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Episode 14: Stock Island’s Newest Art Compound Filled with Galleries, Artist Studios & More

October 24, 2019

We are having a conversation between Mark Baratto, Kassy Burnette and Stuart Damon. 

MARK:           This is the Backyards of Key West Podcast and my name is Mark Baratto, why don’t you two introduce yourselves. Before that, wait, this is my first ménage à trois when it comes to the podcasting world. I’ve never done a two on one on podcast so this is going to be good and we’ll be moving the mike back and forth but why don’t we do intros first. Ladies first.

KASSY:          Hi, I’m Kassy Burnette.

MARK:           And Kassy, what do you do over here? First why don’t you tell us where we are, and then you can do an intro, and then you we can do like a round robin. So, tell us where we are and what’s going on here.

KASSY:          We are at the Art Shack and we are in Damon Designs Gallery and we have many studios and artists here. I actually have my own studio here and a gift shop. 

MARK:           Okay, number 2.

STUART:       Stuart Damon and this is my gallery, Damon Designs. 

MARK:           I’m trying to start off explaining this entire location. Coming from the Miami area, because we are new to Key West, not new to coming here but new to living here. There was the Wynwood walls and that whole area and a lot of artists and food trucks coming together and creating their own group. That’s what this reminds me of, so am I right?

STUART:       You are absolutely correct. The whole concept here is an artist’s compound with great food, music, great vibes and we are actually in the process of sort of a rejuvenation of Stock Island that includes a similar Wynwood wall style of things going on all around the island.

MARK:           It’s funny because that’s what I noticed because we are in New Town, so getting here is almost closer than for me to go to Old Town. And then we go to the Fit Gym and a lot of the restaurants and stuff like that, my family. What I love about Stock Island is it reminds me of how Wynwood was because we were there when Wynwood was scary as Hell and parts of it still are, but not that this is scary, but it was up and coming. Then it started to emerge and this is on the emerging side, like I see that happening. 

STUART:       It absolutely is and as a matter of fact, a lot of the people who we’ve had so far coming in and out say that it reminds them of the old Key West because a lot of Key West is changing more to a corporate style. We are trying to bring that whole old school Key West vibe back and I feel like we’ve kind of nailed it. 

MARK:           What about you? 

KASSY:          Absolutely. I totally agree. 

MARK:           Don’t worry, you can pull my ear and pull the mike anytime you want. It’s okay it’s a part of the ménage à trois, grabbing the mike. Why don’t you get into the origin story of how you got into art and design?

STUART:       It’s a long story but I’ll make it brief. I’m originally from Atlanta, Georgia and I started out as an electrician and along the way I met a woman named Kim Fong who owned an art gallery called Eclectic Electric and it was basically custom lighting with 200 hundred artists from all over the world that did handcrafted metal, blown glass, papers, all kinds of cool one-of-a-kind stuff and I became their default electrician and realized that I’m pretty creative, too. So, I started building lights for myself and my family, friends, and things like that and truly got inspired by it and joined forces with her in a second gallery there that was mine but 2008 came along and the economy collapsed and everything we did was high-end luxury items so it kinda went by the wayside. I moved to Savannah and did a little bit of art work there but mostly electrician and then wound up in Key West with a buddy of mine that used to be a bartender here years ago and slowly but surely just found myself wanting to get back to a creative element instead of schlepping tools all day.

MARK:           What about as a kid? Were you creative or were you like, wow! This is totally new for me; I didn’t know I had this inside me. 

STUART:       No, I was always very creative as a kid and I’m an only child so I had to use my imagination a lot and frankly, I come from not a lot as far as financial standpoint, so I made a lot of my own  toys and a lot of my own way in life so to speak. I have always been very creative but never really considered myself an artist until I was surrounded by other artists and realized that I’m ready to call myself that once I got into a place with Kim that I was doing it on a regular basis. 

MARK:           Right, and did you find yourself being surprised when you were like, Wow I’m really into this art? Or, did you say this was always in there, I just had to make ends meet and then have a business and I never even had the time for it? 

