By Tony D’Souza
Photography By Chris Lake
FOR THE PAST YEAR, DRIVERS ON SARASOTA’S NORTH TAMIAMI TRAIL near Ringling College have turned their heads at the sudden and mysterious appearance of giant pink flamingos, one of them wearing a top hat. If the sight of the flamingos has brightened or made more “whimsical” even one motorist’s day, then the woman who put them there, Marietta “Mary” Lee, considers it mission accomplished.
The flamingos are one of a slew of imaginative—yes, whimsical—art installations brought to this stretch of North Trail by Lee through her Marietta Museum of Art & Whimsy, which opened its doors in 2010. Still flying under the local art scene radar five years later, the Whimsy Museum continues to be what Lee calls “in start-up mode,” though the flamingos, by commercial artist Fred Prescott, have made a dramatic difference. “Once they started
installing those,” says Lee, “[attendance went up] bam, like a rocket ship.”
It’s just that sort of curious visitor the museum seeks to attract, one with a healthy sense of adventure who will be delighted to discover this oasis of gentle humor and warm-heartedness in the midst of our urban jungle. The Whimsy Museum is Lee’s passion and brainchild; and while she’s laying out plans to see it grow into an established Sarasota attraction, so far she’s kept the visiting hours limited to just three afternoons per week during peak tourist season, not wanting the young museum to be overwhelmed.
Lee, whose father in 1948 founded the Lee Company in Westbrook, Conn., a manufacturer of miniature hydraulics with 800 employees and on whose board she continues to serve, won’t reveal exactly how much she’s spent in land costs and property development. But she says an estimate of between $4 million and $6 million is in the ballpark.
For those who do find their way here, the Whimsy Museum’s gallery and extensive gardens are a well-appointed buffet of tastefully light visual treats. Colorful and bright paintings of beach scenes and riotous floral bouquets are at home alongside silly, wall-mounted singing fish. In the central rotunda, the focal point is three ballerinas sculpted from wire—Dancers, part of a series by the San Francisco artist Michael Gard—their bodies turning in perpetual flight-like motion because Lee has hung them from motors hidden in the ceiling. Visitors are invited to hoot, holler and clap their hands; suddenly a sound-activated laser light show begins; the ballerinas become otherworldly, as though they are dancing in space. Couches line the room; one can sit back, admire the graceful spectacle, and allow all earthly cares to fall away. This is exactly the sort of surprising experience Lee wants museum visitors to have. Just when one thinks the dancers and light show cannot get more fanciful, the rotunda’s glittering disco ball kicks in.
“This is a very unique museum,” Lee, originally from Guilford, Conn., says. “We try to have upbeat art, positive artwork that would make people feel good. This is a museum for happy things, funny things. [People] need a place to calm down, relax and feel good. You sit, veg out; it takes you back to a time of innocence when you weren’t worried about paying the bills.”
Though an art snob might sneer at such motives, no one at the Whimsy Museum gives any concern to that. Lee, working mostly with volunteers until hiring two paid staff last year, has put her museum together essentially alone. Her vision is ambitious and marks a real investment in the future of the economically challenged North Trail. After a career as a nurse and a decade taking care of her elderly parents, Lee (who says she’s “over 65”) had hoped to open her museum in her native Connecticut and began a frustrating search for properties there in 2008. Stymied by three different failed land contracts, she turned her attention to Sarasota, where she owned a home and had attended Ringling College, earning a fine arts degree in 1991.
“Long ago when I was at Ringling, I thought it would be nice to have artists’ studios along here,” Lee says. “I knew this area and always thought the North Trail was a diamond in the rough even if nobody else did. It’s eclectic; you don’t have one cookie cutter thing after another. There’s a variety of businesses and architecture.”
Working with real estate broker Marie Avery, Lee located and purchased her various North Trail properties along a three-block stretch directly across from Ringling College and just north of Whitaker Bayou. That the college, for which Lee feels great affinity, is so close by was an important factor in her decision to establish her museum here. Her three main land parcels, separated by Sylvan Drive and 22nd Street, form a large contiguous space for the museum and its planned expansions. On one parcel, she took down the Southland Motel and installed a tastefully landscaped parking lot filled with large sculptures of animals; the central parcel is home to the museum, and the third offers more room for growth.
Currently waiting on city building permits, Lee has immediate plans for a café and gift shop. The extensive gardens she designed and installed require the attention of landscapers five times a week. In the museum itself, formerly a retail space, the build-out included the addition of bamboo flooring, repositioning of doorways and a full transition into a showplace for artwork.
