Sand in His Shoes: The Life and Art of Stephen Avila

January 15 - March 7, 2021

Custom House Museum | Bryan Gallery

The Avila family traveled to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.  They came from the city of Avila in Spain via Cuba and New York.  In America, Alfredo Avila met Isabel Lopez-Trujillo, also of Cuban heritage, and they were soon married.  Missing home and family and warm weather, Key West’s then-thriving cigar industry drew the newlyweds back to the tropics, where they settled, though with frequent travels both north to New York and south to Cuba.  Soon enough, Alfredo and Isabel had five children. Stephen “Nick” Avila was born in 1894 and showed an early interest in painting that would both define his life and document a world.

By the time he was eight years old, Stephen Avila was scavenging the bustling docks and wharves of his island home, Key West, for near-empty paint cans, using the remains to paint pictures.  Rich in ambition and talent, he taught himself to make new colors from his limited supplies of mostly construction and boat paint, using both the flowers of his island home and the sea that surrounded it.  Any surface could hold a painting: old bottles, driftwood, plywood.  The harbors of Key West offered ample abandoned heavy sails for canvases, but little in the way of frames, so Stephen quickly adopted whatever he could scavenge for framing material, teaching himself a trade that would later become a profession.  In the 1960’s, his Key West frame shop grew a regional reputation for its unusual, ingenious, and artistic frame material, often becoming an art of itself.

People who live on islands spend a great deal of time watching the horizon, feeling the wanderlust of every retreating and returning sail.  Young Stephen Avila was no exception, leaving Key West in his late teens to study art in Chicago and New York (at the Art Students League) and Havana, Cuba. Confident, self-assured, and hard-working, he picked up skills in carpentry, boat building, and house construction.  But if the horizon beckoned, he was off on another adventure always returning to his childhood home on Elizabeth Street and the island he loved.

It was on a return trip to Key West that Avila met and married his lovely wife and companion for 40 years, Amparo Alea.  They had two daughters, Lucy and Solita, and moved to Miami. Avila continued to develop his artistic talents, venturing into custom furniture making and wood sculpture.  He won awards in South Florida for his bust of “Josephine Baker” and his small but beautifully executed “Seagull Riding Wave.” Avila’s name became well known in the Dade County area where he won many awards while exhibiting at prestigious galleries such as:  Miami Art League, Coral Gables Art Club, University of Miami, Lowe’s Gallery and Miami Beach Washington Art Gallery.

In May,1964, Avila’s love for Key West brought him home again.  He was among the first to purchase and restore one of the island’s many at-the-time run-down Conch houses to its original beauty.  At 625 Eaton Street, Stephen realized his lifelong dream to own and operate his own gallery and studio when he opened ‘Casa Avila’ in his beautifully restored home. The first floor held both his own work and art from many of Key West’s artists of the day, while the second floor housed a studio and frame shop. Casa Avila quickly became the meeting place of Key West art aficionados.  This period produced works that recorded Key West culture.  “Welter’s Funeral Band,” “Easter Parade,” “The Sponge Docks,” and “Monkey Man” portray periods in Key West history that very few recall.

Every summer Stephen and Amparo would close their shop for 2 ½ months and travel, each year roaming further and wider.  At first they camped in a tent, but after a year of sleeping on the ground Stephen built a camper onto the back of their station wagon from a Popular Mechanics blueprint (though in typical Stephen Avila fashion with ingenious additions). A hand painted sign on the side of their car advertised their art gallery in Key West.  Camping and hiking, they explored North Florida and Georgia, then the Blue Ridge Mountains and Skyline Drive. They vacationed west and south, visiting Monterey and Mexico City.  By 1966 they were regularly camping in the Catskills Mountains in New York state.  In 1967 they took their longest trip, to Washington State, Olympic National Park and into Canada to Vancouer.  They traveled over 1500 miles that year alone.

Avila painted throughout every journey, capturing America’s vast natural landscape and beautiful national parks and forests in his distinct style.  Stephen was happiest when in nature, a joy and wonder found in his paintings of The Blue Ridge mountains, Mt, Rainer, the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and the Rocky Mountains, among many others.

Stephen’s last camping trip was the summer of 1968.  For many summers he had visited a sleepy town in upstate New York, a town where artists from all walks of life met to exchange ideas and paint.  His last visit in the summer of 1968 was stirring experience, for throughout the 60’s he had witnessed the emergence of a full-fledged artist colony in Woodstock, New York.

He returned to Key West late that summer with every intention to return to Woodstock to record on canvas that exciting part of history.  Fate, however, had other plans.  He became ill that winter and the man who was an active force in the renaissance of Key West art passed away in February 1969.

This exhibit will showcase much of this work alongside personal artifacts, handmade furniture, notebooks and photographs.

Exhibit sponsored in part by The Helmerich Trust

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