Carolyn Gorton Fuller: April Exhibition Honors “The Bottle Wall Lady”

Armory Main Hall Exhibition April 11-May 6
Reception and Community Gathering: April 21, 6-9 pm
Sponsored by At Home in Key West

Carolyn Gorton Fuller’s Legacy Exhibition at TSKW Reflects a Life Well Lived

Carolyn Ann Gorton Fuller’s amazing legacy will be bottled up and brought to the The Studios of Key West, where an exhibition of her life and work will be on view from April 11 through May 6, 2011. The exhibition will be celebrated by the public at a community reception on Thursday, April 21 from 6-9 p.m., during the Walk on White night, in the Main Hall of the Historic Armory. Members of her family will be traveling to join Carolyn’s Key West friends in tribute. Everyone is invited to join in the evening dedicated in honor of this important Key West legend.

From 1968 to her passing on August 7, 2010, Carolyn, a.k.a. ‘The Bottle Wall Lady’, made Key West her permanent residency in the circa 1815 side-by-side weathered conch cottages at 905 and 907 Angela Street. Purchased in her own name with earnings from her lucrative portrait commissions, the property was sold to her in 1966 by Edward B. Knight, an up and coming real estate broker, for “cheap’. Her home, magical and mysterious to the outsider, with the view of The Key West Cemetery from her window, she noted at times is in “a very quiet neighborhood and the people across the street never bother anyone.”

“Carolyn Gorton Fuller: A Key West Legacy” will examine the various themes of her life:
‘Becoming Carolyn: daughter, sister, artist, traveler, teacher, wife, mother, friend’; ‘Painting One’s Likeness: 40 Years Painting Portraits’; ‘Creating a Personal Paradise: Key West Community & Culture’; ‘The Bottle Wall Lady: Myth and Meaning; Behind the Wall’: ‘Projects, Purpose and Privacy; and The Legend & Her Legacy’. Over 100 works and historical archives, spanning over 70 years of work in both painting and sculpture will be on view.

“TSKW was entrusted with both a great responsibility and remarkable gift to share with the community by Carolyn’s daughter Rebecca Ann Fuller,” says Martha Barnes, curator of the exhibition. “The project presented the honor, but also the challenge of exposing to the public a private person, unveiling the life and work of an amazing artist who wasn’t interested in her story being documented.”

Carolyn resisted film offers in her lifetime, claiming, ‘I’m not interested in a ‘be and do’, faked and frozen into a ‘show and tell’. “For that reason,” Barnes continues, “it was with trepidation, sensitivity, understanding and respect that The Studios of Key West accepted the request to present Carolyn’s life.”

Born on December 31, 1921 in Utica, New York, Carolyn was a woman with formal Southern upbringing — where horses sweat, men perspire, and ladies glow —  influenced by her Kentucky born and bred mother.  Carolyn was a woman well-heeled, world-traveled, and highly educated. The first half of her career produced hundreds of canvases: landscapes, street scenes, and primarily commissioned portraits painted from life, and she stood at her easel for 14 hours at a stretch with ten minute breaks on the hour.

Incredibly disciplined and dutiful, caught in a traditional life in society, she found happiness in the solitude of her secluded and humble home in Key West. It was here also, where she returned to her shared love and purpose — sculpture. “Painting and sculpture what could be so great!” exuded Carolyn. She reflected, “Yes, I cherish the things I have done and yes, I miss them. I look back over the years of doing paintings and I see high points sticking up like islands in a sea.”

In college, Carolyn delved into the study of Ethics and formed what would be the core of her values, leading her down her unique path of self-sufficiency. She chose not to settle for compromise or conformity — the false exchange of comfort and security defined as happiness in ‘common society’. She securely stated, ”I never worried about money and I won’t start now. If I run out, I’ll go out for a real long swim – to Cuba.”

