Keys Voices Main Archive

Fishing With Hemingway

Carol Shaughnessy | January 2015

The Hemingway name really matters in Key West. After all, Ernest Hemingway lived on this tiny coral rock for most of the 1930s — fishing for marlin and other gamefish, penning some of America’s most enduring literary masterpieces (including “To Have and Have Not,” his only novel set in the United States), and leaving a legacy that still draws writers to the island today.

Ernest Hemingway's grandson John Hemingway "greets" a life-size sculpture of his famous relative at Key West's Custom House Museum. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

Ernest Hemingway’s grandson John Hemingway “greets” a life-size sculpture of his famous relative at Key West’s Custom House Museum. (Photo by Rob O’Neal)

In addition there’s Pauline Hemingway, the author’s wife during his Key West years, who remained a resident and guiding force in island society even after her husband moved on.

There’s Lorian Hemingway, Ernest’s author granddaughter, who immerses herself in Key West during frequent visits and has directed a locally-based short story competition for more than 30 years.

And then there’s John Hemingway, grandson to Ernest, who was in Key West recently helping debut a remarkable new exhibit about his legendary relative. John Hemingway too is an author, whose book “Strange Tribe” paints a fascinating portrait of his complicated grandfather and equally complicated father.

But even more fascinating for those who visit the island Ernest Hemingway loved is the exhibit at the renowned Custom House Museum. Titled “Following the Fish: Hemingway in Key West,” it showcases Ernest’s love of Florida Keys fishing — a sport he did much to popularize among fellow writers, readers and anglers.

John Hemingway enjoys the Custom House exhibit with the museum's senior staff. From left are Michael Gieda (left), John, Gerri Sidoti and Cori Convertito. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

John Hemingway enjoys the Custom House exhibit with the museum’s senior staff. From left are Michael Gieda, John, Gerri Sidoti and Cori Convertito. (Photo by Rob O’Neal)

It also spotlights a surprising aspect of the late author’s personality: conservation activities that are an intriguing counterpoint to his well-known passion for boating giant marlin, tuna and other prey (a pursuit sometimes compared to oceanic big game hunting).

“What the exhibit endeavors to do is show that, while Hemingway is perceived as an aggressive personality, he did have a vested interest in safeguarding the fish populations in the Florida Straits,” said Cori Convertito, curator at the Custom House. “By inviting scientists from the Academy of Natural Sciences to visit this region with the intention to study marlin, tuna and other species, Hemingway demonstrated his true preservationist disposition.”

When he wasn’t writing literary classics, Hemingway plied the waters between Key West and Cuba on his 38-foot fishing boat, “Pilar.” Encounters with finned prey found their way into his books from “To Have and Have Not,” set in Depression-era Key West, to the Nobel Prize–winning “The Old Man and the Sea.”

The striking red-brick Custom House Museum overlooks Key West Harbor. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The striking red-brick Custom House Museum overlooks Key West Harbor. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Visitors to the Custom House will discover a model of “Pilar” on display — as well as Hemingway’s detailed fishing logs and field notes, which illustrate his quest to understand the science of fishing.

Particularly engaging is a 1937 letter to Ernest from the Belmar Fishing Club, informing him that he has been awarded a “Glory of the Sport Fraternity” pin recognizing his “outstanding catches and activities in promoting angling.”

Other exhibit elements focus on the Keys’ angling legacy and its environmental effects.

The author himself presides over the collection. A six-foot-tall bronze sculpture of Hemingway, created by internationally acclaimed artist Terry Jones, depicts him in casual garb, holding a fishing rod — as though he’s ready to step aboard “Pilar” and cast off to battle monsters of the deep.

Tackle to do just that has pride of place in the exhibit: antique fishing tackle utilized by big game fishermen during the 1930s and 40s.

John Hemingway tries the fishing simulator at the Custom House Museum's fascinating exhibit about his grandfather's passion for fishing. (Photo by Rob O'Neal)

John Hemingway tries the fishing simulator at the Custom House Museum’s fascinating exhibit about his grandfather’s passion for fishing. (Photo by Rob O’Neal)

Standouts include a Greenheart rod with a Pflueger Atlapac reel, South Bend marlin teasers designed by Western writer (and Keys fishing aficionado) Zane Grey, a Pompanette 6” flying gaff and much more.

“Following the Fish” is presented by the Key West Art & Historical Society with support and collaboration from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Mote Marine Laboratory.

It’s scheduled to run through July 2015, and those intrigued by angling and Hemingway’s work are invited to check it out. They can even attempt to emulate Ernest’s skill by trying a challenging fishing simulator — just as John Hemingway did when he helped launch the must-see exhibit.

