Art makes its mark at Opal Sands Resort on Clearwater Beach

Master sculptor Mark Aeling of St. Petersburg, left, and artist Christopher Still of Tarpon Springs, right, pose next to a model of “Ascent,” their collaboration, at Opal Sands Resort on Clearwater Beach.
Master sculptor Mark Aeling of St. Petersburg, left, and artist Christopher Still of Tarpon Springs, right, pose next to a model of “Ascent,” their collaboration, at Opal Sands Resort on Clearwater Beach.
Published May 12, 2016


You arrive for your stay at the Opal Sands Resort via the valet service and enter through large doors that lead to a staircase and massive escalator whisking you up to the lobby.

You may or may not have noticed the fountain at the entrance with seabirds etched on glass panels that seem to fly through clear, cascading water, but you definitely notice the large sculpture with more glass in myriad colors hanging above you as you ascend. Nor will a large horizontal painting of a beach scene hung behind the check-in area go unnoticed. And then your head turns to the right and you see what you have come for: an expansive view of the Gulf of Mexico bordered by white sand.

Every work of art you have just passed was preparing you for this view.

Opal Sands opened in February on Clearwater Beach. Like all fine resorts, it is gorgeously appointed and, like the best of them, has a sense of place. Carpet in sea colors swirls around mosaic floors, and columns enrobed in glass tiles shimmer reflectively. Beautiful as the interior is, though, it would be just as relevant for a waterfront resort in Naples or Miami.

The art, though, belongs here. Christopher Still made sure.

Still is a nationally acclaimed and collected painter who works in an Old Master style to create scenes of Florida's natural beauty and its heritage. Each painting can take months, even a year, to complete. He was born and raised in North Pinellas and his studio is now in Tarpon Springs. Still's paintings sell in the five- and six-figure range, and among his institutional work are murals that hang in the Florida House of Representatives.

The Walsh family of Ocean Properties, who own Opal Sands and many other hotels and resorts, commissioned Still for a painting to hang in the lobby. They became familiar with his work as part owners of Sandpearl, its sister resort that opened in 2007, and admired paintings of nearby Caladesi Island that Still had done for its lobby.

"We're a big fan of Chris' work," said Mark Walsh, a vice president at Ocean Properties.

Opal Sands had just begun construction when Still met the Walshes in early 2015, and as they discussed ideas for the painting, inquiries about other art elements were voiced.

"It was a gradual thing," Walsh said, but Still soon became more than a contributing artist; he would become the coordinator for other art in the resort's public spaces. "The outside (with its curving architecture that gives every room a water view) was looking so good we wanted the inside to be just as good. He has great taste and had the same sense of what we wanted it to look like."

"It was a good experience," Still said, "thinking about a space and working with artists, not just my own paintings. I'm very indebted to the Walshes."

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Immersed in aesthetics

Still planned to paint the view of the beach as seen from the resort's terrace looking north at sunset. It would be an homage to an area he has known and loved since childhood and would hang at the check-in area, which he considered the first important connection between a guest and the resort. But with the new responsibility, he broadened his thinking about the guest experience, wanting to make it subtly, even subliminally, immersive. Still wanted something sculptural above the escalators. The initial designs called for a chandelier, and that's when Mark Aeling joined Team Opal Sands.

"It was in the fall of 2015," he said. "I was invited to lunch and introduced to three of the Walsh brothers and Chris. I had never met him, but a mutual friend, an art rep, suggested me."

Aeling is a sculptor working from his MGA Sculpture Studio in St. Petersburg but, like Still, is sought after nationally for his often large-scale cast or fabricated works. He notably worked on the award-winning set design in the 1998 film What Dreams May Come. Locals who visit Sundial in downtown St. Petersburg will see the dolphins he created for the fountain in the central plaza. At the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, his huge LED-lit sculpture adorns an entry wall.

"I was shown the initial drawings for a chandelier, which I thought they wanted me to fabricate," Aeling said. "I told them I could, but is it really what you want?"

He and Still met again soon after.

"I saw Chris' sketch of waves and he described the surface of the water, the refraction and sparkle. He brought photos of waves and an image of Gustav Klimt's luminous painting The Kiss," Aeling said. "It was a painter's vision he wanted to manifest in three dimensions and he wanted it to happen with glass."

"Mark had to solve the physical realities of making a fantasy come to life," Still said.

The concept was for pieces of glass in many colors to emulate the motion of waves suspended in time and space. The colors would be taken from those of the water just beyond Opal Sands.

