ISLAMORADA -- As a night bridge tender, Jamie Marsh has a 360-degree view from atop the Snake Creek Bridge. As an artist and person, Marsh also appears to have a 360-degree view of life.
"I love this life," says the 53-year-old Virginian who has worked as a bridge tender for a private company with a contract with the Florida Department of Transportation for the past seven or eight years -- he's not quite sure how long.
The long quiet nights give Marsh the time to think, to create.
"I have so much time that I almost over think sometimes," he said. "If I had a regular job, I'd be thinking about that. I have quiet time on the bridge to think deeply about my art."
Only one drawbridge remains in the entire Florida Keys, so being one of the last bridge tenders is a perfect fit for a person with Marsh's mind set. Three to four nights a week he sits isolated in a small block building atop Snake Creek with plenty of time on his hands. He drinks coffee and contemplates his world.
Though a bridge tender must be awake and alert through the night, very little moves beneath him but water and a few fish.
"It's my summer living room," he said. "I have air conditioning there and I drink a lot of coffee and sketch out my ideas. It's pretty simple. I work an eight-hour shift. My first responsibility is safety both for people and traffic on the bridge and for the few boats that pass under it."
While little may be going under the lonely Snake Creek Bridge at night, there is plenty going on inside Marsh. With a background in glass etching, portrait and sign painting, Marsh now focuses mostly on designing and illustrating T-shirts, which have earned him some local acclaim.
"Working as a bridge tender gives me those few extra dollars that allows me to say 'no' to jobs I don't want. It allows me to take sign-painting jobs that I want. I can paint names of boats on transoms in gold leaf when I want. I live where I want and I have freedom."
Marsh's boat, "Breakin' Wind," serves as his studio and also reflects his sense of humor. A drawing table is set up in the main salon and he has a secondary table aft where he can sit outside and look over the water and design images that can be transferred to T-shirts, images he may have sketched the night before atop the bridge.
"I donate these designs for people in need of help," he said.
Recently, Marsh created a T-shirt design for a benefit for Ashley Rierson, a young woman who had been badly injured when she was struck by two vehicles while crossing the highway on a dark February night in Islamorada.
"He's incredible," Rierson said. "He made the coolest T-shirts on the face of the planet."
The design featured an "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" motif requested by Rierson.
Her brother, Marty Rierson, says everyone was buying Marsh's T-shirts at his sister's benefit.
"It was fabulous art. He incorporated everything she had asked for. It was good enough for Hollywood," he said.
But Marsh is a long way from Hollywood, both in location and spirit.
"I was raised on a farm in a section of Virginia where Mennonite people live. They don't need insurance," he said. "When a house burns down everyone comes together to rebuild it. That's the same spirit I've seen here, especially among boating people."
Ocean View bartender Gloria Elder says Marsh typifies that spirit.
"He's a good artist with a big heart," Elder said. "As well as painting and designing T-shirts, he's a fine glass sculptor and his glass etchings are amazing."
For his T-shirt designs, Marsh paints an image that can be uploaded onto a computer and reversed for printing. He says his formal education stopped with high school but he has slowly mastered many aspects of computer graphics.
"I'm self-taught," Marsh said. "My parents owned a craft shop so I always had access to what was new on the market. I had always drawn."
After high school Marsh began his slow migration south.
"I hitched around with a backpack full of paint and an air brush. I'd do murals. I'd sleep on the roofs of buildings that I was painting," he recalled. "In bad neighborhoods I'd pull the ladder up behind me.
"Later I got a job restoring horse carriages and worked on the largest horse carriage collection in the United States. It was a real challenge but you can't make a living on something they don't make any more," he said.
"I did portraits of women, children and pets in Virginia. I'd paint in oils, pastels and water colors. I'd paint two a day and charged between $45 and $150 apiece.
"I started making trips to the Keys in the late 1970s and finally moved to Tavernier where I painted signs out of my garage. Now I have a lot of time to think about things.
"I don't get bored," he added. "I grew up on a farm and our nearest neighbor was a few miles away, so I'm used to being alone and thinking a lot.