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Wounded Warriors Meet Keys Dolphins During Soldier Ride

Julie Botteri | January 2015

Each January, our small island community of Marathon welcomes a special group of men and women for an interactive session with bottlenose dolphins in the Florida Keys. It’s part of Soldier Ride, an annual cycling event (one of many around the country) that begins in Miami and concludes in Key West.

Marathon residents and visitors greet Soldier Ride participants. About 60 vets -- most suffering severe injuries from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and their supporters joined in the ride down segments of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Marathon residents and visitors greet Soldier Ride participants — about 60 vets, most suffering severe injuries from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their supporters. (All photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

When the group of 60 wounded military veterans arrived in the Middle Keys last Friday, Keys residents and visitors stood at the roadside to cheer and shout thanks and praise as the warrior participants pedaled through town to make their way across the Seven Mile Bridge — the longest span of 43 that help make up the Florida Keys Overseas Highway.

Some riders, missing one or more limbs after combat injuries, used specially adapted bicycles to participate in support of their injured comrades. It was a moving tribute to see, and an even more important reminder of our daily American freedoms.

After their crossing, soldiers were welcomed by Dolphin Research Center for swims with the dolphins, sharing flipper shakes and learning dolphin-training techniques.

DRC, founded by a Vietnam vet, values the work soldiers do to keep us safe — and honors their service by sharing fun and a moment of bliss amid the soldiers’ adjusting to the challenges of returning stateside.

Neil Boekel (right) a former Army Staff Sergeant injured after an explosive ambush in Iraq, completes a dolphin dorsal fin tow at Dolphin Research Center.

Neil Boekel (right), a former Army Staff Sergeant injured after an explosive ambush in Iraq, completes a dolphin dorsal fin tow at Dolphin Research Center.

For Neil Boekel, a 34-year-old former Army staff sergeant injured after a 2010 explosive ambush in Baghdad, the experience of interacting with a dolphin was more than he expected. I was honored to speak with him.

“It was like giving a puppy to a roomful of kids,” he said. “We all just wanted to touch it, play with it — we just wanted its attention as much as it wanted ours. We all just turned into a bunch of goobers playing with the dolphin in the water.”

The experience was equally rewarding for the research center’s staff. “When the soldiers get into the water with the dolphins, they have this moment of connection and it opens up the possibilities that there’s joy to be had,” said Rita Irwin, president and CEO of the facility.

Later, Neil admitted that he and others were initially apprehensive about being in the water with the mammals. But as each person in his group successfully circled the lagoon holding a dolphin’s dorsal fin, it was obvious to me that they quickly relaxed. Jokes and delighted laughter skimmed as easily across the water’s surface as the squeaking dolphins did.

Brandon Dodson and Flagler the dolphin splash each other at Dolphin Research Center.

Brandon Dodson and Flagler the dolphin splash each other at Dolphin Research Center.

I asked Neil what it meant to him and fellow veterans to step outside their world and do something so unusual.

“It’s such a new experience, and you’re focused on this experience — you don’t have time to trip over yourself,” he responded. “You forget to be afraid of loud noises, or shadows in the corner of your eye, because you’re too busy trying to figure out why you’re in the water with a pack of dolphins.”

Neil also shared some thoughts that brought me to tears. He told me his first two years after leaving the service were unpleasant, dark, and he would never have spoken to me or anyone about his experiences.

Now, five years later, he can. He lends help to soldiers who are just getting out, both with teaching vets surfing as part of a program in Florida’s Panhandle and through Soldier Ride events.

“It’s not necessarily what we’re doing, it’s the group itself,” he explained. “In this group, you find someone who’s riding a bike for the first time, somebody who’s getting outside again for the first time. Today, I got to be the guy who got the cane out of the back of the truck to bring to my buddy to help him out.”

Participants in Soldier Ride pedal across the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys.

Participants in Soldier Ride pedal across the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys.

Organized by the Wounded Warrior Project, Soldier Ride events raise public awareness and support for the needs of severely injured military members involved in Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts returning to the U.S.

Rehabilitative opportunities and monies help provide for basic comfort items and transporting soldiers and their families between home and hospital — and develop supportive peer-mentoring programs.

“On these rides and these events … you get to see the future; you get to see a little glimpse of hope,” Neil said. “You know where you are now, and you get to see little bit of what tomorrow might have.”

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Key West Men Wed in Keys’ First Same-Sex Marriage

Carol Shaughnessy | January 2015

At about 12:15 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 6, two Key West men whose lawsuit helped pave the way for marriage equality in Florida said “I Do” in the Florida Keys’ first legal same-sex wedding.

