In the Key of Inspiration

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The Florida Keys inspire art in many guises.

This article is brought to you by the Florida Keys & Key West.

He listened for the distant sound of sirens as he moved through the shallows, following the shoreline south. The warm hug of the tide soothed the pain in his chest. He pointed at a pair of spotted leopard rays, pushing twin wakes.
– "Native Tongue" by Carl Hiaasen, bestselling Florida mystery writer and Florida Keys resident.

From Hemingway to Hiaasen, Audubon to Buffett, artistic types inspired by the Florida Keys have painted pictures with words, brushes and song since man first settled this string of wildly tropical pearls.

"Havenly" Heritage

First a haven for birds, marine life and other creatures, the Florida Keys have long embraced human souls looking for spiritual nourishment, natural beauty and a way of life that accepts all people – especially those with a free spirit and an inclination toward the offbeat. Artists, musicians, actors and writers find here the character, characters and wealth of wildlife that tickle out their inner muse.

The islands from Marathon south celebrate that inspiring natural legacy and the migration of feathered friends each fall with the Florida Keys Birding & Wildlife Festival.

Brush with Nature

Artists and nature photographers capture the grace and wonder of local egrets, cormorants, osprey and pelicans. They follow a bird-illustrating tradition begun by John James Audubon in 1832, when he sketched his way to the Keys.

In Key West alone, he found 22 new birds to portray. Audubon House & Tropical Gardens memorializes the ornithologist's visit and work with a collection of 28 first editions. Its gallery sells limited edition reproductions and antique lithographs from the mid-19th century. It is one of dozens of galleries in Old Town, also home to Key West Museum of Art and History. Its permanent and changing exhibits include the work of well-loved folk artist and native son Mario Sanchez.

To further encourage the cultivation of art, the city hosts the annual Sculpture Key West, where artists from across the nation create larger-than-life works along the shores of Fort Zachary Taylor State Park and at the West Martello Tower to exhibit open-air from mid-January through mid-April.

All along the Keys, galleries sell works of local to international artists, including Florida's largest collection of angling art at Islamorada's Redbone Gallery. Besides the Keys' sheer beauty and local color, artists come for the special quality of light found here.

The Mighty Pen

Audubon is only one of the famous artists remembered in Key West. The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum commemorate the renowned author who spent years here.

The legends of their Key West escapades have inspired many an author and poet since to take up the island lifestyle and record their impressions throughout the Keys. Several writers' and poets' guilds and groups help focus their art, including The Key West Literary Seminar in January.

Stages of Sand & Water

As for performing arts, one of the first names in Keys history is playwright Tennessee Williams, who lived in Key West for nearly 40 years at the Tennessee Williams Home, which still stands. Today, the eponymous Tennessee Williams Theatre hosts the Key West Symphony Orchestra, Nutcracker Key West and other musical and theatrical performances.

In Old Town Key West, you can take in a show at the Waterfront Playhouse and the Red Barn Theatre, which brings wonderful seasons of comedy, drama and musicals to the stage.

If you're looking for community theater, you're in luck: Marathon Community Theatre has been known for its comedy and musical performances since 1944.

Beyond the traditional stage, music and theater are performed at venues from unconventional to downright bizarre. Take the Keys' vibrant nightclub scene, where you can find everything from Jimmy Buffett cover bands to talented female impersonators. Perhaps the most unusual place to hear music is the 28-year-old Underwater Music Festival at Looe Key Reef every July, when some 500 divers and snorkelers listen to six hours of broad-spectrum music broadcast through submerged speakers.

Equally unique to the Keys are the island festivals where street art in all forms prevails. Nightly, the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square celebration brings out musicians, human sculptures, fire-swallowers and performers and artisans of every ilk.

In Key Largo, swashbuckling pageantry takes to the street during October's Pirate Festival. Grab your eye patch for a weekend of parades, costume contests, underwater poker and, of course, a good amount of grog-swilling.

To learn more, contact the Florida Keys Council of Arts, 305-295-4369, www.keysarts.com. To plan your own getaway, visit www.fla-keys.com or call 800-FLA-KEYS.

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