STUART:       I think it was probably a little of both. I never really innately knew that I had an artist inside me. But I always knew I was imaginative and creative and have always been both left and right brained, but by circumstance I was always forced to use the practical side of my brain rather than my artistic side. Once I got to a place where I could actually let my creativity shine so to speak, I realized that the artist was always there. I wanted to pursue it as much as possible, but again, they call it starving artist for a reason. It’s a hard thing to do for a living, but I’m thrilled to be here and have this opportunity to support other local artists that are in a similar situation that have regular day jobs and want to do their creativity on the side. I’m now representing them and giving them an opportunity to get seen by locals and tourists alike. 

MARK:           Tell me how did this concept of everything here get birthed? I do understand that we are always picking and choosing from other locations and stuff like that, because I heard you say starving artists and I mean, that’s like… most artists are like that, right? Were you like listen, we need to have a place that’s not a gallery on Duval Street that people can come to showcase their work? I want to create this, I want to do it on Stock Island, tell me how it was… was it a conversation over drinks with a friend, I mean how did that birth? 

STUART:       Well, you know it was kind of again by circumstance. What happened was, I was basically contracting again to make ends meet because this is an expensive place to live and along came Hurricane Irma and I was able to spend about a year and a half doing nothing but bustin’ my butt to stock away some money and I got to a place where I had enough savings that I wanted to get back to that creative side of my life and my body was failing me from doing all the contracting all these years. I actually invested in another gallery space right around the corner over at Stockyard Studios and it was a much smaller scale endeavor but we were doing well to be so fledgling and all, and then Bobby Mongelli walked in my door one day and said, “Hey, I’m taking over this old space around the corner and any artists around town you think might want to come look at it. Came and looked at it, it’s the building that I was built to be in, it’s a rusty old shack but it’s got a lot of cool history, and I knew that my vision for what I was trying to do at the other space could be expanded greatly by coming to this space. And, I could also support a lot more artists under this roof than I could under the other one. 

MARK:           Was it like a build it and they will come thing? It looks like containers, right a lot of containers here? 

STUART:       Yes, we have shipping containers which are our satellite artist studios and they are surrounded around the main building which used to be a boat yard where they made the Spencer Boat Hull and I just knew that we could turn this into a little enclave of beautiful souls and beautiful things and yeah. I think you’re probably on the nose there with the build it and they will come. I don’t know, my gut is always what I’ve gone with in life and my gut told me that this was a really good thing.

MARK:           Right, and how does it work? If I want to become an artist, like I’m an artist and I want to come in here and have a space, how would this work? 

KASSY:          Talk to Stuart.

MARK:           Stuart, how would this work?

STUART:       Well, the thing is that it’s already working in the sense that all of my containers are leased already. 

MARK:           Let’s back up then. You have the containers and you’re like build it and they’re gonna come and you started reaching out to your network or did people drive by or how did that start?

STUART:       Well, actually Kassie when we first came, we knew we were going to take the main building. I was going to turn that into what it is today. 

MARK:           Which is what? Describe it to people.

STUART:       Again, it’s a rusty old shack where they used to build boats and…

MARK:           But you say that and you’d think that one sneeze and the whole place is going to come down, but it’s like the floor is old rustic floor but it looks beautiful. The walls have all this art hanging on it and there’s furniture here, the ceiling is all exposed metal beams but it’s like, you’ve got a beautiful space here.

STUART:       And I, by no means, want to denigrate the space because it is beautiful and I realize…

MARK:           It’s almost a historic look.

STUART:       It is and that’s the cool thing. It’s got a lot of great history and let’s call it rustic rather than rusty.

MARK:           Shabby chic. 

STUART:       Shabby chic is probably a good term and I’ve done a lot to bring it back to life in the sense of sprucing it up and taking care of the things that were sneeze collapsible. A lot of the embellishments are reclaimed materials which is really what I do. Everything I do is reclaimed materials and it’s either one of a kind or limited edition. I hate to put stuff in landfills and people, anywhere in the world throw away such amazing things that could have a second life. That’s kinda what we are trying to do here, most of the artists are reclaiming materials as well. So, back to your original question, I knew the main building would be myself, Kassie, her gift shop, her beautiful mosaics and paintings and things of that nature, and then I knew that artists would want to be a part of it once they saw what was coming. AS far the containers, what happened was we had one that used to be a stage that was, well you couldn’t air condition it because it has openable walls and all this stuff, so we needed someone that could do an outdoor style. So, we started looking for a plant person and Kassie recommended Alex who is our Under the Leaf plant girl. She actually turned us onto a friend of ours named Christina who we happened to all know, but she said, “I might have a friend who might want to do her shop here.” Turns out Christina came on and immediately saw the vision and signed a lease that day and went and got reclaimed sliding glass doors to make her doors and windows and she’s Cocky Key West right here at the Art Shack. 

