More Than a Gallery - Tower Gallery on Sanibel is a unique family of artistsOct 28, 2020 02:45PM ● By FRANCESCA BLOCK
A photo of the Tower Gallery located on Tarpon Bay Road in Sanibel. Photo provided by JoAnne Bedient
Walking toward the Tower Gallery in Sanibel, you cannot help but smile. The building itself is a piece of art, with its brightly painted turquoise wood panels, and its indigo blue and spring green railings adorned with cutouts of tropical fish. The smile only widens as you walk inside, where beautiful creations of a strong and passionate community of local artists are revealed.
The building did not always shine in bright turquoise, nor did it used to be a gallery at all. In fact, when the bungalow was moved from a Sanibel beach to its current location on Tarpon Bay Road in 1986, it was chalky white, faded from years of sitting along Sanibel’s sun-drenched shore. Setting the house on wheels and moving it inland, local artist Ikki Matsumoto and his wife, Polly, turned it into their personal art studio and brightened it up. Since then, the house’s radiant turquoise color has become synonymous with the whimsical and colorful nature of Sanibel’s local art.
At the time Ikki and Polly, a textile artist, moved into their new home studio, Ikki was enthusiastically working with other local artists to grow a cooperative gallery—which he helped establish in 1982—at the Bell Tower Shopping Center in Fort Myers (thus the name Tower). Still in its infancy, the Tower Gallery attracted a wide range of craftsmen, from expert painters and ceramicists to photographers and multimedia artists. After rent increases at the Bell Tower pushed the artists out, the Matsumotos opened up their doors and welcomed gallery members to move their art into the now-iconic home.
Today, the Tower Gallery is the longest-running art gallery in Lee County and houses the works of 26 local artists, all specializing in different media while sharing a love for creativity and the beautiful Southwest Florida community and landscape. Unique from other commercial galleries, each artist at Tower fills an important role in running the gallery and ensuring its continued success—from working the cash register a few times a month to managing funds and hosting events.
JoAnne Bedient, the gallery’s longest-serving member, who joined more than 28 years ago, believes it’s a “treat” while working in the gallery to interact directly with her customers from all over the world. A talented ceramicist who specializes in the old Japanese firing technique known as raku, Bedient’s aspiration for her art is to “bring a smile to someone’s face,” and meeting customers and fans in the gallery allows that dream to flourish.
The collective work of running the gallery also bonds the artists and fosters a strong sense of community. For artists like Lalita Cofer, who “paints with paper,” the Tower Gallery has been her “happy place” and her “home since 1995.” For all that the gallery provides artists—from unparalleled opportunities to sell and showcase art to lifelong friendships—Cofer notices the artists then feel a strong “responsibility to return the favor.” This symbiotic relationship is why Cofer describes her connection to Tower as being “like a marriage in [her] artistic life.”
Even for those new to the Tower community, the camaraderie is palpable from the very beginning. Shah Hadjebi, a watercolor painter who joined nearly three years ago, reflects on how “it feels great to finally be a part of a community of artists, especially a community where almost everyone is a master at what they do.”
The talent within and enthusiasm toward the artist community is not only what makes the gallery so successful, but it is also why many artists who join never want to leave. This incredible history of the gallery and the individuals who work to keep it running creates what the acrylic painter Susan Sadler, the current gallery president and member for more than 18 years, characterizes as an almost indescribable energy—one where artists who all speak a “common language” and bring their own unique perspectives gather together and form a family.
The home of the Tower gallery is a landmark on Sanibel Island, and the family formed inside is built out of the enthusiasm and dedication of this diverse group of artists. Bedient compares the gallery to a greenhouse, “growing artists with great potential” into masters of their craft, while also “growing friendships and growing community connections.”
“It’s been a great family to be a part of,” she says. “The members may change, but the ones that stick around, we are a family.”