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School of Matlacha

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  • | 4:52 p.m. June 11, 2009
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Leoma Lovegrove is one of the Gulf Coast's most prolific artists. She's also an entrepreneur who has turned her small gallery into a global draw. Her advice: Think big.

On a recent sultry day, Leoma Lovegrove entertained 20 Swiss journalists at her art gallery and had them all painting coconuts in the garden like excited schoolchildren.

Such a sight might elicit chuckles from the locals, but for Lovegrove, it's serious business. The coconut-painting exercise will probably lead to favorable press in Swiss newspapers and magazines in the months ahead, resulting in more sales.

Lovegrove Gallery & Gardens is located on a remote spit of land called Matlacha (pronounced matt-luh-shay) between Cape Coral and Pine Island in Lee County. Her gallery and others nearby have turned the town into an art Mecca that now draws thousands of tourists.

Among the secrets to her success is the fact that she doesn't limit her market to Lee County, the Gulf Coast or even Florida. Many of the 400 people who walk through her gallery every day are Europeans who read about her work in their home countries' local papers. It's the result of Lovegrove's tireless self-promotion, a task many reclusive artists sometimes find distasteful.

But you can't argue with Lovegrove's success. Her signature acrylic paintings sell for between $10,000 and $15,000, and she was welcomed to the White House, where one of her ornaments was exhibited on the Christmas tree this holiday season.

An outspoken Republican and fan of the Bush family, Lovegrove showed up at the White House ceremony in hand-painted clothes that set off the finely tuned detectors because of the paint's metal content.

A 1975 graduate of Sarasota's Ringling College of Art and Design, Lovegrove says she's done the starving-artist thing. But being hungry has a way of stirring the entrepreneurial spirit.

Although she won't divulge revenues, she gave away more than a $100,000 of art to charity last year (although she grumbles she could only deduct the cost of materials on her taxes).
“I sell thousands of pieces a year,” says Lovegrove, whose work is also on display at 30 galleries in Florida and other East Coast states. Despite the economic downturn, sales are up 20% so far this year over the same period last year.

“Leoma has made a business of her art,” says Mark Haffner, a music and video producer who settled in Pine Island from Los Angeles who is working with Lovegrove. “She's my rock star.”

Artrepreneurial spirit
The success of Lovegrove Gallery isn't much different from other successful companies. For one thing, the boss is always there. When you walk into the gallery, Lovegrove is likely painting or chatting with customers, agreeable to signing the smallest bauble.

“I love painting in front of people,” she says.

Despite her renown, Lovegrove has something for everyone's budget.

“Art should be for everybody,” she says.

Her prints, for example, cost $15 to $75 each. There are even little clay ants for $2 each.

But Lovegrove also is proud of the success of her acrylic paintings of fish that sell for $10,000 or more. A few years ago, she knew she had made it as an artist when one of her paintings sold for more than a Robert Rauschenberg print at a charity auction. Rauschenberg is a famous modern artist who lived on Captiva Island until his death last year.

Lovegrove is a prolific artist. She paints from 3 a.m. until 7 a.m. every day and then continues throughout the day at her gallery. Subjects range from fish to actors and musicians such as Johnny Depp and The Beatles. She finishes her signature paintings in just one hour.

Like Claude Monet at Giverny, no photography is allowed at Lovegrove Gallery.

“I have a line of postcards and notebooks,” she says.

Unlike other famous artists, Lovegrove doesn't consider commercial work beneath her. For example, Walt Disney Co. buys her postcard coconuts in lots of 500 and resells them at the Orlando theme parks. The funky sunglasses she's known to wear come from Disney, though she's had them fitted with prescription lenses for her near-sightedness.

She actively publicizes her gallery, sending press releases to anyone who might help, from newspapers to politicians.

“Always start at the top,” she counsels.

For example, her Christmas-tree ornament made it to the White House because she sends press releases to U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, a Republican from Fort Myers.
With the help of a publicist, Lovegrove's press releases have landed her in magazines such as “Southern Living.” Now, 60% of her sales come from outside Lee County, she estimates.

“I never buy advertising,” she says.

Lovegrove has embraced technology, achieving “celebrity status” on Facebook. She's revamping her Web site so it will include a YouTube video of former First Lady Laura Bush pointing out her Christmas-tree ornament on a segment of the Good Morning America television show.

“If you are not digital, time will pass you by,” she says.

Charity auctions are a significant source of publicity — but only if you give your best work, she cautions. Artists will sometimes give lesser pieces to charity auctions, but she says that's a mistake.

“When you give to charities, give something they can sell,” she says. “Always give your best.”