“Initially, we had a lot of stuff going on. We had hookers everywhere,” she says of one tricky issue often associated with the North Trail. “I had hookers coming up to me and telling me what I should do. They wanted [the property] to be a 24-hour ‘50s diner. Did they really think I’d buy a million-dollar property and not know what to do with it?”
Organized as a private nonprofit foundation with a board of directors drawn from both Lee’s extended family and Sarasota friends, the Whimsy Museum currently charges no admission fee. More than 30 volunteers have completed a two-day formal orientation, and the museum has welcomed the public to regular events, such as its fifth season exhibition preview in late October, titled Desserts First, where partygoers dressed in costume as their favorite desserts. At a November reception for Sarasota artist James Griffith, whose large canvas oil painting, Angels Trumpets, is on display, attendees were treated to hors d’oeuvres and a lively lecture by the artist himself, including a slideshow of Angels Trumpets in various stages of production, as well as stories from Griffith’s career as a romance novel cover illustrator (he’s painted 4,000 of them) and his discovery of the model Fabio.
Griffith met Lee when he took a new canvas to the Dabbert Gallery on Palm Avenue, which shows and sells his work. “I brought in a painting that was still wet,” Griffith says. “The gallery didn’t even know if they were going to take it. Mary bought it right away. She owns seven [of my] pieces now. [The Sarasota artist community] loves the museum. They’re happy there’s another venue in town. I know that my gallery is happy.”
Kathleen Frederick, executive director of Fort Pierce’s A.E. Backus Museum, who attended the Griffith reception, says, “What [Lee] is doing here is a colossal breath of fresh air. Whoever heard of spinning ballerinas and laser lights that are voice activated? It’s fun. This is one person’s vision and I’m impressed by it, especially her tenacity.”
Lee says that in the beginning, she was told by those familiar with the particular challenges facing the North Trail that once she improved her properties, the area’s seedier denizens would move on, which has proven to be the case. Not lost in all the whimsical art is just what Lee’s museum may mean for the ongoing revitalization of the North Trail itself.
“The North Trail has some gems and it has some ‘opportunities,’” says the North Trail Redevelopment Partnership’s Steven Roskamp. “For North Trail to fully turn around, it’s going to take some small organizations and ma and pa’s to come in. Sometimes, just by taking some unattractive parcels and making them attractive as Mary has done, that’s enough to potentially attract other investment.”
Once her building permits come through, Lee is ready, as she says in her pragmatic New England way, “to move dirt.” She continues to canvass art shows, both locally and out of state, to build her collection, and has hopes of increasing her staff. “All museums have a director and a fund raiser; eventually we will have all that, too,” she says. For now and into the future, the museum will be supported by the foundation.
“We have a plan, but it is not written in stone. The plan is to just keep moving forward,” she says.
Perhaps that’s the best sort of plan of all for a whimsical museum whose focus is taking the stress out of life through art.
“At my age, I wouldn’t have started this if it wouldn’t last past me,” Lee says. “This is an all-out effort; I want to give something back to the world. There’s a place here for everybody; we’re just trying to show that you can have fun. I’m an artist, I’m a friend of artists, and Sarasota’s a wonderful place to be.” ■
Along with Marietta Lee’s Whimsy Museum, a number of new restaurants, galleries and development projects have helped the North Trail have a nascent foodie and arts scene. Among the recent openings:
1770 N. Tamiami Trail
arnoldberns.com • (941) 924-5224
Opened in December 2014. The gallery features the photography of Arnold Berns in the former Twin Motel; each room of the motel has been repurposed to display Berns’ art.
3333 N. Tamiami Trail, Unit 100
fineartamerica.com/art/all/edfish/all • (941) 586-1706
Opened in November 2014. Located in the Trail Plaza, site of the former Radio Shack, it features the work of the artist Tom Sawyer and also offers custom framing.
4900 N. Tamiami Trail
sunnysidecafesrq.com • (941) 359-9500
Traditional omelets and sandwiches in the newly refurbished restaurant at a former North Trail motel.
The Coffee Loft
2025 N. Tamiami Trail
Owned and operated by Woodland Community Church; offers coffee, pastries, paninis.
Queen of Sheba
4195 N. Tamiami Trail
ethiopianrestauranttampa.com • (941) 359-8000
The second location of a popular Tampa Ethiopian restaurant, Queen of Sheba opened in August 2014 in the site formerly occupied by the Gold Dynasty.
2901 N. Tamiami Trail
leanhrestaurant.com • (941) 355-7909
Traditional Vietnamese pho and other dishes at the site of the former Pizza Hut.
2801 N. Tamiami Trail
painters-palate.com • (941) 355-4620
Asian fusion with outdoor seating across from Ringling College.