Aaron Huntsman (front left) and William Lee Jones (front right) say "I Do" on the steps of Key West's Monroe County Courthouse in the Keys' first same-sex marriage. (Photo by Carol Tedesco, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Aaron Huntsman (front left) and William Lee Jones (front right) say “I Do” in the Keys’ first same-sex marriage. (Photo by Carol Tedesco, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones signed and received their marriage license — the first ever issued to a same-sex couple in the Keys — just after midnight at Key West’s Monroe County Courthouse.

Moments later, wearing matching black tuxes and electric blue vests, facing each other and holding hands on the courthouse steps, they were wed in a simple yet moving ceremony before about 500 enthusiastic spectators.

After Aaron and Lee spoke their vows and exchanged handmade silver rings, Rev. Steve Torrence pronounced the words that many thought they would never hear.

“By the power vested in me by the State of Florida, I do now declare that you are legally married,” the reverend said jubilantly.

Aaron (center) and Lee (left) celebrate with supporters after being declared legally married early Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, in Key West. (Photo by Carol Tedesco, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Aaron (center) and Lee (left) celebrate with supporters after being declared legally married early Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, in Key West. (Photo by Carol Tedesco, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The spectators, some waving signs supporting marriage equality, erupted in cheers as the new spouses embraced and kissed.

“It’s official — we’re married!” marveled Aaron just after the ceremony. “We’ve been wanting this and hoping for this for such a long time. We felt in our hearts that we had been married since our first year together, and now it’s real — in Florida!”

In July 2014, in response to the couple’s lawsuit protesting Florida’s 2008 ban on same-sex marriage, Florida Keys Judge Luis Garcia issued a landmark ruling stating the ban was discriminatory and unconstitutional.

But a subsequent state appeal derailed all wedding plans — until U.S. Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that Florida’s county court clerks could issue licenses to same-sex couples beginning at midnight Jan. 5.

Lee (right) adjusts Aaron's bowtie during their tux fitting before the wedding. Lee’s shackle bracelet encircles his left wrist. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Lee (right) adjusts Aaron’s bowtie during their tux fitting before the wedding. Lee’s shackle bracelet encircles his left wrist. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The afternoon before their wedding, Aaron and Lee were fitted for their tuxes at Timmy Tuxedo’s in Key West.

There, Lee spoke about removing an unwanted and highly symbolic article of apparel — a large silver-toned bracelet that completely encircled his left wrist.

“A friend of ours gave it to me the day after we filed our lawsuit, and it’s been shackled on here ever since,” Lee explained. “I call it my shackle of inequality. Tonight at midnight, I get to take it off.”

Shortly after the ceremony, surrounded by friends and supporters on the courthouse steps, he did just that.

“I’m elated, overjoyed, that I finally am legally recognized with the man that I’ve loved for 12 years now,” said an emotional Lee.

Aaron (second from left) and Lee (fourth from right) cheer with their supporters after being declared legally married in Key West. (Photo by Carol Tedesco, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Aaron (second from left) and Lee (fourth from right) cheer with supporters after their historic wedding in Key West. (Photo by Carol Tedesco, Florida Keys News Bureau)

The county clerk’s office in Key West opened at 11:30 p.m. Jan. 5 and, just after midnight, issued nine other marriage licenses to same-sex couples. While other weddings took place in the wee hours of the morning Jan. 6, Aaron and Lee’s ceremony was the first in the county and in the Florida Keys.

Key West has been at the forefront in LGBT issues since the 80s and this is just historical,” said Aaron. “We couldn’t have done it without the support of the community.”

Key West and the Florida Keys have long been recognized as a leading destination for memorable weddings — whether traditional exchanges of vows or unique affairs including underwater ceremonies. Now, with same-sex marriage legal in Florida, the island chain is poised to welcome even more happy couples eager to wed.

For information about getting married in the Keys, click here.

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Key West Men to Wed in Keys’ First Same-Sex Marriage

Steve Smith | January 2015

Two Key West men, whose lawsuit helped pave the way for same-sex marriage equality in Florida, are to wed just after midnight tonight in the Florida Keys’ first same-sex marriage.

William Lee Jones (left) and Aaron Huntsman (center) complete their marriage license application at Key West's Monroe County Courthouse Friday, Jan. 2, 2015. At right is Amy Heavilin, clerk of the court. (Photos by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

William Lee Jones (left) and Aaron Huntsman (center) complete their marriage license application before Amy Heavilin, clerk of the court. (Photos by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones, who completed their application paperwork at Key West’s Monroe County Courthouse Friday, are to receive the Keys’ first marriage license and then exchange vows outside the courthouse.

