cape Coral met Kilburn through a Facebook group and purchased her art.

“I feel like true artists are just being forgotten,” Benninghoff said. “These artists that are just trying to share pieces of themselves.”

Benninghoff noted the emotion attached to the bricks.

“She didn't take [the bricks] from where they belong– it was all in rubble,” Benninghoff said. “Those were like way in the sand. When I saw that, I felt like it was a piece of history.”

Kilburn’s first trip to Fort Myers Beach was when she was 17 after her mother passed away. The Cincinnati native now calls Port Charlotte home.

This story was produced for the Senior Capstone course in the FGCU Journalism program. Riley Hazel can be reached at rjhazel4249@eagle.fgcu.edu