MARK:           Right, I just saw something posted on Instagram about, t-shirts being made and stuff like that. 

STUART:       Yup, we did a screen print ‘n sip the other night which was very successful. It was our first one and everybody had a great time and it’s just a prelude of things to come, I think. 

MARK:           So, tell me about that, you’re looking to have events here where it’s not only the artist showcasing their stuff but outside people could come in, too? 

STUART:       Correct, we’ll be doing pop-up art and farmers market style stuff here. Temporary vendors set-ups comingled into the courtyard area that’s surrounded by the shipping containers and then the shipping containers are obviously are full of our resident artists as they call it.  We are also going to be doing some charitable events with SPCA and some things with Martin from the Lost Kitchen (Supper Club), basically anything driven by art, food, music, good times, we are going to be doing here on a regular basis. We’ll be doing paint ‘n sips, plant ‘n sips, pretty much ‘n sips anything you can imagine. 

MARK:           How do you know this is going to work? Because I know you said that you go off your intuition, and I’m a big believer in that, so that’s the reason why it’s not a loaded question, it’s more like, I can see in both of your eyes that it’s gonna work. I want to know is it hope? Is it dream? Is it you just know? Is it a feeling? 

STUART:       I think it’s a little of all of that. Obviously, we hope. 

MARK:           Yes, of course.

STUART:       You have to have hope always. I go with my gut and I know what was happening at my other smaller gallery which was in a little bit different area as far as traffic and esthetics and plants and things that we have here that we didn’t have there. It was more industrial and were doing really well. We were building a following after having only been open for like 9 months. I knew that I could carry that momentum to here and then when the players, let’s call them, started coming on board with that same energy and belief in what we were trying to do it just started to build to the point where I knew it was going to work. I know it’s going to work because even in the dead off season, the traffic that we are getting, is about a 70% return on patron come in and buy something. And, you know, we haven’t really started a marketing blitz yet. But the buzz is getting around and I know there’s a lot of other galleries around town that have told me personally that they’ve heard about us already and between all of us as the artists that are here, we all sort of have our own individual network of people and those spiderweb is already starting to come around. 

MARK:           When I think I love about it too is I do, from my own sake, love the location. But also, so you’ll have tons of locals that will probably be coming all the time because I love that you are building that first. But then the tourist traffic of everybody driving in from a marketing standpoint if you’re able to point them into here for coming into the island before they get to their hotel, or leaving because a lot of times are like, one last stop before I go, and it’s a great coming and going spot. 

STUART:       I agree with that totally and I will tell you one thing that we hear a lot and we were hearing it at my other space as well, we are off the beaten path which most people love. They really want to find that hidden gem that you don’t just find anywhere and I think that we are that. 

MARK:           Yeah. 

KASSY:          One other big thing, everyone that’s come in for the last three months, before we even had the gallery open, it was just my gift shop, the vibe was the energy. Everyone said it’s got a great energy and it’s got a great feel and a great vibe. They want to come here and hang out on our lanai and we have a beautiful lanai out here. We have one guy that’s a writer and he wants to come here and write this winter and just sit on our lanai and hang out because it’s got such a good feel and vibe to it. 

MARK:           And food and drink, too. 

KASSY:          Food and drink, too?

KASSY:          Food and drink too, yes. 

MARK:           That’s important because when people are coming here that will make them stay as well, right? They may come just for the food, for the drink, for if you have a musician playing or something like that, or if they are coming to support some kind of charity that you’re doing then they can go and look at all the art. That’s what I loved about the spaces in Wynwood is that you just saw that, and there was a bar sometime that was the hub but then everyone did everything around and ate, tasted, and bought from everything around there. 

STUART:       Yes, we definitely have that and what I like about this space, unlike a lot of galleries where you walk in and you get to see beautiful things but you don’t really, well you’re not inclined to hang out necessarily because you walk through, you see it and move on. Here we have a lounge effect going on to where it’s comfortable and you have a place to sit and see beautiful things but also sit and enjoy your food and eventually, we will have con leche’s and things like that, so morning time. As Kassie was saying about the guy, his name is Bob specifically that was talking about wanting to come here and do his journaling, it’s got a peaceful feel to it that makes you, it’s very inviting. You want to stay you know? You don’t want to bop in and go, oh it’s beautiful and then walk right back out. You are inclined to want to stay. 

