William DePaula's "I Saw A Pirate Santa Come Sailing In" ornament, which is up for bid on the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce's 2022 Holiday Ornaments Auction. CONTRIBUTED

By William DePaula

The end of November is a transition time here in the Florida Keys. Hurricane season is ending and the heat and humidity is not as intense as it usually is. For me, one thing that always sticks out is that I have a deadline to finish my holiday ornament.  

As other Upper Keys artists know, this time of year is when we paint an ornament for the Islamorada Holiday Fest. The ornaments will be on display at the popular Holiday Gift Bazaar during Holiday Fest, where you will see 50 local artists’ unique creations which will be judged. Closer to the event there will be an online silent auction as well.

For a great introduction to Upper Keys artists, the Holiday Bazaar on Friday, Dec. 2 is a way to become acquainted with them. Every year before Halloween we get this lifeless ceramic ornament blank and have to transform it into a beautiful butterfly, er, ornament. It is a fun event and competition that helps you discover artists you love and maybe didn’t know existed. 

What most casual visitors to the Holiday Fest don’t realize is that these ornaments take a long time to make. It is not only me, but I have discussed the Holiday Ornament competition with other artists, and most of us take our time developing the concept in our minds and creating the ornament. The ornament brings with it a sense of delight, simplicity and anguish all at the same time. 

The ornament is an ornament. It is not a big format in any way. The size of the sphere is much smaller than most artists use. What does this mean? It means that you have to do everything on a small scale – even if it’s not something you are used to — and still make it look good. The other challenge is it being a ceramic ball, you can’t do much with it and you must adjust your artwork to the curved edges. If you get all-of-the-above in order you will still need to make sure it looks good on a tree or from a distance. Including a lot of detail might be cool, but if you can’t really tell what it is when on the tree or in a display, it kind of defeats the purpose of the ornament.

Usually, I start thinking about my ornament a year before it is due. Yes, a full year before. Why, you say? Well, when I’m working on this year’s ornament, I think about next year. Maybe I think of things I would have done differently or another cool idea pops in my head while finishing the current year’s ornament. When the event is a year away, I think of all these elaborate things I’m going to do to the ornament. Then 11 months go by and the chamber hands you the ornament and you’re like, “Oh, good. I can get this bad boy started.” Then life happens and you don’t have a chance to work on the ornament. The deadline approaches and in the meantime, you have maybe thought of a dozen different ideas, but none of them is quite right. 

When they hand you the ornament, the current year’s theme of the Holiday Fest is revealed.  This kind of messes me up because what I was thinking usually has nothing to do with the theme picked. About two weeks before the deadline, I know it is time to get serious. I do a few different sketches of concepts related to the theme. Then I realize I don’t really like the way the theme fits into the ornament. It feels too static and contrived. If all else fails, I do something related to the Keys and Christmas.  How can you go wrong with our enviable Florida Keys lifestyle during the holidays? 

There is this love-hate relationship when making the ornament. You want to make something awesome and show off your art and be part of the community. It isn’t easy — there are so many limitations when making ornaments. Just because you are a good artist doesn’t mean you are good at adorning an adorable ornament everyone will love. There are limitations and concepts which don’t always transition into something worthwhile. These limitations, even though frustrating, keep it interesting. 

When you go to this year’s Islamorada Chamber Holiday Fest on Friday, Dec. 2 at Founders Park (it starts at 4 p.m.), enjoy the event, parade and the snow. Remember to take the time to admire the ornaments. It is an amazing collection where you can see the Upper Keys’ talented artists showcased all in one spot. The artists invest a lot of hours, days and weeks into planning and making their ornaments. Their ornaments reflect their art and the way they relate to the Keys and the holidays.  

Take your time; don’t just rush through; look at each one. Try to understand what the artist was going for. You aren’t going to like all of them and that’s okay, everyone’s different. You’ll find some you like, and some will even put a smile on your face. Who knows, maybe you’ll discover an artist that you love.