Artist and historian Sharon Wells knows a good thing when she sees it. In 1982, the then state historian for the Historic Florida Keys Preservation Board received a phone call from fellow historian Love Dean: Key Largo folk artist Stanley Papio had died and the fate of his work was in question. Wells hopped in her car and drove up to mile marker 101 to document what the rebellious welder-turned-artist had left behind.
Wells had heard of Papio and his yard towering with old car parts, washing machines and other metal that he transformed into extraordinary works of art, but she’d only ever driven by the “Stanley’s Art Museum” sign where curious travelers would stop and pay the 25 cent entry fee to view the satirical metal sculptures depicting his neighbors, naysayers and people he considered to be ‘environmental rapists’ who wanted him conform to their imposed zoning laws.
“It was astounding,” says Wells. “My immediate feeling was that they were like Calders and Picassos.”
While people worked to rid the property of what they deemed as “junk,” Wells quickly photographed what she could, returning to Key West with wheels in motion to salvage his work. Papio’s brother, heir to the collection, decided they belonged in the Keys and would gift them to an institution who agreed to keep them intact, so she made prints and brought them to the the Key West Art & Historical Society board, suggesting the sculptures be housed at Fort East Martello Museum.
Though not unanimous (some saw rust while others saw art), they voted to accept, and soon Wells, Dean, and former Society Executive Director Barbara Hodgens were on their way to collect the creations – more than 100 sculptural objects and three-dimensional constructions— with the help of a Society maintenance man who un-welded the fence made of bedframes so they could be stacked along with the other pieces into two rented U-Hauls.
“The stuff was heavy as hell!” laughs Wells. “It was quite an ordeal. But it was worth it. I love that collection.”
Wells wrote and was funded a National Endowment for the Arts grant to document and research Papio’s work. Next came two state grants for conservation, which brought expert Phoebe Weil –who also worked on the Vatican—into the mix, assessing each piece and providing a workshop for nearly 20 volunteers to help conserve nearly all the rusted pieces that were “a mess,” says Wells, who joined the Society board at this time. With the collection ready for display, aside from three chrome pieces on exhibit at the Custom House Museum, all of the sculptures remain at the Fort.
Unfortunately, due to management shifts from within the organization, for many years they were given little attention, and the momentum for Papio was lost. But when the Society came under the executive direction of Michael Gieda and the curatorial direction of Cori Convertito, their enthusiasm brought Wells back on board.
“I called and asked his opinion of Papio,” she said. “He quickly responded that it was a very important part of the museum’s collection that he wanted to focus on. We inventoried the pieces and that reawakened my own desire to get them in a proper setting so that more people could appreciate them.”
The Society has since worked diligently to present his work and reacquaint the community with the artist who so deftly embodies the creative essence of the Florida Keys. It is proud to present the permanent exhibit opening of Stanley Papio: Junkyard Rebel on Saturday, May 14th from 5:30pm-7:00pm in the newly renovated gallery at Fort East Martello Museum, 3501 S. Roosevelt Blvd.
The exhibit opens in conjunction with the inaugural Papio Kinetic Sculpture Parade, which kicks off in front of the Custom House Museum with a pop-up party and registration from 5-8pm on Friday the 13th; the family-friendly, human-powered art sculpture and art bike parade that will wind its way down Duval Street on Saturday at 12:00pm on May 14th, and end with a kinetic sculpture exhibition of the parade’s offerings at Fort East Martello from 12-6 on Sunday, May 15th.
“In my opinion, Papio is one of the true artists of the Florida Keys in the 20th century,” says Wells. “He was a talented welder and an untutored sculptor whose ingenuity and craftsmanship really described his own personal world in the vernacular of our region. The Society is doing a great thing by reviving his story and exhibiting his work for all to see.”
Sponsored in part by the Monroe County Tourist Development Council. For more information, contact Cori Convertito, PhD at 305.295.6616 x 112. Your Museums. Your Community. It takes an Island.