Selected for an immersive art residency on Loggerhead Key, Carl Stoveland and Shannon Torrence, aka the Flying Tortuga Brothers, spent 30 days off the grid, creating the best work of their careers.
Ever since the release of Robinson Crusoe in the 1700s, there’s been something romantic about being marooned on a deserted island and living with the rhythms of nature. That kind of solitude demands self-reliance and, presumably, brings out the castaway’s true grit.
But what if that castaway is an artist? What effect might the off-the-grid life have on the creative process? And what groundbreaking art might surface as a result?
These are questions at the heart of the National Parks Service and National Parks Arts Foundation’s annual artist-in-residence program, and they hold particularly true for a location as remote as Loggerhead Key in Dry Tortugas National Park. This year, the 30-day residency on the uninhabited island was awarded to Lake Worth Beach artists Shannon Torrence and Carl Stoveland, who adopted the moniker Flying Tortuga Brothers and spent September 2020 on location, creating a documentary, podcast, and portfolio of photos and paintings, all with zero access to the outside world.
Conditions, as photographer and multimedia artist Stoveland tells it, were rudimentary at best. “We were living almost like lighthouse keepers from the 1800s. We had our own procedure for collecting water from the ocean and processing it through reverse osmosis. We used solar power and kept logs for everything we used. Nothing was mainstream and nothing was easy.”
“We lived by the sun and the moon,” says Torrence, who paints Florida-themed landscapes and seascapes. They had to bring everything they needed and couldn’t resupply, so they ate one square meal a day and a lot of granola in-between.
The weather was a formidable challenge. Most of the time the temperature gauge hovered around 90 degrees “with a good 80 to 90 percent humidity,” says Stoveland. Adds Torrence: “We were praying for rain.”
Boy, did they get it. Toward the end of the trip, three solid days of violent thunderstorms, wind, and swells humbled them to the force of nature. With a renewed conviction that humans are often powerless to control their surroundings, they learned to move with the caprices of the weather and the shifting light. And their work was better for it.
One of the highlights, the artists agree, was the night sky. Around the middle of the residency, the new moon created the perfect conditions for viewing the Milky Way with the naked eye. Stoveland was awestruck. “I’ve shot the Milky Way before, in the Everglades, but I had never seen it like this,” he says. “It stretched across the entire sky. I had never seen that many stars. It stopped me in my tracks.”
But nothing compared to the water. “Hemingway referred to the water in this part of the world as ‘the stream,’” Torrence says. “I finally understood what he meant. The water here, it’s almost holy. Dark water flows in one direction and turquoise water in another, and you get this vibration. It looks alive.”
By the end of the month, both Torrence and Stoveland had been transformed by the challenges and splendors of the 49-acre island in the Gulf of Mexico. They’d run through the gamut of emotions—“You go from being ebullient to impossible to be around,” Stoveland says—and had gained a new appreciation for the conservation of wild places.
“The island was small, and it felt like our island,” Torrence says. So, when they saw single-use plastics and other trash wash up on the beach, they took it personally. “If people would experience what we did, the magic of this place, they’d think before [polluting].”
Nothing tells the story better than their art, which, admittedly, they’re still processing. A&C is thrilled to offer the first glimpse into the artists’ personal journals and creative journey, and to shine a light on the awesome beauty of this slice of the tropics.
(Note: All photos by Carl Stoveland, all paintings by Shannon Torrence)
I’ve arrived on the island having broken my big toe the week before. I’m off to a slow start with my camera; getting around the island has been a bit tough. Mornings start with coffee before the sun comes up. We’re falling in with the rhythm of the island, up before the sun and ending the day just after sundown. The exception is late nights spent shooting the Milky Way. Mornings are a bit cooler and the only sounds are the waves, which sound a bit like road traffic to me, and the occasional falling coconut. It’s a perfect way to start the day. — Carl Stoveland (C.S.)
The storms rolling in at the beach just behind the house are powerful and mesmerizing. They move in quick and strong. I’m fascinated by having so much big sky to work with, and the absence of buildings, roads, and evidence of any human intrusion. This image is an homage to Clyde Butcher. When I moved to Florida, I wasn’t sure what was there for me photographically. At the advice of a friend, I looked up Clyde Butcher, and ever since then he’s been an inspiration to me. — C.S.
September 7, Loggerhead Lighthouse (Afternoon)
I finished another painting yesterday, bringing the number of completed paintings to three. However, this is not the best news. I have had a vision. I can see the painting already finished in my mind. It is of a pirate and a ship just offshore. The site is at the southern tip of Loggerhead Key; we are calling it The Spit. The water in this place is extraordinary because so much shallow sand surrounds this area. — Shannon Torrence (S.T.)
Planning has paid off for me. I knew that the moon would start setting earlier around the 8th and the new moon was about a week later. These days I spend most of my nights out with my camera chasing the stars. Often Shannon joins me for a while and we watch the shooting stars as the Milky Way crosses the horizon from east to west, and there are long intervals where words don’t pass between us. It’s awe-inspiring to see so many stars. Such a peaceful, contemplative feeling. — C.S.
