Key West doesn’t appear on any “budget travel” lists. The island is no bargain — for visitors or residents. Painters, writers, musicians and sculptors decades ago discovered their home here at the end of the road and transformed Key West into a cultural and colorful enclave. But the ramshackle cottages, rooming houses and attic apartments that offered affordable rents and outdoor studio spaces from the 1970s through the ’90s are long gone. So, too, are many of the artists who inhabited them.
Enter The Studios of Key West, which was founded by arts patron Peyton Evans in 2006 to “provide space for artists to live and work, thereby drawing creative people to our island and enriching the lives of all who live here.”
Now approaching its 20th year, The Studios has grown exponentially, offering not just space for artists to live and work creatively, but sharing the fruits of those labors with the Key West community through workshops, exhibits, lectures, art classes and live musical and theatrical performances at its headquarters at 533 Eaton St.
The mission expands
But the organization’s founding mission of artistic space continues and recently expanded significantly with the addition of four new studio residences right next door. The Studios of Key West bought the historic property long known as the Carriage Trade House. A $2.5 million renovation by architect Matthew Stratton and contractor Marino Construction transformed it into the PEAR House — Peyton Evans Artist Residences.
The two buildings on the property were constructed before 1882. Bill Gaiser bought it in 1959 and with his partner, Dana Wenant, operated a guest house, a salon and a restaurant that only offered one entree per day — whatever Gaiser felt like preparing.
“A World War II Navy veteran with a sharp tongue and a twinkle in his eye, Gaiser quickly established himself as a true Key West personality,” states The Studios’ history of the property. “He shepherded Hemingway to Cuba and back in his plane, made Key lime pies for Harry Truman, chatted on the porch with John F. Kennedy and Tennessee Williams and trimmed Tallulah Bankhead’s hair.”
When Gaiser died in 2018, his nephew Dr. Joseph O’Lear and O’Lear’s wife, Julie, an artist, arranged to sell the property to The Studios so it would continue to foster Key West’s artistic legacy.
‘An environment to thrive in’
“The idea behind the PEAR House is simple, really,” said Jed Dodds, executive director of The Studios. “It’s this amazing house we use to lure incredibly talented artists and writers and musicians from all over the country — and other countries — to Key West.
“We put the PEARs up for a month at a time, and try to give them an environment to thrive in and be productive. It’s not exactly distraction-free — this is Key West, after all — but hopefully it offers just the right kind of distractions.
“I’m always amazed at how productive the PEARs are in a month’s time. Folks will leave with an exhibition’s worth of work, or a whole novel or a symphony finished.”
The PEAR program provides month-long residencies to nearly 40 artists a year, selecting them from more than 350 annual applications.
“We offer the PEAR artists all of Key West — the colors, the flora and fauna, the people, the history, and so on — and in return they throw themselves into it and bring all of their creative energy,” Dodds said. “They teach classes, and give talks and other programs, but the real benefits are often less tangible. They’re shopping at Fausto’s, and dropping in to play music at Andy’s Cabana, and just generally making the island a more interesting place.
“When we talk to local artists, they often cite the relationships they’ve made with resident artists as one of the best things we’ve done for them. They become not just friends, but part of their broader professional network. For The Studios, in the same way, the residency program is our best asset to spread the word across the country about what we’re doing, and what a great place Key West is to be creative.”More information is at tskw.org.