In front of Islamorada’s BJ Royster Ocean Gallery last week, a sign flapped in the breeze that said, “Clearance — Everything Must Go.” But within the gallery, instead of a quiet emptied-out shop that the sign indicated, business was brisk. Artist BJ Royster stood chatting away with two clients who had driven down from the mainland to pick up a “custom Royster” — a large colorfully painted ocean reef scene. And, she told Keys Weekly, she was in the middle of working on five commissions.

Make no mistake: marine life artist BJ Royster may be shutting down her gallery and moving from the Keys. But she remains committed to her art.

“We’re going to be moving to a little town called Milton to be closer to our sons in Pensacola and Georgia,” Royster explained. “It’s a five-year plan. My husband and I said we would retire in November 2021.” 

Royster firmly states that she will be still working with clients and continue painting depictions of her favorite subject: the Florida reefs.

“Absolutely. 100 percent. And I will keep a presence on social media.”

Royster was born and raised in Miami. She always drew and painted, but her typical subjects were not of the ocean but of pets and landscapes. For years, she knew that she had a signature that she was meant to express in her art, but the subject eluded her.

Also, she had a lifelong, crippling fear: water. She almost drowned as a child in a swimming pool at Coconut Grove. She had been used to the buoyancy of saltwater from the ocean on family trips to the beach. But in the pool, “I dropped like a rock and panicked.”

As a result, for decades, she wouldn’t even stick a toe in the water.

But while raising her sons, Royster would watch from the side as her husband, a trained instructor, would teach her teen boys how to dive. She felt she was missing out.

“Finally, I told them, ‘I’m going to try snorkeling — and that’s it! No scuba diving.’ And I fell in love,” she recalled, almost swooning at the memory. “When I got in the water, it was an abyss of openness that went on forever. The fish, the corals, the colors grabbed hold of my heart. I knew I had to come up and paint it.”

The BJ Royster Ocean Gallery will close at the end of August. Customers can see her paintings until then by appointment only. CHARLOTTE TWINE/Keys Weekly

Royster the artist had found her signature.

“If I had not gone overboard, I would not be here as a marine artist,” she said, explaining that her courage to overcome her lifelong phobia led her to her true vocation. 

She also overcame her fear of scuba diving and became certified in her 40s. 

“I thought I would feel claustrophobic. Instead it’s a fountain of youth. You have to be in shape to jump overboard with a 50-pound tank and then get on the boat,” she said.

Royster said she takes special care to build up her strength before taking a dive if any length of time has passed between trips. She’ll go snorkeling first, then take walks and light runs. She doesn’t take deep dives, but she does take underwater photos that she uses as references for her paintings. 

Royster has had her gallery in the Keys for 10 years. Previously, she and her husband had been living on the Palm Coast. When he retired from his job in the area, she told him that she wanted to open a gallery in the Keys. 

“It took two weeks,” she said. “It was meant to be.”

But now the couple is moving on. While her husband is a private man, Royster makes clear his role in her life.

“He’s the water under my fins, the reason I am a diver. This did not happen without him,” she said.

She will still paint the reefs in her new home, as she still has collectors who want to continue purchasing her art. 

“What’s been incredible about this gallery is not just the art but the people I’ve met, the people I’ve sat side by side with and instructed,” she said. “I want to thank everyone here in the Keys for their support and loyalty.”

And there is one other little thing about the Keys that she’ll miss…

“The ocean,” she said, slumping a little in chair and sighing. “But I’ll come back.”

Royster’s artwork will be shown by appointment only at her gallery until it closes at the end of August. For information, call 386-569-6331. A few of her paintings can also be seen at Islamorada’s Ocean Sotheby’s gallery until the end of August. After August, Royster’s artwork will be shown exclusively at Islamorada’s Redbone Gallery.

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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.