MARK:           Right, and it’s not even season yet. We are not even there; I mean this is an outdoor type space and we are not even in that outdoor weather.

STUART:       No, we are not. We are very excited about that and there’s just a little bit of a drop in temperature the last couple of days.

MARK:           Oh, I felt it in the morning it’s like 1-2 degrees and you’re like, oh this is coming, it’s coming. Yeah. That’s great. Do you have a vision besides what’s already begun to happen for this? Do you want to expand it even more on the property? Are you looking to maybe put a concept like this in other locations in the United States? Like Savannah or stuff like that, tell me about that. 

STUART:       You know, that’s …to be honest with you something that I haven’t necessarily looked that much further down the road because part of the reason I came here as well is that I have a long-term lease. Those are not easy to come by in this part of the world. I would love that, but I’m not sure you can duplicate exactly what we are doing here in another place and frankly, I love Key West. I don’t necessarily want to go back to the mainland. However, if there were the right person and the right location, I think you could expand the concept certainly, but this particular property is very unique. 

MARK:           When did you come to Key West? 

STUART:       I’ve been here October 16th of this year will be six years fulltime. I started coming here temporarily about eight years ago. 

MARK:           You mentioned that it was just you and a buddy that came down here. 

STUART:       Yeah, a buddy who was a bartender back in the late 80’s and he and I were shop mates in Savannah and he had unfortunately gotten divorced and decided he was gonna come back to Key West and he said, “you know it’s an expensive place to live and it’s always nice to have roommate, would you like to go?” I said, “yes” and here I am and I love it and I’m grateful to him everyday for bringing me here. It’s my home.

MARK:           What do you love about this town and the people? 

STUART:       I love that there’s no judgment and that’s a big thing for me. People are live and let live for the most part, the whole One Human Family concept is very endearing to me and I love that even in a small town like this, there’s so many things to do. I’ve been here six years and have barely scratched the surface of all the amazing things there are to do. And, it’s beautiful and I’m a Pisces and I love the water, I wake up everyday and I see the ocean and I only drive three miles a day.

MARK:           And no traffic, right?

STUART:       Exactly. 

MARK:           What about you? Why do you love Key West? 

KASSY:          Oh boy, the people. A dog friendly town and my dog is my world. The water, I’m a complete water bug all my life; swimmer, lifeguard, everything, love snorkeling and I’m a paddle boarder so I’ve been paddle boarding for ten years now. I actually have my own paddle board business also and do private tours. Anything to get me out on the water makes me happy and Sunny goes with me all the time on that, too. 

MARK:           And no freezing cold rain. That’s another reason to be loving it down here.

STUART:       And there’s a big part of it as well. I will gladly take the heat over cold ever.

MARK:           Yeah, all day long. So, this was great. Can you tell me some personal things? This is a very deep dark section, get ready, and don’t start sweating because I’m coming to you first! First for the personal ones. Your favorite event in Key West?

KASSY:          Fantasy Fest, Zombie Ride, Locals Parade. Sorry, two. 

MARK:           I love that, see, we are not that personal, this is a fun family show. We’re not family with the ménage à trois but it’s fun. What about local favorite restaurant? 

KASSY:          There’s so many! Caught off guard, geez.

STUART:       Again, there’s so many fantastic restaurants that it’s hard to say but I’m going to let you answer it while I think!

KASSY:          I love, and I can’t even think right now, Blue Heaven, Salute, Santiago’s.

STUART:       Santiago’s, yeah. 

KASSY:          There!

MARK:           Same? Or, anything?

STUART:       You know, I haven’t actually been to the new location but Off the Hook Grille has always been my favorite especially when they were in their little hole in the wall over on, I can’t think where they were before, but well no, anyway. Off the Hook, I would say and I’m sure their new location is amazing, but again it’s really hard to say because there’s so many and there’s another one of those things, I haven’t been to a lot of the better ones because there’s so many good ones. 

MARK:           I know, I know. What about favorite place to listen to music?

STUART:       Green Parrot.

MARK:           Yeah.

KASSY:          Yeah, I’m right there, Green Parrot. Love it.

