State of the Arts


Walton County Artists Go PublicArt in Public Places Brings Art Out of Museums and Galleries and Into Our Daily Lives

By Christy Kearney

With natural beauty abounding along the Emerald Coast, it is difficult to imagine the indoors coming to life with the same vibrancy as the outdoors.

Nature gives us art everywhere we look – the sparkling hues of the emerald green waters, the music of lapping waves, the contrasting textures of towering trees and glistening sand. They peacefully collide to give onlookers a symphony of sights and sounds.

In an effort to carry the beauty and diversity of Walton County into the community’s public buildings, the Walton County Tourist Development Council (WCTDC) created Art in Public Places – a multi-faceted program giving Walton County artists a public setting to display their work year-round. Since the programs inception, Walton County’s libraries, courthouses, state parks and official buildings have been transformed by the captivating work of local artists such as Dorothy Starbuck, Susan Lucas, Justin Gaffrey and Phil Kiser.

Through placement in public buildings, partnerships with local organizations and promotion of the Artist of the Year, Art in Public Places exposes locals and area visitors to the incredible artwork being created right in our own backyard.


State of the Arts in Walton County

It is no surprise that the art scene along the Gulf Coast, and specifically in Walton County, is flourishing. With the beautiful natural environment stirring up the creative spirit in local artists, inspiration seems to present itself around every corner.

 “We have the best of everything,” says Tiffany McCaskill, new product development manager for WCTDC, “There’s an array of arts events happening throughout the year from the visual arts to the performing arts. Then we have galleries, galleries and more galleries. Whatever the genre, our arts community delivers.”

According to Mary Brown, WCTDC councilwoman and Arts and Culture Committee chair, the last three years have proven to be successful for the local art community.

“Three years ago, there were smaller art groups, but they weren’t aware of what the others were doing. There are groups on the north end of the county and groups on the south end, but neither were connected,” explains Brown. “With the committee and Art in Public Places, these various groups are now coordinating efforts and coming together.”

Walton County has welcomed the infant program with open arms. “The greatest response has been the increase in participation by local artists. They are becoming more involved which is bringing recognition from the community,” says Brown.

A Creative Collaboration

McCaskill believes Art in Public Places is a win-win for all parties involved. “For the community, Art in Public Places creates a sense of place in which residents can take pride in the beauty of our thriving arts community. For the artists, Art in Public Places allows them the opportunity to gain exposure for their artwork in a venue that’s safe, secure and best of all, it’s free to display. For visitors, it gives them the opportunity to explore activities that extend beyond the beach,” says McCaskill.

Support by local businesses, such as Silver Sands Factory Stores, broadens the reach of the program. Silver Sands first became involved with Art in Public Places is 2005, and continues to participate by commissioning an Autumn Tides-themed watercolor painting from Donna Burgess each year to be entered into the program and displayed publicly.

A new partnership with the Coastal Branch and Freeport libraries and Friends of Coastal Branch Library showcases a different artist each month. The series launched in April with a showing by WCTDC’s 2007 Artist of the Year, William “Bill” Stephenson Jr., and will continue to bring new, distinct exhibits to the public each month.

Every Artist Has His Day

Each year the WCTDC commissions artwork from the organization’s Artist of the Year to be entered into Art in Public Places. The Artist of the Year is chosen by a panel of judges representing the local arts community. The panel considers how the artist’s work echoes the Beaches of South Walton brand promise, which includes “nature and heritage, quality of life, arts and culture, managed growth, and upscale dining and shopping.”

“When accepting nominations for the 2007 Artist of the Year, we had people from their mid-20s and up, every type of art from wood art to watercolor to oil painting – the variety was incredible,” describes Brown.

Of 18 gifted artists who competed for the title, Stephenson was chosen as the 2007 Artist of the Year. Stephenson, a woodturner and student of the art form for nearly 20 years, recollects his first exposure to wood art. “Perhaps the earliest introduction that I had to woodturning was from my grandfather, a chair maker. As a young child (5-6 years old) he would sit me on his workbench (‘so I could see’ – but really to keep me out of the way of his work) as he turned chair components,” recalls Stephenson. “Today I find it interesting how early exposure to an art form makes a long-term impression.”

Stephenson’s approach to his art is straightforward – the object should first represent the intended form, and secondly, take on an artistic expression. Walton County is the ideal backdrop for this artist who literally uses the environment around him as inspiration. And staying in tune with the Beaches of South Walton preservation values, he only uses wood that is salvaged from power-line construction, road construction, building construction, cabinet shops and tropical storms.

As a member of local art organizations such as Local Color Artists Association, Cultural Arts Association and Emerald Coast Woodturning Guild, Stephenson is a champion for the arts in Walton County and sees great value in Art in Public Places.

“In an area where the nearest museum of art is many miles away, the program is especially important,” he says. “My recent experience has affirmed to me the importance of the program just based upon the phone calls, notes and comments that I have received from people who took the time to let me know how much they enjoyed the April 2007 Artist of the Year exhibit at the Coastal Branch of the Walton County Public Library. Particularly important were the comments by parents relating the expressions of their children about the exhibit.”

Stephenson’s commissioned Art in Public Places piece titled “Sky – Sun – Surf – Sand,” which he divulges will be “an artistic expression of several significant environmental attributes of the area including the sky, the sun, the surf, the sand and the trees within the area” will go on display in Walton County this fall.