ICONIC KEYS ARTIST DAN LAWLER’S LEGACY OF LOVE & KINDNESS

Artist Dan Lawler at his easel at Key Largo Art Gallery. CONTRIBUTED

Artist Dan Lawler’s workspace is still on the left upon entering Key Largo Art Gallery. Recently used paint tubes are in a pile in a plastic bin, and his black beret hangs from the easel’s wooden frame. Paint colors are splattered in a constellation across his chair, and brushes sit an arm’s length away. He looks like he’s coming back in just a moment. Perhaps he went out to get one of his favorite sandwiches from the Fish House.

But Lawler passed away on the afternoon of July 14. He was 87 years old. And he leaves behind iconic paintings, a parade of refurbished boats and grieving family and friends who adored him.

“My best friend and mentor has put down his brushes,” wrote Key Largo Art Gallery co-owner Tere Kelley on Lawler’s Facebook page. “From here on out he will be painting beautiful sunsets and marvelous moonscapes on a much larger scale. Sailing through the skies and traveling to parts unknown. This kind and loving man taught me so much about art, about life, kindness and love.”

“He was an incredible friend and father figure to me, and Tere’s best friend for the last 15 years,” Carmen Kelley told Keys Weekly. Carmen co-owns the gallery with her daughter Tere, and Lawler worked and displayed his art there.

“He really was wonderful, wonderful,” said one of his best friends, Kyle Long. “Danny was always even-keeled, just always cheerful. Never got flustered. Never worried. And a great sense of humor.”

“I now see clearly I took his icon status for granted,” said his son Tracy. “Dan always seemed to know everybody in town. Every time I would visit, wherever we went, he would always be running into current friends or some from back in the day. He was so well-liked, which is the ultimate legacy.”  

Lawler is well-known in the Florida Keys art scene for his oil paintings depicting gritty everyday life. His most famous works include “Busted,” where a man at a bar drinks beer with a smile on his face while, unbeknownst to him, his wife stands in the doorway behind him with her hands on her hips; and his “bail-drop paintings,” where bails of drugs are flung from planes flying low and a crew waits to gather them up. The viewer can practically hear the roar of the plane’s engine while looking at the scene.

But Lawler painted many other subjects, from Monet’s flower garden to street scenes in the Soviet Union.

According to his son Tracy, Lawler would paint constantly, even as he was refurbishing boats — another lifelong passion. 

“My brothers and I — Danny, Grant and I — grew up in life jackets,” Tracy said half-jokingly. He remembers a childhood of living on one boat and then another, while his father worked on his latest “diamond in the rough,” whether it was a 48-foot Pacemaker Sportfisherman, a 46-foot Chris Craft or a 65-foot circa 1920s Canadian yacht.

Dan Lawler was from Chicago and was bitten by the boating bug as a young man when he used a runabout in Fox Lake near McHenry, Illinois. But his artistic talent could not be denied. He received a scholarship to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. 

Afterward, he made his living as an ironworker for a time in Chicago and in New York, but South Florida always pulled him back. He built up an array of skills due to his constant boat refurbishing projects: carpentry, fiberglass work, boat writing, braiding rope and sewing sails. 

After a time of living on boats in locations in Miami, the family finally settled in the Keys in 1957. And he worked on his art all the while, often depicting wreckers, smugglers, seascapes and local characters.

“Every morning, he used to smoke a cigarette, drink a pot of coffee and sketch on a steno pad,” remembered Tracy.

Lawler gradually built up his reputation in the local art scene. As a member of the Art Guild of the Purple Isles, he won many ribbons at juried shows, and he was commissioned to do a large piece depicting “Key West and the Florida Keys” for the State Fair, as well as murals for the Key Largo post office and the courthouse in Key West.

Friends and family also speak fondly of his second wife Patty, who passed on a few years ago.

“She was an absolute angel,” said son Tracy. “Patty and Dan were meant for each other.” 

Patty was also game for Lawler’s adventures with boats, oftening accompanying him on jaunts to the Bahamas. The couple went through an RV period in later years, traveling across America with their three cats, Butch, Tootsie and Taz.

“He was always adventurous, with no fear,” said Tracy.

And spiritual. In a biography for an art show, Lawler wrote, “It’s the search … the spiritual thing that I want others to feel and see in my work.”

And as Tere wrote in the Facebook post on Dan Lawler’s page, “​​He would tell me time and again, ‘Honey, artists are creators. Remember you are God.’”

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Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines; Elle.com; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.