In July 2014, in response to the couple’s lawsuit protesting Florida’s 2008 ban on same-sex marriage, Florida Keys Judge Luis Garcia ruled that the ban was discriminatory and unconstitutional. But the state appealed, putting Aaron and Lee’s wedding plans on hold — until New Year’s Day, when U.S. Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that Florida’s county court clerks can issue licenses to same-sex couples beginning at midnight Monday.

At the courthouse Friday, Aaron and Lee displayed a certificate showing they had completed a pre-marital course, signed their application before circuit court clerk Amy Heavilin, and paid the fee that will allow them to receive their license and marry.

A joyful Aaron (right) and Lee leave the court clerk's office in Key West after after completing their historic marriage license application Friday, Jan. 2, 2015.

A joyful Aaron (right) and Lee leave the court clerk’s office in Key West after after completing their historic marriage license application Friday, Jan. 2, 2015.

According to a spokesperson for the clerk’s office, the office will open at 11:30 p.m. tonight and prepare to issue up to 100 marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

While other weddings may take place in the wee hours Tuesday morning, Aaron and Lee’s ceremony is to be the first in the county and in the Florida Keys.

Plans call for events at the courthouse, including the wedding, to be live-streamed beginning at 11:45 p.m. tonight. Click here to view the historic event.

Click here to subscribe to the Florida Keys & Key West’s LGBT travel blog.

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Resolve to Experience Colorful Keys Dive Events in 2015

Julie Botteri | December 2014

The Florida Keys are famed for their offbeat celebrations. But many people don’t know that a good number of those festivities take place underwater — along the continental United States’ only contiguous living coral barrier reef.

Participants in the Underwater Music Festival might even spot a mermaid (a.k.a. Samantha Langsdale) beneath the waves in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Participants in the Underwater Music Festival might even spot a mermaid (a.k.a. Samantha Langsdale) beneath the waves in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

It’s true. In 2015, divers and snorkelers can make a resolution to “immerse themselves” in unique events in the waters surrounding America’s southernmost island chain.

For example, they can “egg-splore” for hidden eggs during the annual Underwater Easter Egg Hunt. Or they might join costumed mermaids and mer-musicians at the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival. The submerged songfest is held each July at Looe Key Reef, an area of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary approximately six miles south of Big Pine Key.

Coming in August 2015, the inaugural Upper Keys Reef Crawl promises fun, sun and camaraderie for outdoor and underwater enthusiasts — as they dive, snorkel, kayak and paddle among the beautiful reefs and abundant sea life on sites between Key Largo and Islamorada.

Planned highlights include hands-on seminars presented by the renowned Coral Restoration Foundation and REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation), plus local entertainment, cuisine and casual Keys flair. VIP cards are available for access to specials and programs during the exhilarating event.

Every October, Key Largo’s quirky Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest attracts dozens of divers who pit their paring skills against the naturally buoyant gourds, all hoping to fashion a winning face. Some of the “artists” in past years have carved creations so spooky they even scare the fish!

Tuxes, wedding gowns and scuba gear are the proper attire for those diving into matrimony in the Florida Keys.

Tuxes, wedding gowns and scuba gear are the proper attire for those diving into matrimony in the waters surrounding the Florida Keys.

Speaking of memorable events, the Keys’ living coral barrier reef offers romantic couples — like wedding parties and guests — an opportunity to don boutonnières and bathing suits and tie the knot with exotic sea creatures in attendance.

Notable sites for undersea ceremonies include the welcoming arms of the 9-foot-tall “Christ of the Abyss,” a 4,000-pound bronze statue within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary adjacent to Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

Of course, some people are more interested in environmental pursuits than romantic ones. For them, each year REEF partners with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to create lionfish derbies where divers can capture and remove non-native lionfish from Keys waters.

According to REEF, it’s estimated that more than 14,800 invasive lionfish have been collected in these derbies. Participants can win cash and prizes for bagging the most, biggest and smallest lionfish — in addition to helping preserve Keys habitats and ecosystems.

Divers can participate in a derby from their own private vessel or join a local dive operator’s charter. Call 305-852-0030 for information on 2015 dates.

Jim and Lisa Bosworth create a Jack-O-Lantern during a past Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest in the waters off Key Largo. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Jim and Lisa Bosworth create a Jack-O-Lantern during a past Underwater Pumpkin Carving Contest in the waters off Key Largo. (Photo by Bob Care, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Any time this year, water lovers can enroll in the “Become a Reef Explorer” underwater program that spotlights the Keys’ coral reefs. Enthusiasts of all experience levels can log dives or snorkels along reefs between Key Largo and Key West in a specially created souvenir journal provided by a local dive or snorkel operator.