Her BA thesis for her fine arts degree from Syracuse University in 1944 was titled “The Art and History of the Major American Indian Tribes”. Fascinated and influenced by the the early Mayan people and their embellished architecture, she wrote, “they altered their buildings and added colonnades, walls or used smaller earlier structures as a foundation for later structures.” Carolyn was awarded the prestigious Augusta Hazard Fellowship presented to the most outstanding painting student graduate at Syracuse. It was this commendation which presented her with a year of study at the University of Mexico in Mexico City and a Solo Show at the Museo Del Prado.

The Bottle Wall, built as a beautiful and practical barrier from flood waters and unwanted wanderers into her garden in the early 70s, was torn down by Carolyn’s own hands in 1991. Tired of finding the perfect bottle to replace those stolen by passersby as souvenirs, and fortified by two very good Beefeater martinis (and the woman was very particular about the way hers were made), Carolyn vandalistically transitioned into a new period of expression.

The granite blocks which had formed the original base to the structure of the wall were delivered by a young man in 1971 who simply asked if he could help her and not, in her words, ‘take-take-take as most people do.’ The building blocks formed the foundation of a forty year friendship between Carolyn and Steve Roe, which continued and deepened through decades of letter writing. The treasured volume of correspondence was saved and shared with TSKW. This resource proved to be a critical scholarship tool to assist with this exhibition.

The current ruins at the corner of Angela and Margaret Streets are the reminders of the wall’s swan song when it was reinvented — from July 4 to December 26, 1993— as Carolyn noted, as ‘Ripples and Reflections’. Made from bits of marble and mirrors — ‘Oreo-size ones‘ — recycled from holes punched through bathroom mirrors for fixtures — delicate arches, resembling mangrove roots and water, were sculpted as a final ill-fated attempt to assist cars from colliding into her corner. Her art and ingenuity helped to have people slow down and observe the world around them.

Wrongly seen by strangers as a lonely recluse, Carolyn was loved and befriended by many, and she adored and appreciated her longtime friends, as well as meeting new ones introduced through bridge games, dinner parties, a Bible study group at The Stone Church, and Pepe’s. For years she drove her Dodge Omni around the island, a car adorned with autumn leaves that were colorfully painted by her friend, local artist Rick Worth. Carolyn attracted attention with walls, a painted artcar, and wearing colorful muu muus while standing 5 foot 10 inches tall in bare feet- in spite of insisting to everyone to ‘leave her ALONE’.

She felt TV was an adventure without risk and refused to own one. She believed we need to teach children ‘you can’t do extraordinary things and be like everyone else’.
Later in life, she designed and published a coloring book for children of all ages titled,

“Carolyn Gorton Fuller’s Key West Portfolio”,

containing her original drawings of 26 Key West subjects with local plants, birds, and color descriptions. The cherished book was carried and sold up and down the Keys, and Carolyn would mail anyone a copy for $15 ($12 plus tax and postage.)

Carolyn’s humor and activism for the protection of her adopted island was read and witnessed through her quips and gripes in her weekly column for the “Key West The Newspaper” (a.k.a. The Blue Paper). She began to have her writings published only after observing the life and culture of her surroundings for thirty five years at the age of almost 80 – suffice it to say she uncorked her bottle and let it pour.

Local acclaimed filmmaker Mike Marrero volunteered his time to capture stories shared by friends and family members and revealing a perspective from her private world behind the wall. The 15 minute short, edited and produced by artist Marky Pierson, will be screened in the Main Hall of the Historic Armory during the reception for the exhibition.T he film by Mike is 15 minutes and the DVD will be available to purchase at the reception for $12.

A 15 minute short film highlighting the life and legacy of Carolyn Gorton Fuller, featuring interviews of family members and friends, will be screened at the reception. The film component to the exhibition was commissioned by Carolyn’s daughter Rebecca Fuller, and the project was managed and developed by Martha Barnes, the Exhibition Curator. Acclaimed local filmmaker Mike Marrero generously donated much of his time and his services to record this important piece of Key West history. Producer Marky Pierson was instrumental in editing the film footage and completing the artistic design of the film. DVD copies will be available for purchase for $12 plus tax.

To see the Carolyn Gorton Fuller chronology and special exhibition thanks, please visit

The Studios of Key West