If she doesn't donate a painting, she will hand-paint a gift certificate for $50 to $500 that can be used for a purchase at her gallery. Often, people will frame the certificate instead of cashing it in.

She eagerly participates in trade shows organized by the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. Four years ago, she flew to Berlin where the bureau had a booth at an international travel show. She set up her canvas inside the booth and drew a crowd when she started painting with day-glo acrylics. Today, Germans who visit the area are among her best customers.

Her politics sometimes cross over into her art. A deeply religious person, she paints on stage to raise money for churches and during the presidential elections she set aside a corner of her gallery devoted to Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The “Read My Lipstick” boxes she made were a big hit.

“I made a lot of money on that,” Lovegrove says.

Although Lovegrove says her art is never meant to offend, she's not worried about turning off Democrats. Her car still sports McCain-Palin stickers.

“Democrats don't have money,” she quips, though she did host a party once for Jimmy Carter and his family and painted his portrait as a gift.

“Republicans served them,” she laughs.

Southwest by southwest
Lovegrove graduated from the Ringling School of Art and Design with a degree in commercial art, though she still considers her forte to be sculpting, not painting. Still, she struggled at first because she avoided corporate work, turning down a job at Hallmark after graduation.

When she married Navy flier Michael Silberg and moved to Texas, they started an enterprise together selling Southwestern-themed art to department stores such as Burdines and Marshall Fields. For example, they bought hundreds of calf skulls in Mexico and decorated them with feathers.

The commercial-art business grew, with Lovegrove creating the art and Silberg managing the finances. Lovegrove and Silberg had two warehouses and eight employees.

“It was a huge business,” Lovegrove recalls.

The couple wound down the business, moving to Naples 20 years ago to be closer to family. They moved to Matlacha 12 years ago when they took a wrong turn looking for a quieter spot in Boca Grande.

When she opened her gallery in Matlacha a dozen years ago, Lovegrove says only three people a day stopped to visit. She credits the Internet with getting the word out about her gallery and estimates about 400 people come through daily.

Now, Lovegrove plans to take her art on the road. She's working with Haffner, the music and video producer, to create a show that will include music and her painting on stage, taking a cue from the Blue Man Group.

As with most music concerts, artists make most of the profits selling merchandise such as T-shirts and recordings. Besides selling the paintings she'll create onstage, Lovegrove plans to autograph and sell the paintbrushes she uses for $25 each. The show will be called Painting Out Loud.

“We know it's going to work,” she says.

Artists flock to Matlacha

How did the little fishing hamlet of Matlacha become a hub for hundreds of artists and tourists despite its remoteness?

As with so many economic dislocations, it started with the heavy hand of government banning commercial net fishing 10 years ago.

“The net ban put a hurt on commercial fishermen,” says Bernard Johnson, owner of Bert's Bar and Grill, arguably the center of Matlacha's social scene and a well-known spot to hear blues and folk music.

The net ban devastated the local commercial fisheries and pushed real estate prices down further. Matlacha is a 700-home community that links Pine Island with Cape Coral in Lee County. A two-lane road cuts across the narrow spit of land.

“It was a really sad time,” recalls Scott Robertson, a commercial real estate broker who lives there. “Generations of people and families had made a living fishing in that area.”

Before the net ban, Bert's Bar was a rough place that locals nicknamed the Knife and Gun Club. But Johnson's acquisition of Bert's 10 years ago was the spark the town needed to recover from the ban.

“He totally changed the image to being a fun place,” Robertson says. “Now you see older women in khaki pants and you shake your head.”

Because they're surrounded by mangroves and have no beaches, Matlacha and Pine Island already had some of the lowest real estate prices in the area. It's difficult to reach because drivers must first cut through densely populated Cape Coral.

But the remoteness and low cost of living has attracted some 200 artists over the last decade.

“It's not crowded. It's hippie, bohemian. People don't bother you,” says Johnson, who also opened his own art gallery near Bert's called Pine Bay Gallery.

Although some of the fishermen turned to fishing charters and kayak eco-tourism, artists bought many of the small shacks along Pine Island Road and transformed them into funky, multi-colored galleries. The area is now dubbed Florida's Creative Coast and even has its own Web site,

Now, the key is to bring more tourists, but not too many that the area might lose its distinct character. Johnson fears publicity such as a feature in the New York Times.

“We'll get run over,” he says.

Still, the area is getting attention even if locals don't actively seek it. Bert's Bar and Matlacha were featured in this month's American Airlines magazine, and Johnson only found out about it when his brother called to tell him.

The challenges now include creating enough parking to accommodate visitors and encouraging them to keep on driving west to the Pine Island towns of St. James City and Bokeelia, eclectic little fishing towns with their own character.

“The more business people can do on the island, the better,” Johnson says.


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