After collecting one reef stamp in each of the five regions of the Keys, participants can email reefexplorer@fla-keys.com for an access code enabling them to download, personalize and print a Florida Keys Reef Explorer poster ready for framing at home.

Do some of the activities outlined here sound slightly wacky? Absolutely, and that’s part of what makes them such quintessential Keys-style fun. But at the same time, most carry a serious message of reef preservation.

Overall, they encourage divers and snorkelers to enjoy the wonders of the Florida Keys barrier reef while minimizing their impacts on the underwater environment — and choosing to do that is a resolution REALLY worth making.

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The Saga of Santa Keys

Carol Shaughnessy | December 2014

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the Keys
Smiling holiday revelers savored the breeze.
But in other locations, nobody was smiling
as they braved freezing temperatures far from the islands.

Santa Keys and his "Key deer" wish everyone a Merry Christmas. (Photo by Carol Tedesco)

Santa Keys and his tiny “Key deer” wish everyone a Merry Christmas. (Photo by Carol Tedesco)

While Keys visitors partied in warm outdoor bars,
toasting friends with mojitos sipped under the stars,
Christmas spirits had plans for the cold “refugees”
who were physically elsewhere but craving the Keys.

That’s why, out on the beach, there arose such a squawking
of unsettled seagulls in seagull talk talking
that drivers of cars cruising next to the ocean
couldn’t figure out what had caused all the commotion.

The moon on the shining white crescent of beach
made the shoreline of Cuba seem almost in reach
when what to the drivers’ amazement appeared
but a Santa in flip-flops and seaweed-decked beard.

Santa Keys leaves a holiday tree for his finned friends in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Frazier Nivens)

Santa Keys leaves a holiday tree for his finned friends in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. (Photo by Frazier Nivens)

Now, this Santa was wise and this Santa was bright
and he sure sympathized with the northerners’ plight.
In his past life, before heading south for the sun,
he too spent the winter months freezing his buns.

So he hijacked a sturdy old boat used for fishin’,
found some Key deer to pull it and started his mission.
Sailing skyward to surf on a tropical breeze,
he steered his ship north bringing gifts from the Keys.

As palm fronds before a wild summer storm fly
(when the shutters are closed and the water is high),
Santa Keys cruised the northern states with his Key deer
spreading visions of warm blue seas and island cheer.

Even the U.S. Coast Guard helps Santa Keys on his annual mission. (Photo by Carol Tedesco, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Even the U.S. Coast Guard helps Santa Keys on his annual mission. (Photo by Carol Tedesco, Florida Keys News Bureau)

At each house where the residents longed for the tropics,
he left small Keys tokens stuffed deep in their stockings.
There were conch shells and flip-flops and Key lime tidbits,
Margarita mix too — and “Buffett’s Greatest Hits.”

There were fishing reels, dive logs and lotions for sun
Conch Republic flags, stickers that read “U.S. 1,”
tiny replicas of Key West’s Southernmost Point
and shrimp sauce from a funky old Keys seafood joint.

When he dropped the last gift at the last snow-topped house,
Santa Keys told his Key deer to steer a course south.
His farewell drifted back on a sweet balmy breeze:
“Merry Christmas to all — now come visit the Keys!”

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David Wirth Makes Living an Art Form

Briana Ciraulo | December 2014

And to think it all started with a case of chicken pox.

Marine life artist David Wirth displays a wooden carving of one of his amazing authentic circle hooks. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Artist David Wirth displays one of his amazing and authentic carved wood circle hooks. (Photos by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

David Wirth has traveled the world — fishing, hunting and exploring the great outdoors. But a near-death experience eventually led him to turn his passion for sculpting into a successful career in the Florida Keys.

A California native, David describes himself as a “beach baby” with a constant desire to be fishing, diving or doing anything on or beside the water.

“I would spend at least 100 days out of the year fishing,” he said.

A little more than 20 years ago, however, a unique case of chicken pox made it impossible for him to do what he loved most.

“I was in recovery and I couldn’t be around fish because of the bacteria,” David explained. “I wanted to fish so bad, so I made my own fish and began sculpting.

“I used a tool in my tackle box, got a piece of wood and whittled out my first rainbow trout — all from memory,” he said.

That was the beginning of David’s career as a hardwood sculptor, though his artistic passion dates back to his childhood.

“When I would get in trouble as a child and my parents would send me to my room, I would get my X-Acto knife and start carving into the headboard on my bed,” he confessed.

David fashions each of his sculptures from materials including Keys hardwoods, but uses logs collected only from "blow down" trees that have fallen because of weather.