They decided to use only circles, "pragmatic and aesthetic," Aeling said, in concentric sizes and connected to each other. Aeling began working on a physical model to 1-inch scale. The glass circles, mounted in metal rings, would be arranged to suggest the up-and-down motion of waves. Still wanted them placed on the diagonal because "waves don't come in straight," he said. Several versions later, Aeling thought he had the movement captured. They shifted from metal rings with straight edges to curved ones.

"You can do all sorts of things with connections (on a curved surface) and there's more contact surface for welding," Aeling said. "It wasn't necessary to overlap them. We could change the angles and the undulation added strength." And it better mimicked waves.

Still and Aeling had already been flown to Chicago to select glass from what Still called "the biggest supplier I have ever seen." Four hundred circles were cut for the metal rings, which ranged in size from 3 to 27 inches.

The weight was calculated at several thousand pounds to determine the number of hang points needed to hold it. Aeling said they had to get those estimates close because the construction crew had to open up the cast concrete ceiling and insert metal struts for the hang points before the sculpture was tested and constructed.

He built a life-size model of a portion of it, without the glass, enlisted a structural engineer to help, stood on it, and it passed the hang-point test. The already installed struts would hold its weight.

"Normally we would have done it on a computer, but we didn't have the time," Aeling said. The resort would open in February and they wanted it installed by then.

"This was all blowing my mind," Still said of the precision with which Aeling worked, using of necessity what was essentially an intuitive process.

The call of the ocean

While the sculpture was being created, Still was also working on his painting. Its length would be 48 inches and, as with most of his paintings, it would have meanings beyond its lovely surfaces.

"It's a foreshortened map of Florida," Still said, with swirls of water representing the Keys and Lake Okeechobee, the Clearwater Beach pier representing the Florida Panhandle. Among those standing on it are members of the Walsh family. A sand bucket is placed at water's edge to mark Delray Beach, where Ocean Properties has its headquarters.

Aeling collaborated with artist Carrie Jadus to create a large sculpture of a fish to hang at the entrance to Sea Guini, the resort's restaurant. Still, always obsessed with details, ordered a taxidermied grouper so it would be anatomically correct. Jadus designed a fish made of smaller metal fish through which changing colors from LED lights are visible.

"That was a tough sell (to the owners)," Still said. "A fish made of fish."

The plan was to suspend it. Still wanted it mounted, as one would a real stuffed fish, so he had a frame made of recovered wood in a pattern similar to what he calls the "Mondrian-type windows" in the lobby.

Another lobby area needed something. Still thought a vessel by acclaimed glass artist Duncan McClellan, also based in St. Petersburg, would be perfect. He and Mark Walsh visited McClellan's studio, thinking they would purchase an existing piece and be done.

But, Still said, Walsh asked if he could do a new one relating to the resort and McClellan said of course. It would be an etching of an underwater scene that would connect visually to the nearby Jadus-Aeling sculpture. Mariel Bass, another glass artist, was commissioned to create a cast-glass stopper.

The obvious choice for its display would be a simple shelf or case. Detail-driven Still wanted more.

"I said I'd really like to do an egg in the wall," Still said. "Mark (Walsh) said it was a really cool idea and asked, how do we do that. I said, 'We'll ask Mark (Aeling).' "

Aeling designed an ovoid niche that would be fitted into the wall. He and his team built a hand-cranked custom blade to sweep plaster onto the form — a centuries-old technique — that would create a perfectly even layer so there would be no distortions on the surface when the vessel was lit.

Still brought in master artisan Istvan Torok, who also resides in the Tampa Bay area, a specialist in Marmorino plaster, which became popular during the Italian Renaissance, especially in Venice. He created surface effects on several walls in the lobby.

Still credits the open minds and generosity of the Walshes and their designer, Michelle Mauricio, with the cohesiveness of the project.

Usually, he said, "You bring a designer an idea and they're sort of dismissive. She never was. She helped."

"Budgets are necessary and important," Aeling said, "but the driving force here was creativity, not the budget."

"There was a comfort level," Mark Walsh said. "They really cared. The details feel almost effortless. As an owner, the experience was great. We want to do more (with other new projects)."

Still has a few more loose ends and tweaks to deal with at Opal Sands, but his goal has been accomplished.

"You arrive and you see and hear the fountain, which is a means of separating you from the mainland," Still said, "then the sculpture, which is the waves coming onto the beach, then the beach itself in the painting. Duncan's vessel is about the life beneath the water. So is the fish sculpture. Together they capture the entire experience."

Contact Lennie Bennett at or (727) 893-8293.