Visual artistry can be seen all over the Florida Keys: in palm-fringed shorescapes that edge the Atlantic Ocean, orange and purple abstracts unrolling across the sky at sunset, and the clean-lined sculptural arches of the old Overseas Highway bridges.
Yet even if you ignore these creative efforts, and even if you never step inside one of the Keys’ eclectic galleries, you’ll still see a wide variety of art. From offbeat large-scale sculptures to murals promoting ocean conservation, outdoor artistry flourishes in the island chain.
Some prime examples can be spotted along the Overseas Highway in the Upper Keys. Maybe because the road stretches above and beside the waters of the Atlantic and Florida Bay, a good number of the roadside creations depict the area’s abundant marine life.
For example, there’s Betsy. Betsy is a giant sculpted Florida Keys spiny lobster — a 30-foot-tall, 40-foot-long sculpted Florida Keys spiny lobster, to be more specific — that greets visitors to the Rain Barrel Artists Village at mile marker 87 bayside in Islamorada.
Crafted in the 1980s by an area artist named Richard Blaze, Betsy became a much-photographed icon in another Upper Keys location before she “retired” and vanished from the scene.
In late March 2009, she reappeared. Perched on a special trailer, the gigantic crustacean was chauffeured by local sheriff’s deputies along the Overseas Highway to her new home outside the open-air artists’ enclave.
Up the road in Key Largo, you’ll find a 7,500-square-foot mural portraying other undersea denizens — inhabitants of the living coral reef that parallels the Keys. Painted in 2007 by the renowned marine life artist Wyland, an Upper Keys resident, the mural wraps around all four sides of a four-story building in the highway median at mile marker 99.2.
“It’s the gateway to the Florida Keys,” said Wyland, who credits his frequent Keys reef dives with being an ongoing inspiration for his work. “The idea was to welcome people as they drove in from South Florida with a depiction of the sun warming the tropical waters here — taking people above and below the surface to see the tremendous abundance of marine life and color.
The mural features manatees, manta rays, corals, indigenous fish and bottlenose dolphins. Like Wyland’s other large-scale creations around the world, it’s designed to encourage environmental awareness and stewardship.
Another outdoor mural is making a splash in the Upper Keys as well. At mile marker 83 bayside in Islamorada, two exterior walls of the Florida Keys History of Diving Museum are the “canvas” for an undersea vista painted by acclaimed artists David Dunleavy and Guy Harvey.
Dedicated in February 2005, the 360-foot mural includes manatees, a whale shark, finfish and endangered species found on the nearby reef.
Also in Islamorada, outside Theater of the Sea at mile marker 84.5 oceanside, stands one of the Keys’ most surprising marine life sculptures. Carved out of an unusual medium — shrubbery — it represents the friendly dolphins that inhabit area waters.
Created from ficus growing on shaped metal frames, the leafy dolphins have been frolicking outside the popular marine park, believed to be one of the oldest such spots in the world, for more than 15 years.
You’ll discover another dolphin sculpture down the Overseas Highway at mile marker 59 in the Marathon area. A dolphin mother approximately 30 feet tall, flanked by her smaller calf, beckons visitors to Dolphin Research Center, a not-for-profit education and research facility.
Sculpted in 1978 by Dale Hudson and Gary Jones, the piece entices visitors inside to meet the dolphin pod that lives in the center’s saltwater lagoons — and to experience DRC’s fascinating educational and interactive programs.
The outdoor art described here is only a sampling of the offerings that enliven the Keys landscape. Just as unique are a towering mermaid, a playful dog made of flowers, lifelike “human” bronzes that elicit double-takes and smiles, and many more.
Where are they? What other examples of open-air artistry can be spotted in the Keys? Share descriptions of your favorites by submitting a comment below.