Artist Leoma Lovegrove is painting a mural on the side wall of the Matlacha Island Post Office. Her depiction of a bright orange fish against a shimmering purple background will remind visitors entering the island that Matlacha was once a prospering fishing community.
At first blush, one might think that Lovegrove has merely painted one of her trademark expressionist fish on an enormous blank wall. But good public art tells a story about the place in which it is located, and this is precisely what Lovegrove's mural does.
Until 20 years ago, Matlacha was an “old Florida” fishing community. But in 1992, a voter referendum led to a ban on net fishing designed to protect the popular recreational fish typically snared along with the mullet being targeted by commercial fishermen. Immediately following passage of the net ban, Matlacha’s fishermen shot holes in their boats and set them on fire. The pyre of burning fishing boats could be seen from Fort Myers Beach and Sanibel Island, and it signalled the end of Matlacha’s existence as a commercial fishery.
Today,there are still a few shrimp boats tied up to the working docks, and while you can occasionally see the grisled, bearded holdouts from the mullet fishing days about town, Matlacha is now a highly-regarded artists' community. Appropriately, the shacks and bungalows that the fishermen once called home are now splashed with bright funky colors and house art galleries, gift and island wear boutiques, seafood restaurants, rental cottages and small motels. Even the telephone poles have murals. Famous musicians like Jimmy Buffet drop into the local bar to toss back a few brews and play a set, unannounced, while authors spin tales behind laptop monitors in darkened corners. And most of the fishing now takes place on the bridge from Cape Coral to Matlacha which has the strange nickname of “Fishing-est Bridge in the World” due to the volume of people who fish off it, night and day.
Both the brightly painting former fishing bungalows and Matlacha's new bridge make their appearance in the mural. But make no mistake, it's the fish and bright colors that dominate The Catch of Matlacha Island. Included in the green scales that dot the fish are special embellishments collected from the rubble of Matlacha’s 1968 landmark bridge, which was recently replaced by a more modern span.
“Even the rafters inside the Post Office were from the original bridge and used by Bruce Scott when he built the post office building way back when," says Donna Loibl, who owns the Post Office building. "Once completed, the project will have bridge artifacts inside and out, preserving some of the Island’s history in a very colorful form of art for all to enjoy.”
Lovegrove originally estimated that the project would be finished by Labor Day, but you can't rush perfection. Ready or not, The Catch of Matlacha Island is already making a statement.