David fashions each of his sculptures from materials including Keys hardwoods, but uses logs collected only from “blow down” trees that have fallen because of weather.

His artistic talent and passion came naturally to him, with no formal schooling or training — a rarity for such complex work.

Currently an Islamorada resident, David owns and operates The Gallery of Wildlife Art at mile marker 88.9 oceanside. He specializes in hardwood, bronze and stone sculptures — and has his own jewelry line crafted from unusual materials like antlers, gator bones and walrus tusks.

David’s intricate sculptures include everything from a 72-inch-long hanging marlin to a 40-inch standing sailfish. He also takes commissions from art lovers seeking true one-of-a-kind pieces for their collections.

In addition, David creates a variety of custom furniture pieces including tables, benches and picture frames. All are made from local hardwoods — for example, wild tamarind, mahogany and Jamaican dogwood.

A change in the California art market motivated David’s move to Islamorada several years ago, and he’s found the move to be extremely successful. In fact, during his three years in the sport fishing capital, sales have exceeded his expectations every year.

Like many Florida Keys artists, David is inspired by his surroundings.

“I’m a real outdoorsman,” he said. “If I see a marlin, I’ll jump in the water and study it for a sculpture rather than trying to study a dead fish.”

Observing fish in their natural habitat is crucial to his artistry.

David's unique artistry is on display at his Islamorada gallery.

David’s unique artistry is on display at his Islamorada gallery.

“The social habits are important for my artwork,” he explained. “I like looking at the social interactions, fin positions, exploring fish in the water.”

As with other Florida Keys residents pursuing their passions, David doesn’t view his everyday routine as work. “Twelve hours of carving in the studio — that’s not work to me,” he said.

After living in more than 20 states and visiting many counties around the world, David Wirth exhibits a deep appreciation for the Florida Keys.

“I could write a full 10-chapter book on a four-hour backcountry fishing trip; it is so incredible,” he enthused. “The qualities and quantities of species of fish here, the topography, the mangroves — it’s this quiet beautiful place that, if you take the time every day, you can enjoy a piece of reality that is often forgotten.”

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Prohibition Repealed (Again) in Key West

Carol Shaughnessy | December 2014

Free-thinkers and libation lovers recently celebrated the repeal of Prohibition (the 1920-1933 ban on the U.S. manufacture, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages) at a rum distillery on the island that once was home to illegal speakeasies and rum smuggling operations.

Paul Menta displays a replica of the 21st Amendment at his distillery's "repeal party." (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Paul Menta displays a replica of the 21st Amendment at his distillery’s “repeal party.” (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“Wait a minute,” you might exclaim, “wasn’t Prohibition repealed decades ago?” The answer is yes … but that didn’t stop a creative group eager to party in the easygoing outpost of Key West.

Key West First Legal Rum Distillery hosted a “repeal party” Dec. 5, the 81st anniversary of the ratification of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that revoked Prohibition.

The date also marked the first “birthday” of the distillery, located at 105 Simonton St. on the site of a pre-Prohibition saloon. The distillery’s décor recalls the Prohibition era, while Legal Rum flagship bottles bear mug shots of former Florida Keys residents guilty of alcohol contraband offenses (and yes, there were more than a few of those!).

According to distillery owner Paul Menta, the gathering’s highlight was to be a reading of the 21st Amendment by Key West Mayor Craig Cates — scheduled for 5:32 p.m., the moment when the amendment was originally ratified in 1933.

The reading was scrapped, however, after an astute observation by the mayor.

Paul creates unique chef-distilled rums, including a Key lime variety, at his Legal Rum Distillery. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Paul creates unique chef-distilled rums, including a Key lime variety, at his Legal Rum Distillery. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“I’m not sure we ever acknowledged Prohibition in Key West,” he said with a wry grin.

Mayor Cates had a point. In late 1920s Key West, Prohibition was regarded as an amusing exercise dreamed up by the government — and Joe Russell, who became Ernest Hemingway’s fishing partner, was one of the enterprising individuals who operated illegal speakeasies.

In fact, the official beginning of Joe Russell’s Sloppy Joe’s Bar, the famed Key West saloon beloved by Hemingway, was Dec. 5, 1933 — the very day Prohibition was repealed.

Before that auspicious day, however, Key West was home to a daring group of rumrunners who imported contraband from Cuba, dodging the federales in a fearless nighttime game. Using strategies ranging from misdirection to decoy boats, they brought in enough whiskey and rum to soothe a thirsty populace.

