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Long revered for its stunning coastline, Northwest Florida is gaining acclaim as a haven for artists and art lovers alike.

By Kathie Farnell - photography by Jack Gardner


The Florida Panhandle, long a tourist mecca for its pristine white beaches, is rapidly becoming an arts destination. Visitors particularly enjoy exploring the area along Highway 30A east of Destin, home to the 14 beach communities that comprise the Beaches of South Walton.


The communities’ artsy vibe has now been augmented by the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which has opened a satellite museum at the WaterColor Resort. In addition to incorporating a branch of the Ogden Center for Southern Craft and Design, the museum will showcase changing exhibits of contemporary art. The first shows at the Ogden featured the Gulf Coast black and white photography of Richard Sexton and the color-saturated paintings of artist and collector Hunt Slonem. Since then, the museum has hosted an exhibit by Gainesville photographers Jerry Uelsmann and Maggie Taylor; planned exhibits will feature paintings and sculpture.


Gallery coordinator Eileen West says that the South Walton area has been overwhelmingly supportive of the new museum. “The community is thrilled to have this caliber of art venue in this area. For our opening July 4th weekend, we had more than 350 people come by.”


At the same location, the Center for Southern Craft and Design represents and sells the work of some 15 noted artisans from across the South, including glass artist Mark Rosenbaum and ceramicist Andrea Freel Christie. Ogden Museum Director J. Richard Gruber sees the collaboration as an opportunity to reach Florida audiences directly through a facility which reflects the region’s “remarkable architecture and design aesthetic.”


The Walton County Tourist Development Council has launched a number of programs aimed at supporting local artists. One of these, the “Walton County Artist of the Year,” honors a selected artist each year. Local galleries showcase the works of many of these artists.


Just west down 30A from WaterColor, the little community of Blue Mountain Beach is home to one of the most interesting art galleries in Florida. The Gaffrey Art Gallery is the headquarters of self-taught artist Justin Gaffrey, who sends out positive vibes from his brightly painted studio. Justin, a former Artist of the Year who enjoys painting in remote locations along the Coast and rivers of Florida, blends his own style with influences of Van Gogh and Monet to create his impasto acrylic landscapes.


Alabama folk artist Debbie Weant-Lane features funky outsider art at Big Mama’s Hula Girl Gallery in Santa Rosa Beach. Artists at what Debbie calls “the most groovin’ gallery in the galaxy” include glass artist Phil Kiser. Phil, named Artist of the Year in 2006, uses antique plates, mason jars, recycled mirrors and vintage glass to create his mosaic works.

The Eileen West Gallery, in Ruskin Place at Seaside, represents a number of outsider artists, including self-taught artist Billie Gaffrey. Eileen says she enjoys representing “underdogs, people who work outside the normal cultural advantages,” adding that “the inspiration to do art is universal, whether it’s mainstream or outsider art.”


In Grayton Beach, a unique opportunity to see local art is found on Clayton Lane at the Fire Restaurant, which is known for its seafood tacos and Cuban sandwiches, as well as its walls full of art.


The resort of Sandestin, just east of Destin on Highway 98, includes the Sandestin Market Shops, home of Donna Burgess Gallery. Donna, the 2008 Walton County Artist of the Year, has owned and operated her gallery since 1999. Her watercolors, which capture the beauty of life along the Coast, are included in collections including that of Embassy Suites, the Sandestin Corporation, and former president George H.W. Bush. She can be found in her gallery a couple of days a week signing prints or teaching her monthly watercolor workshop for artists of all levels.


The Village of Baytowne Wharf, another Sandestin arts venue, is home to the quirky eatery Graffiti and the Funky Blues Shack, crammed floor to ceiling with the works of local and regional artists. Everything is for sale, and the artworks--with prices--are listed on the back of the menu. Nearby, at Sandestin’s Grand Boulevard, Fusion Art Glass represents the work of more than 200 artists and small studios. Fusion, whose artists are included in the collections of some of the most prominent museums in the United States, also maintains a gallery in Seaside.


At the Eastern end of the Panhandle, Apalachicola is home to the Apalachicola Museum of Art, which showcases temporary visual arts exhibits in a restored circa-1845 riverboat captain’s house. Exhibits here have included regional and local artists as well as nationally recognized traveling exhibits. Another recently opened venue, the Cotton Exchange building, hosted the 2008 Plein-Air Paintout, during which 200 artists produced 600 watercolors.


The Artemis Gallery, owned by Hollis Vail and Jan Gorman, is located in the middle of the historic shopping district. Artemis focuses on regional and local artists including painter Eleanor Blair and nature photographer John Spohrer.

Also in the heart of town, the Richard Bickel Photography gallery showcases the work of the nationally known photographer, whose images of the area appeared in a 2004 New York Times cover story. His latest photo book, Apalachicola River: An American Treasure, is described as “a wild, intoxicating ride through Florida’s fringes.” Prints from the book are for sale at the gallery.


The arts scene in the Florida Panhandle--eclectic, vibrant, and expanding--guarantees that visitors will come away with a new perspective on one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline anywhere.

For more information on the arts in the 30A area and Sandestin, visit www.beachesofsouthwalton.com. For information on the Apalachicola area, visit the Franklin County Tourist Development Council’s website at www.anaturalescape.com or the Chamber of Commerce website at www.apalachicolabay.org


Accommodations Destinations Attractions Shopping Gift subscription
  • Ogden Museum of Southern Art
  • Center for Southern Craft and Design
  • The Gaffrey Art Gallery
  • Big Mama’s Hula Girl Gallery
  • The Eileen West Gallery
  • Fire Restaurant
  • Donna Burgess Gallery
  • Graffiti and the Funky Blues Shack
  • Fusion Art Glass
  • Apalachicola Museum of Art
  • The Artemis Gallery
  • the Richard Bickel Photography gallery

fusion art glass

Picked by Catherine Neill Juchheim

One of my absolute favorite shores along Florida's 30-A is Fusion Art Glass in Seaside. Not only is it in the most picturesque surrounding, but the inside of the store also takes your breath away when you step inside. Vividly colorful works of glass keep me mesmerized the entire time I'm in the store. Vases, wall art, lighting accents, sculptures--you name it, Fusion has it.


But the fun doesn't stop there. The store also has extraordinary jewelry from the most talented artists in the country. If you're looking for a one-of-a-kind piece in just about any color or gem, Fusion Art Glass is the place to go. Prices range from what you would spend for your daughter or friend back home to what you would spend for your wedding or Mardi Gras ball.


For the best and brightest in delicate decor, stop by Fusion Art Glass in Seaside or Destin.