When a present-day maritime painter found himself landlocked in Texas in the 1980s, "It was kind of strangling," said local artist David Harrison Wright. "I know I was a sailor in a former life."
Because all things are possible in Key West, it's not unusual to hear tales of how past and present lives thread together, but Wright's story is more intricately woven than most. Even the former life of his house at 2507 Harris St. boasts an earthy transition from chain-link dog pen out front into a nautical-themed courtyard.
Inside the upstairs half of the duplex he bought in 1997, Wright's fluid interior design embraces the ebb and flow of fabrics like canvas and silk, brocade and wool.
"Rex Fabrics in Miami blows my mind; it's known for ball gowns, and it has lots of showrooms full of $400 and $500 per yard skeins of cloth," said the Texas-based interior designer who first sailed to Key West aboard his boat "Rose" in 1983.
That adventure -- how he and two companions were rescued in an 80 mph gale by drug-smuggling shrimpers, then towed for eight hours to Loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas -- was the precursor to Wright's captain's license and his permanent move to Key West in 1986.
"I chartered Rose after I moved here, but when I didn't have $600 to replace a starter that blew out, I sold my painting of the steamship 'City of Key West' for the $600 I needed," he said, pinpointing the catalyst for his maritime painting career. "In all its forms, water is seductive."
Throughout his four-room house, Wright's nautical theme is as physical as the paintings in his living room art gallery; it is as seductive as a harem full of fabrics, some wallpapered in Rex Fabrics' shimmering 118-inch gold lame, some hanging on rods Wright fashioned from electrical conduits.
Take the draperies in his art studio where he stenciled painters' drop cloths to match stenciling he applied to the walls. These drop-cloth draperies reinforce the natural color and texture of a tented canvas ceiling, which in turn, compliments the sails on ship models stationed everywhere in Wright's 1,500-square foot, second-floor unit.
One of his models decorates a vintage table in the gallery, which Wright restored with a faux marble top. This particular ship model was built in a bottle when Wright was in high school, and might be the first manifestation of his past life. Others are more recent works of art, like the ballast-filled ship he sometimes sets sail in Keys' water, although usually it hangs in his kitchen/guest bedroom.
Because this is a one-bedroom/one-bathroom unit, the unique kitchen/dining room/guest bedroom embodies the space consciousness of living on a boat. At the same time it concentrates the flow of fabric and a sense of ocean motion into one corner. Here, the deep red and gold print on cloth dangling from a Wright-made rod curves and may be drawn snuggly around the day bed for the privacy of overnight guests. Normally, though, the curtained corner and patterned pillows and hanging ship model serve as a cozy seating nook in the goodly sized kitchen and dining room.
"But this curtain is not from Rex Fabrics," admitted Wright. "I stitched it together from J.C. Penney tablecloths."
How appropriate to use tablecloths in the dining area, but Wright also takes J.C. Penney into his boudoir, where free-flowing inexpensive fabric sways from conduit rods placed two-thirds the way up walls papered with elegant swags of Rex fabric. All tricked out in the richness of red and gold tones, the gentle motion of material contributes to the ambiance of a well-appointed captain's quarters on an antique schooner.
Wright says his water visions frequently materialize at Salvation Army stores, which he relishes for interior design treasures. He has reupholstered sofas and mismatched chairs -- he even attached a Chippendale-like chair and a Louie XV-style chair to rolling platforms that move around his office like ships passing in the night.
Ornate gold frames decorate his personal maritime paintings and salvaged nautical prints; dozens of hand-knotted Asian rugs decorate the floors, including the bathroom.
Such impressive hand-knotted fiber constitutes more than rugs, "they're artworks you walk on," Wright said.
Another piece of art you can walk on is in the paved front courtyard, where in 2004 Wright designed and inlaid a compass rose next to the then-new swimming pool -- a salute to sailing and to his sailboat Rose? Probably, and probably even a fluid nod to the former lives of five Rottweilers landlocked there in a dirt kennel.
Barbara Bowers is a Key West realtor and host of a radio talk show about owning and maintaining property in the Florida Keys. To suggest a home to be featured in the Keys Homes section, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Homes listed for sale may not be considered.