That renegade era was cheerfully recalled during the Legal Rum Distillery’s repeal party. The four-man Happy Dog Band played period tunes while alcohol advocates paraded with signs inscribed, “Rum is the Answer” and “Make it Legal.” Meanwhile, women promoting temperance countered with signs reading, among other slogans, “Lips That Touch Liquor Will Never Touch Mine.”

The distillery's decor pays tribute to Prohibition-era Key West.

The distillery’s decor pays tribute to Prohibition-era Key West.

Even Uncle Sam (or at least his look-alike) turned up — and hoisted a sign that proclaimed, somewhat confusingly, “Me or Rum.”

As people gathered outside the distillery, Paul Menta leaped atop a rum barrel to display a super-sized replica of the 21st Amendment. Inside the emporium, employees served samples of Paul’s products including the new “Devil’s Rum,” enticingly flavored with Florida orange peel and cinnamon leaf.

While the lively repeal party was a one-night-only affair, there’s plenty of action every day at Key West First Legal Rum Distillery. It’s open daily for self-guided tours and free samplings of rums crafted on-site (don’t miss the one flavored with real Key lime). And several afternoons a week, Paul offers “How It’s Made” tours featuring quirky stories about Key West’s rum-soaked past.

For fans of fine libations, how could it get any better than that?

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Seasonal Celebrations Sparkle in Key West

Steve Smith | December 2014

December signals the beginning of Key West’s winter season with scheduled performances at our three theaters, live entertainment at many of our clubs and cabarets, holiday decorations sprinkled across the city like fairy dust, and happenings around the island almost every night.

Watching decorated boats proceed around the harbor during the Schooner Wharf Bar Lighted Boat Parade is a great way to sail into the holidays.

Watching decorated boats proceed around the harbor during the Schooner Wharf Bar’s lighted boat parade is a great way to sail into the holidays.

This year’s holiday fun begins Saturday, Dec. 13, with the 24th annual Schooner Wharf Bar & Galley/Absolut Vodka lighted boat parade. Our local elementary school’s Steel Your Heart Band kicks off the evening at 6 p.m. with holiday favorites, followed by the Doerfels, a popular family band. Pick a spot at one of the waterfront’s resorts, bars or restaurants to watch sparklingly decorated kayaks, fishing and pleasure craft, small yachts and schooners as they sail through the harbor competing for bragging rights, more than $20,000 in prizes and a free $4,000 raffle.

While strolling the harbor, stop in the shops lining the seaport and surrounding streets to find your holiday gifts — many made by local artisans — during the annual Holiday Fest and Bight Before Christmas events. The boardwalk leading through the harbor will be decorated with holiday lights, Christmas trees including a unique lobster trap tree, and much more.

Key West's gorgeous inns throw open their doors to holiday revelers during annual Lighted Inn Tours presented by the Lodging Association. (Photo courtesy of The Mermaid & The Alligator)

Key West’s gorgeous inns throw open their doors to holiday revelers during seasonal inn tours presented by the Lodging Association. (Photo courtesy of the Mermaid & the Alligator)

The Lodging Association of the Florida Keys & Key West presents the annual Holiday Historic Inn Tours on the evenings of Dec. 12 and 19. Fine wines, hors d’ oeuvres, and cocktails accompany tours of our historic inns including the Mermaid & the Alligator, the Southernmost House, Old Town Manor, Wicker Guesthouse and several other properties. Trolleys are available to transport you between the inns, and tickets are still available.

December’s monthly Artisan Market will begin at 10 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 21. The Artisan Market is an open-air marketplace filled with juried artists, authors, craftspeople, live entertainment, jewelry, wares and foods all locally made or created. There are no imported trinkets here — only unique handcrafted items, local craft beers, fresh mozzarella, and a variety of homemade pickles and jams. The market is located next to Key West’s Restaurant Store at 1111 Eaton Street.

Looking for quality local theater? “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” opens Dec. 16 at the Red Barn Theatre, located down a small lane off Duval Street next to the Hard Rock Café. This 1997 Tony Award-winning romantic comedy is set in 1939 Atlanta on the eve of World War II and the opening night of “Gone With The Wind.” The story focuses on a Jewish family in Atlanta whose members are looking forward to Ballyhoo, a lavish cotillion ball — and includes an evening full of revelations.

Blogger Steve Smith  is flanked by William Jones (left) and Aaron Huntsman, pioneers in Florida's fight for marriage equality. .

Blogger Steve Smith is flanked by William Lee Jones (left) and Aaron Huntsman, pioneers in Florida’s fight for marriage equality.

After a day of fun in Key West and a stop at the daily sunset celebration, catch “Noises Off” at the Waterfront Playhouse on Mallory Square. The New York Post called this show “the funniest farce ever written,” while the New York Times lauded it as “a spectacularly funny, peerless backstage farce.” Attend a performance and form your own opinion of this hilarious award-winning show.

