Last week, artist Taylor Hale showed a visitor around his solo exhibition at Ocean Sotheby’s in Islamorada. The space is white and light-filled, and his large, stark, vibrant turquoise oil paintings of the Florida Keys sky brightened the room further.
He pointed out a rendition of a mangrove tree called “Mother,” an ode to family. “I just became a father,” he said.
At that moment, two women, longtime friends of Hale’s family, entered the gallery.
“Taylor, how’s the baby?” one of them asked.
“Oh, the girls are at home,” he replied, smiling. “You run into somebody everywhere in this town,” he said to his visitor.
The hometown boy is back. And he comes bearing gifts, the fruits of his labor for the past year. Having booked this exhibition in February 2020, he worked on it from his home in St. Augustine throughout quarantine, minimalist oil paintings depicting his favorite subjects from the Keys: sky, water and mangroves, stripped of any objects that might be seen in typical local landscapes. Not a boat or lobster buoy in sight.
“Growing up down here, this is what you see. Cloud formations. You do see pelicans and palm trees, but for me, this is what’s awesome. I’d think about this when I was up there in New England,” he said, mentioning that he went to the Rhode Island School of Design. “Sometimes you take things for granted when you’re around them all the time. I was driving around in Provincetown, and I heard ‘Margaritaville’ and I was like, ‘I’m homesick.’ Sometimes you have to go away to miss what you had.”
Hale attended Key Largo School and graduated from Coral Shores High School in 2003. As a child, he would naturally gravitate to staring at paintings by his great-great-grandfather, respected artist Joseph Lindon Smith, and wonder how they were made. At Coral Shores, he took drawing, painting and ceramics classes with teacher Brenda Bush.
“He holed up in my storage room, staring at canvases and pieces of artworks with introspect; dissecting, manipulating and creating. I let him,” Bush recalled in a text to Keys Weekly. “There was never any doubt in my mind that ‘Tay-Tay’ was going places in the art world; it was just a matter of when, where and how many mediums. I am super proud of Taylor.”
Bush encouraged him to enter an art contest, and he won the grand prize of $2,000, which just happened to be the exact tuition of a summer semester at Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota. “I went up there, and it opened my eyes,” he said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and it opened the idea of pursuing art as a career.”
During his time at Coral Shores, he also had an internship with local artist John David Hawver. “During that time, he was the first intern out of four. I wish he was the last, because he was the best,” Hawver said with a laugh. “He had just been to Ringling. I knew he had plans to be a serious artist. He really wanted to be an artist. It was obvious.”
“He was great,” Hale said of his time with Hawver. “He’s a painter of a similar subject matter. He paints large Keys landscapes. And he taught me how to stretch my first canvas. It was towards the end of the internship. He gave it to me, and he said, ‘Always paint big.’ That was an early influence. Looking back on it, I can’t help but see the influence in my work. Same subject matter, different style.”
Hale had an equally formative time at RISD. He was especially influenced by a semester in Florence, Italy, and fell in love with the Italian Renaissance painters. He loves the city so much that he and his wife, Kelly, even named their baby girl Florence.
After graduation, Hale tried for a time to make a living as a portraitist in New England but found himself frustrated by that medium’s constraints and pulled back toward home. “I think in the middle of winter — I was in New Hampshire — I just came back to the Keys and then this came out,” he said, pointing at his large canvas of a sky. “This was always in there.”
Hale eventually settled in St. Augustine with Kelly, and he gradually sold more and more paintings. He found that he didn’t need to work as a server in the restaurant industry as many days a week. He was slowly becoming a full-time artist. When the pandemic came and he booked the Ocean Sotheby’s exhibition, he was ready to focus.
“COVID was hard. But for me it was, ‘I’m having a baby. I’m not going into the restaurant.’ This is what I did during lockdown. Other people had problems during lockdown. I did not. There was nothing to deter me from painting. I saw it as a residency.”
And Maria Perez, office manager at Ocean Sotheby’s Realty and curator of their exhibitions, is glad he did. “With Taylor, I’m just so excited because he’s part of the community. I love that he’s bringing his art to the community,” she said. “We sold two pieces already, and everyone is so excited. I’ve received many phone calls. It has been very well received.”
For now, Taylor, Kelly and seven-week-old Florence are enjoying their visit to the Keys. The future is bright. And he has plans to do a series of paintings of another famous Keys landscape, the glow of a sunset. But there’s one subject he’ll never top: his daughter. “She’s definitely my best artwork so far.”
Taylor Hale’s paintings will be showing at Roberto Russell Galleries at Ocean Sotheby’s International Realty through February. The gallery is located at 81888 Overseas Highway, bayside, and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday, and by appointment on weekends by calling 305-712-8888 and asking for Maria.