Tonight a former Key West resident who spent 11 years on the island cleaning houses to pay the bills while taking in "critters" to care for will have her debut show at a local art gallery.
Pam Eden's paintings take a magical realism approach to South Florida wildlife, capturing in detailed watercolors the frogs, dragonflies and egrets in all their swampland splendor.
But Eden, 58, a native of Yorkshire, England, who moved to New Jersey at age 32, can't make the opening gala from 6 to 9 p.m. at Frangipani Gallery, 1102 Duval St.
Formerly homeless in the same swampland of Fort Ogden, Fla., a remote spot outside Port Charlotte and 56 miles northwest of Sarasota, Eden still remains without a car, cellphone and the funds that traveling requires.
"Key West was good to me; it's an amazing town," Eden said over a borrowed cellphone Thursday evening. "It's difficult to go back. I don't drive. I'm kind of in a bubble out here. I've got a couple of dogs, a clowder of cats, a goat and peacock and such."
She has painted for many years. During her homeless days, she'd find old wallpaper at the thrift store to use as canvas.
Eden came to Key West as a visitor in 1988 and decided to stay. She called an Olivia Street apartment home for almost 11 years, but left when the owners of the house decided to renovate and raise the rent, according to Eden.
She said she wasn't homeless in Key West, but her plans to live on a parcel of land in Fort Ogden turned disastrous, leaving her living in the wild at times.
Painting kept her grounded.
"It gave me a purpose, as well as an outlet," said Eden, who is mostly self-taught and prefers watercolors. "Life can take you in strange paths. All of a sudden I've been away from Key West for 15 years now. It's amazing, this little journey.
"It's not that I'm not excited," she said of the gallery show, hosted by Fran Decker's Frangipani Gallery.
Friends up there have offered to watch her flock of adopted pets, and people in Key West have offered accommodations.
She just isn't able to make the trip, Eden said.
Clowder means a mass, she explained at one point, in her English accent. Homeless isn't much of a British term either, she said, offering up "vagrant" as a synonym.
"There is nothing offensive about being homeless," she said. "There's nothing offensive about it to me."
The 4.5 years she spent living beneath a tarp without running water or electricity are over, she said, saying her plan to live off the land "failed miserably."
Erika Biddle, a Key West activist and curator of a comprehensive exhibit on homelessness on the island in November, "Hidden in Plain Sight," has been friends with Eden for years.
Biddle included four or five of Eden's naturalist paintings in the show, which ran for a month at The Studios of Key West.
During that time, Biddle pitched the idea of a gallery show to Decker, who opened Frangipani three years ago. Eden's show, "Reflections of Eden," runs until May 17.
Decker saw Eden's work at the homelessness exhibit and didn't need persuading from Biddle.
"I was immediately drawn to them, and not because she was homeless," Decker said this week at her gallery, which is dedicated to Key West-related artists. "I just thought they were terrific. They've got layers; they're almost like tapestries."
Decker said she gets plenty of exhibit proposals from artists, but it's one out of 10 that makes the cut. "This is not a pity show," she said when asked directly about the show's purpose. "I'm honored to bring this person's artwork and show it."
Biddle drove the paintings down from Eden's home to Key West and made the phone interview possible by contacting a neighbor who lives a 20-minute drive from Eden.
"She is awesome," said Biddle, who managed much of the show's logistics in between two recent trips to Germany, where this year she has buried her mother and stepfather and dealt with a sister's illness.
Biddle followed through on her commitment to Eden, and has kept in touch with the self-described "recluse" of an artist for years.
"I love her strength, resilience and talent," said Biddle. "She always thought the Key West 'One Human Family' motto should be expanded to include all critters. So she'd rather become homeless and lived with them instead of abandon her family of animals."
A quarter of all sales of Eden's paintings will go to the Loaves & Fish food pantry at the Florida Keys Outreach Coalition, which offers transitional housing, drug abuse counseling and other services for homeless men and women.
In addition to the paintings, priced from $400 to $1,400, the exhibit features Eden's artwork on greeting cards for $5 a piece. Unframed smaller paintings also are available.
Eden's work is often lush, with paintings of swamp landscapes that seem to purposely hide details such as ladybugs on a leaf or a butterfly resting.
"I've been watching them all morning long," said photographer Paul Carmichael, whose giant portraits of Keys birds are also being shown at Frangipani. "I'm fascinated. It's a surrealistic type of work."
The painting "Garden of Eden" held Carmichael's attention while he was at the gallery on Thursday.
"I just noticed a butterfly and I've been looking at them for hours," he said. "I know there is more in there for me to find."
Eden's paintings, many 30-by-24 inches, are mostly under glass. Several have been encased in thick wooden frames donated by Keys Framing and Art Supplies.
Biddle outfitted many of the paintings in found or restored frames. When she went to Keys Framing for help, the owner donated thick wooden frames for four of the paintings.
One is titled, "Snakes!!!" Another large painting is a portrait of a frog with big oval eyes peering at the viewer, called "Jeepers Creepers."
Eden said the paintings reflect her home in Fort Ogden, where she is thrilled to be on her back or front porch without a neighbor for miles.
The brutal, rough homeless years have subsided, and Eden describes herself as "truly blessed."
She finds spirituality in the low-lying landscape around her.
"I'm talking to somebody," she said, laughing when asked what she finds faith in. "There are 2½ acres of land here. My religion is, I can go sit down beneath an oak tree. Natural beauty."
Eden has to end the interview after almost 30 minutes, given the phone is not hers. She has a prepaid cell with about four minutes on it stashed away for emergencies, she said. When asked if she is safe and sound, she said she needs no care packages.
"Everything is good," Eden said. "It's better than OK."