“I’m inspired by community,
and try to expand on what
makes that community special.
I’m not trying to be a window
in a sentimental journey,
but more of a window into
a special place that deserves
acknowledgement, unifying
humanity and nature.”

On the Waterfront
Paul Arsenault

by Cindy-jo Dietz

THE SUN WAS SHINING and traffic remained light as I drove past the manicured lawns and upscale resorts that surround Third Street in Naples. This area of town is enchanting with its assortment of boutiques and restaurants, the perfect place for cultures to converge and flourish. I found parking almost directly in front of my target, the Arsenault Studio & Banyan Arts Gallery, where I was to meet with Paul Arsenault to discuss his current and upcoming shows.

I walk upstairs where Paul has assembled quite a collection of work within several spacious rooms. Many of the pieces he has on display focus on the 14 months he spent in the West Indies approximately 40 years ago. Alongside his own paintings, the gallery also displays artwork by Paul’s much appreciated artist colleagues who share his love for nature. Currently on display is impressionist, James P. Kerr and world-renowned landscape photographer, Clyde Butcher.

Eileen, Paul’s wife and partner, greets me and explains that Paul is making his way back from their home, only a block away, with some additional paintings for me to view.

Paul Arsenault has seemingly been documenting the world as he sees it through his art for much of his life, from his early years in New England, to his travels abroad, to the time he has spent cruising up and down the Gulf Coast.

In fact, throughout Paul and Eileen’s marriage they would often take time annually to visit family and friends back in Eileen’s home state of Louisiana. During such excursions, the Arsenaults would systematically duck into ports along the way, a habit Paul says they have continued to nurture for over the past 40 years. It has allowed both of them to develop their unique perspective and abundant enthusiasm for the history of the gulfside coastal communities. “We’ve been very fortunate to be able to move around and keep this going.”

Paul says he has always been drawn to the waterfront, simply painting the scenes in front of him at the time. Part of that process happened to include capturing the many background stories that accompanied the area. This helped to morph Paul into an

historian of sorts. “I went from painter on the waterfront to painter on the waterfront in historic days to modern day.” Paul says for him, coming home with a painting was one thing, but coming back with a painting and a story meant so much more. “That's what becomes the historical part of it. It’s one thing to have a painting, but to have a caption that really goes into it, it just gives it weight and a dimension that really adds to the experience.”

He says he tries to consciously pick and choose the way his art depicts a community. “I’m inspired by community, and try to expand on what makes that community special. I’m not trying to be a window in a sentimental journey, but more of a window into a special place that deserves acknowledgement, unifying humanity and nature.”

I asked him if he had an overall personal message he would like to convey. “Honor the time you are here. Honor the place. Glorify it, and while you’re at it, leave things as intact as possible, something for the next generation,” was his answer.

Coinciding with Paul’s message to leave something for the next generation, he and Eileen have chosen to make their residence walking distance from the gallery, in a historic home that sits directly next to one of the oldest grand banyan trees in Naples. They lovingly refer to the residential property as ‘The Banyan Art, Social and Pleasure Club’. The pleasure club doubles as the publishing division of Arsenault Studios. The name was inspired by a New Orleans tradition. Paul explains, “In New Orleans it’s customary, when non-related people begin hanging out in a spot, they establish a social aid and pleasure club. The group gathers together making plans for Mardi Gras or food drives and the like.”

By the time they moved in, during the early 1980’s, the property had previously been used as a rental for close to 40 years. Consequently, they found many writers and painters had taken refuge, at one time or another, on site. One of them being the poet Robert Frost, whose stay was restricted to about a week. Others included Emil and Robert Gruppe, John Ruthven, Richard Segalman, and James P. Kerr.

The Arsenaults have hosted many art related events in the residence throughout the years, with proceeds going towards helping the art and environmental communities, and humanitarian aid, locally and globally. Paul explains that in order to continue their efforts, renovations are necessary. The home’s 100 year anniversary is in 2018. The first order of business is lifting part of the sagging structure. “We have quite a list and a legacy, which is the reason we’re trying to straighten her up,” he admits.

Currently on view at the Marco Island Historical Society is a collection of Paul’s work displayed under the title ‘Coastal Trade: Bounty, Booty, and Boats of the Gulf and Glades from Naples to Key West.’ The show consists of paintings representing the pioneer days of Southwest Florida’s maritime trading networks. Aside from paintings, there are folk art exhibits, posters and artifacts relating to the heritage.

Paul includes many historically referenced pieces, such as work depicting many of the ships that transferred merchandise and passengers, and plied the Gulf catching fish and making deliveries. These include the ‘Ina’ and ‘Bertie Lee,’ and a pirate ship turned floating home office for Mel Fisher in the 1970’s. He also includes fish houses of Naples and the Isle of Capri, markets and general stores of Key West, clam canneries on Marco Island, and trading posts of the Everglades used by pioneers and Seminole Indians. Also included are images of many of the homesteads used by early growers whose produce was brought to market from deep in the Everglades.