On another note, many of you have heard that marriage equality in Florida could begin as early as Jan. 6, 2015. Key West residents Aaron Huntsman and William Lee Jones challenged the state’s ban on marriage equality earlier this year and our county judge ruled it unconstitutional. Stay tuned for more information on marriage equality in the Florida Keys & Key West as it becomes available.

Click here to subscribe to the Florida Keys & Key West’s LGBT travel blog.

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Sand in Your Shoes? No Problem!

Carol Shaughnessy | December 2014

The lively creativity and laid-back oceanfront vibe that characterize Key West came together recently in the International Sand Art Competition, a beachside event for visitors to the continental U.S.A.’s southernmost island city. Six renowned U.S. and international sand sculptors — in fact, from as far away as Acapulco and Quebec — took part in the artistic challenge that was held (appropriately) on the sandy Atlantic Ocean beach at Key West’s Casa Marina Resort.

Benjamin Probanza of Acapulco, Mexico, puts finishing touches on his sand sculpture "Yin-Yang," at the International Sand Art Competition. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Benjamin Probanza of Acapulco, Mexico, adds detail to his intriguing entry at the International Sand Art Competition. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“Each sculptor received about seven yards of sand in this competition, which equals out to approximately 15,000 pounds of sand, which they got to shovel on the first day,” said event founder Marianne van den Broek of Key West’s Sand-Isle Professional Sand Sculpting, adding wryly, “That’s a lot of shoveling.”

It certainly was — but the sand sculptors were all pros who were up for the task.

The stalwart competitors were Rusty Croft, host of the television reality show “Sand Masters,” veteran Key West sand artist and show participant Chris Guinto, Canadian master Guy-Olivier Deveau, Acapulco sculptor Benjamin Probanza, Dan Doubleday from Florida’s Treasure Island, and Dan Belcher from St. Louis.

The contestants brought amazingly detailed, imaginative creations to life without using electric tools, molds or glue. Instead, they crafted them out of simple sand and water with a few hand tools — trowels, brushes and knives similar to artists’ palette knives.

Guy-Olivier Deveau puts finishing touches on his sand sculpture titled "Decay/Evolve" on the final day of the competition. (Photo by Rob O'Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

Guy-Olivier Deveau puts finishing touches on his sand sculpture, titled “Decay/Evolve,” on the final day of the competition. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“A lot of people have a hard time believing that it really is just sand and water, but it really IS just sand and water,” said Marianne. “We reuse the sand all the time, so the fact that we can break down a sculpture and build something new is very green. It’s recyclable, and that’s part of the charm.”

Sculptures ranged from four or five feet tall up to nine or 10 feet tall. Among them were Benjamin Probanza’s giant divided head with a surreal flair titled “Yin-Yang,” Dan Belcher’s super-sized 3D coin aptly named “Heads & Tails,” and Guy-Olivier’s “Decay/Evolve,” an intricately muscled male figure in an elaborate headdress.

“I try to go with something visually striking rather than having a deep meaning,” said Guy-Olivier, who lives in Quebec City. “I really go with the aesthetic, and I usually like a dark or creepy aesthetic.”

He appreciates sand as a medium, he reported, despite the resulting work’s impermanence.

“If I would make this out of wood or out of bronze, it would take months to realize,” he said of his massive figure. “I can realize something like this in only four days, so I guess this is where the difference is and why it’s so interesting — sand sculpture.”

Dan Belcher's super=sized coin sculpture earned the competition's People's Choice Award. (Photo courtesy of Sand-Isle Sand Sculpting)

Dan Belcher’s super-sized coin sculpture earned the unique competition’s People’s Choice Award. (Photo courtesy of Sand-Isle Professional Sand Sculpting)

For Marianne van den Broek, whose career began 15 years ago in the Netherlands, the work’s impermanence is a positive characteristic that conveys a healthy life lesson.

“Once you complete a sculpture, it’s completed and I’m ready to move on,” she explained. “It can be there for months or it can be taken down the next day; it’s okay — it’s all about letting go, and you get really used to letting things go.”

When the dust (or actually the sand) at the International Sand Art Competition settled, some 10,000 people had viewed the remarkable works of art — and Benjamin Probanza and Dan Belcher took the top prizes.

According to legend, if visitors get sand in their shoes during a Florida Keys sojourn, they’re destined to return to the island chain again and again. Clearly, the contest’s six sculptors collected enormous amounts of the grainy stuff in their footwear … so let’s hope the legend holds true and they come back SOON for an encore.

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