MARK:           Maybe here… soon. You never know. 

STUART:       Yes! And here. 

MARK:           What about for happy hour?

STUART:       Happy hour, and this is a personal thing because I love the people, but I love the Salty Angler.

KASSY:          Yeah, Salty’s good, um.

STUART:       That’s kind of our, you know, local spot.

KASSY:          And I don’t even know if they have a happy hour but I love going down to Green Parrot for their 5:30…

STUART:       Yeah for sound check.

KASSY:          Sound check. So that’s.

MARK:           Yeah and you get popcorn.

KASSY:          Yeah that’s happy!

MARK:           What about favorite thing to do with friends or family that have never been here? Like the tourist thing that you would do that maybe they don’t even know about?

KASSY:          Take them out on the water, whether it’s a dolphin safari, snorkeling, or just a boat ride, take them to a sandbar. That’s my favorite.

STUART:       The water’s always great, yes and Snipes is cool, but I personally love the butterfly museum.

MARK:           Yup, the butterfly museum.

STUART:       That to me is like, my mom’s not a big water person but it’s just beautiful there and it’s amazing to be honest with you and it’s one of the very first thing’s I did when I came to Key West. When my friend told me that she was taking me to a butterfly museum, I was like, what? I’m a guy. I’m a macho man, what are you doing taking me to a butterfly museum. Turns out it was amazing and I didn’t want to leave and I stayed for hours and it’s one of those things where that is an indelible memory for me and I know how much I loved it, so I like to take people there. 

MARK:           Yeah, a lot of friends come and they always request that of me when they come. They’re like, “I gotta go to this butterfly garden!” They have that flamingo meet and greet or whatever it’s called. 

STUART:       Rhett and Scarlett. There’s two of them. 

MARK:           Yeah, yeah right, which is like incredible just doing that, meeting these flamingos up close and it’s like a private thing. Where, because we’ll be closing up, where can people find about either yourselves personally on social media or this location? I’ll put everything in the show notes, too. Website for here?  First. 

STUART:       For here, for my gallery itself is: www.Damondesignskeywest.com and the overall property is the Art ShackKW, is that right? 

KASSY:          Yes.

STUART:       So, the Instagram page is the Art Shack, just the Art Shack. The Instagram for the overall property is just the Art Shack and then the Facebook page is…

MARK:           I’ll put all that in the show notes, too. Yeah, don’t worry about it. You can get it all wrong.

STUART:       Kassie has her own. 

MARK:           Oh wait, you have an Instagram for yourself, too right? 

STUART:       I do. And it’s DamondesignsKW, I think. It’s a new phenomenon for me.

MARK:           Okay, I’ll make sure, check the notes before you go.

STUART:       It’s 6404 Front Street, right here on Stock Island, on the way to the Hog Fish, and you’ll find us.

MARK:           Okay, and Kassie?

KASSY:          And then I’m KassyBFineArt, that’s my website and my Instagram is Kassysupnfit. 

MARK:           I like it. I like it.

STUART:       And do note that is with a “K” not a “C.”

MARK:           Again, don’t go by what you hear, go by what you read. You’ll get the real stuff.

STUART:       It’s a common mistake for her name. 

MARK:           The last parting question, which is the most important question of the entire day… we’ll start with you Kassy. Give me one tip for the day. It can be drink more water, it could be that I like this new App, it could be Oh my God I found this new turkey chili I’m eating; it can be anything. But just something to part and leave the guests with.

KASSY:          Find the beauty in things. Anything. Your dog smiling, anything. 

MARK:           I like it. I like it. 

STUART:       Now me?

MARK:           Yes, now you.

STUART:       You know, in a very broad sense, we’re not promised a new day so make the best of each one. 

MARK:           I love it. I love it. Two wise words from two wise people. This was probably the only and the quickest ménage à trois I’ve ever had, so thank you both for coming out. It was very interesting and I love this space. To be honest, from my perspective, this is something that people need and people want and I love having multiple things between art, stuff being built, between music, food and drinks and music, all in one place. So, thank you guys for making this happen. We’ll come here a lot and I’m sure a lot of people will, too. 

STUART:       That’s great, thank you very much.

KASSY:          Thank you. 

MARK:           Okay wait, you get the last word. 

KASSY:          Thank you! 

MARK:           You’re welcome. Okay, bye everybody

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