Paul’s execution of the artwork would not be complete had he not had the opportunity to sit with many of the old timers with solid roots in the area. “I could approach them with confidence, because my grandfather had a lumber schooner,” he says. Many times, the pioneers Paul often spoke with were in their 90s back in the 1970s and 1980s, meaning they grew up in the area often times as early as the 1890’s. “They were the Tom Sawyers of the pioneer generation,” Paul says.

Recounting his interactions with the locals of the time, Paul speaks about Rob Storter, whose uncle had owned the Rod & Gun Club. “His daddy also had the Birdie Lee. At 90 years old he created a half model of the Birdie Lee, which he continued to maintain. It was the prettiest schooner of Southwest Florida,” he relates. “We have a description of how he sat on the foredeck coming into Key West going by Mallory Dock Steamship Wharf, the sponge docks, the shrimp docks…”

Paul continues, “All these worlds of waterfront commerce through the eyes of this guy. He was so rich with information. That’s really what got me going and the same with another guy from the schooner Ina. I met him in Tarpan Springs when I was setting up a show. He comes over to me and says, ‘Oh my God! That’s the Ina!’ He said his father had the marina at Old Marco and the Ina used to come in every couple of years to get her bottom redone. He was 89 back in 1975 when I met him,” adding, “So, those are the kinds of stories that lock me in, not only as a painter-observer, but in an engagement of the history from the guys that lived though it when they were kids.”

Paul says, “The Marco show contains a lot of rich material, image wise, and the stories make you proud. A lot of people feel they’ve ended up in Florida out of default. This is their adopted home. This isn’t where their roots are. This isn’t where Grannie held them on the knee.”

Paul says he finds Florida history to be dismissed by a lot of people in this day and age. He wants to surprise people by showing them that there actually is rich history, especially in communities such as Marco Island and the like. “Marco had remarkable history. So did all of the communities here. They all have their story,” he insists.

I was curious. Even though he had met with so many old timers and received countless stories from the past, did he ever feel it necessary to use reference material to bring to life the scenes in his paintings?

“A lot of the best paintings I’ve got I did on location, just because I was painting the waterfront back when I did. It’s changed a lot, of course, but I also learned that to really tell more about the key cornerstones of history, sometimes it’s good to throw in a black and white shot of how it was,” he explains. “Using a black and white shot, perhaps a couple of them, to recreate something, that is... Wow! That’s how it really looked!”

He continues, “I was involved with the early stages of building and fundraising for the Marco Museum. During that time, I was also tapped as curator through Tallahassee to choose artists to depict the four corners of Marco, including Caxambus, Old Marco, Goodland, and Horr’s Island (now called Key Marco). We called the fundraising effort ‘Art Interprets History.’ We were each given a quadrant to represent the four different corners of Marco. Each artist created two pieces. One painting would go for charity and fundraising, the other painting’s proceeds went to the artist. But, we used old photographs to interpret the history. Thanks to the unveilings, many pledges came in to help build the museum in record time. It was a remarkably fast and successful commitment to the community of Marco, and it’s history.”

What’s next for Paul Arsenault? Aside from his current show, his next will take him into the Everglades and the new community of Ava Maria. The show’s current title is ‘Harvesting Bounty, Preserving Paradise, Seeking Balance in Southwest Florida’ and is scheduled for late February. The show honors Lee County and North Collier with elements starting from the Everglades and working their way to the coast.

Paul is already quite established in Collier County, but admits that up until recently he hasn’t taken the opportunity to gain much exposure in Lee. Part of Paul’s excitement behind working with Ava Maria stems from the fact they are not your typical gallery, nor museum. They are actually a library. “This will be a really big show,” he explains. “It’s a great building, and very well regarded. Quite frankly, I’ve done a lot on my own. I haven’t really partnered with galleries or academically. I just arrive and put on my show, and I haven’t organized myself in the fine arts up north, in Lee County, so this was an opening to put myself out there with strong historical imagery and elements from history people might not know.”

Paul’s focus over the years has not always been strictly on exhibitions. He has organized several publications including calendars and storybooks. Once he began publishing his work it seemed people were shocked. He jokes, “They had no idea I left Old Naples. They thought I was such a backwater rat.”

This backwater rat appears to have been slinking away, and quite often. His publications are filled with scenes from the Bahamas to New England, Oman to Iran, Dubai to Boston, Nantucket to Florida. They include adventures such as hopping freight trains, and tales of early Corkscrew, indian days with the Smallwood store, and Chokoloskee before Hurricane Andrew tore it down.

Paul’s lifetime of work, his endless travels, and his ability to not only be an artist, showing history through images captured in time, but also as a storyteller, helping secure history as it really was, from a community’s perspective, keeps us acutely aware of the changes that have taken place over time.

Paul notes, “I inadvertently kind of assumed myself into a position of historian, not intending to, but just painting the scenes and taking names and stories.” And what a storyteller Paul is! He has the ability to recount names and places as if he were there yesterday. This storytelling ability coupled with his unrestrained artistic talent make any exhibition of his an interesting and entertaining event. •

Arsenault Studio & Banyan Arts Gallery is located at 1199 Third Street in downtown Naples. For information, call 263-1214.

January-February 2018