On the business end of Duval Street, the north side, the raucous part, a visitor will find plenty of art. It's the performance kind, though, often fueled by pastel umbrella drinks and lots of beer.
Cruise ships dock nearby, dumping hundreds of revelers into the most touristy part of Key West. Frat boys, bachelor party merrymakers and couples looking for a good time haunt Duval's north end and its adjacent streets, home to Sloppy Joe's, Bull & Whistle, the Lazy Gecko and the Green Parrot Bar, where the motto is "a Sunny Place for Shady People." The Hard Rock is here, too, and lots of souvenir shops with cover-the-kids'-eyes slogans on T-shirts flapping in windows.
Like I said, if it's performance art you want, you'll find it on north Duval.
On the south end of Duval Street, the quiet side, the historic part, exists another kind of art. There may be cocktails involved, but they're more likely to be cast in resin, complete with inedible olives, or splashed in tropical colors on canvas.
Key West is home to dozens of art galleries and many more artists who have come to Florida's Caribbean to do their thing. It's not so much a world of serious collectors as it is a place of personal expression.
I wouldn't suggest you go to Key West just for the art, but an amble through the galleries is a pleasant respite from booze and beach. And each month, when the moon over Key West is big and round, galleries stay open late for the Full Moon Howl. (That's the 28th this month and again on March 30.)
A recent trip to Key West finds us there unknowingly during a full moon, so we walk along Duval well past dark, hopping in and out of galleries.
At the SoDu Gallery we dig into a cheesy dip and chat with several of the owners. Five women pooled their resources, both art and money, to open the gallery that represents local artists. There's a laid-back vibe at SoDu, as with most Key West galleries, and the work ranges from hand-painted wooden bowls to jewelry to paintings to fiber art and photography. SoDu appears to be a place to congregate; lots of locals come in to discuss the state of the lousy economy and its effect on sales.
Across the street at Cocco & Salem Imagine Art Gallery, a relative newcomer to the scene, a friendly pup greets us at the door, then ignores us as we look at the paintings, mostly by the two owner/artists.
Farther along is Gingerbread Square Gallery, established in 1974 and full of ceramic sculpture and Keys-centric paintings. The gallery is downstairs in an old Key West conch house. The French doors above open onto a balcony and let breezes circulate. As the sky darkens and the lights flicker on, I understand why people, especially artists, are drawn to this island paradise. Despite the rowdies just blocks away, there is a certain freedom that ruffles on the wind. Perhaps it's the remoteness of Key West or the flip-flop lifestyle that engenders creativity. For sure, it's the way the light changes and bounces off conch bungalows and through the flamboyant blooms of poinciana trees.
Lucky Street Gallery has long been one of my favorite stops in Key West. It's not inexpensive and many clients who own second homes in the Keys buy art here to populate them. Lucky Street carries more challenging works, pieces you might find in South Beach or Miami. You won't see bucolic images of mangroves or other Keys landscapes. It's closed by the time we arrive so we peer through the window. I vow to return to look at an interesting metal sculpture.
Wandering off Duval, there are many more galleries but tiny Whitehead Street Pottery is well worth a stop. The gallery is adjacent to the potters' home and it's barely big enough to turn around in; beyond the gallery is the studio. However, the lush back yard complete with ponds stocked with real fish and a deck decorated with piles of raku fish provide a glimpse into the good life in Key West.
From this vantage point, it's hard to believe that someone is drinking a fourth margarita not far away. Oh, well, at least I won't have a headache in the morning and can hit Key West in search of more art.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586.