September 12, Marooned
Having completed the pirate painting and found some vintage photo albums in the keeper’s house, I feel a strong feeling of timelessness. It has led me to think of the many lives spent on this small sliver of land. I think I will play. Take a chance at including figures into the landscape. What’s the worst that can happen—I fail? I have no critic here. So I have begun The Keeper’s Lights. It will take days, as did the pirate. Questions to work out. —S.T.
Capturing lightning on the Gulf just below the Milky Way is a once-in-a-lifetime shot, only possible on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. The technical challenge is capturing the Milky Way. Getting the lightning strike means taking the same shot over and over until you hit it at just the right moment. An image like this is a combination of know-how, the patience to wait it out, and a little bit of luck. — C.S.
Seaplane at Loggerhead Key, September 21
I had the idea to paint a seaplane coming over the sand spit at the south end of the island. This I witnessed while snorkeling during my first week here. It makes sense for a timeline series of paintings about this place. Perhaps I have just enough time to complete it. Starting today. — S.T.
At the tail end of the Milky Way season for the month, I have the idea to get a shot while the moon is still low in the sky, but it isn’t really working. My thoughts turn to my father, who died three years ago. In the silence of the night, I feel him here with me. That’s something I never expected to happen to me. It’s a powerful feeling. I stay here a little longer, and eventually the clouds roll in and it unfolds in front of me. One of my favorite images from the trip. — C.S.
There’s a fantastic coral reef just offshore. Because the shore is so shallow, you feel like one of the turtles as you get into the water. Then, about 15 feet from the water line, you hit a dropoff with lots of caverns and caves and eddies that are remarkably full of fish. These fish don’t have predators, so they’re very curious and friendly. We are just big fish to them, so they swim alongside us. Without a doubt one of the best places I’ve ever snorkeled.
Milky Way at Loggerhead Key, September 24
Elated! Seaplane at Loggerhead is complete. I am working eight to 10 hours daily. The heat is, quite frankly, ridiculous. I feel I have a duty to make as many paintings as I can here on site. I don’t want to let anyone down, especially myself. I must make a Milky Way painting here. Carl and I have discussed its light at great length. Absorbing without tunnel vision of creating a particular image. — S.T.
Breakfast on Loggerhead Key
Pictures fall from the album lifted from the shelf,
slipping to the floor.
Vignettes of this island in its heyday,
long before I was born.
The Australian pines whispered long,
casting healthy doses of shade.
Men in pith helmets stand on the dock,
coconuts in hand.
May 29’ 1898’
The day’s catch still hangs nailed to the wall,
between a pair of proud young men,
grinning under the shade of straw hats and salt.
The slant of offshore rain has me reaching for a
drink and thinking.
The sea imprisons some of those it sets free.
The sailing vessel Breakfast is beached,
with a broken mast and splintered spine.
Still, its bell rings out to me, through the breeze
“Loggerhead Key,” the honey voice says to me,
from behind. — Shannon Torrence
I’m glad I brought the infrared camera! There is not much useful light for regular photography when the sun is up high in the sky (at least for me), but midday is the perfect time for infrared, with its different interpretations of the colors of the natural world and its ability to deliver details we cannot normally see. — C.S.
Storm at Loggerhead Key, September 27
Carl and I sat on the back porch of the keeper’s house today and heard a voice calling out “Yoo-hoo! Hello, island!” Imagine my surprise when it was the owner of Gallery on Greene in Key West! I was floored. After five hours at sea, she had arrived with two friends and brunch. We laughed and snorkeled together, and they offered to represent my work. Legendary, I say! Like something you read about. — S.T.
The isolation can be trying. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re left alone like that. It’s inevitable that you turn inward. These big vistas make you feel really small and you start to feel your place in everything. — C.S.
Extra Works and Musings from Loggerhead Key
September 3, Turtle Nest
We are alone here except for a young gentleman, a turtle researcher, who will be coming and going. He excavates hatched nests, collecting the babies and releasing them at nightfall. It’s beautiful to witness. I am just getting my bearings here, with the light and such. Not to mention, my nerves were shot for the first couple of days. It’s a lot to absorb—the beauty, the harshness of the place—but this morning I began to feel a bit more acclimated. — Shannon Torrence (S.T.)
September 9, Two Directions
The light burst through the clouds yesterday afternoon, creating the shape of a heart. I had a great sense of the people I love and, for a time, missed the world of immediate gratification I left behind. We are making our own water, eating one meal a day. I returned to The Spit today, and the waves were coming in from two different angles. It fascinated me. The pirate painting is nearly complete. — S.T.
September 14, Lone Palm
I slept out of doors for the first eight nights. Because of the breeze, it’s been quite comfortable. On night nine, it rained so heavily that I was completely drenched. I have retreated into the keeper’s house. I keep trying to return to the stars, but it rains nightly. I took a break from The Keeper’s Lights today and painted a small painting called Lone Palm. It was nice to step away from the same image and concentrate on something a bit less serious. The stakes get heavier the closer you are to finishing a painting. — S.T.
September 18, Impending Storm
A blast of wind hit me today like I was standing next to a train. The storms roll into the island like they are on fast-forward. This one passed to the west of us. I imagined the island as we approached it and painted the clouds exactly as they were. — S.T.
September 20, Windy Palms
Grandpa, as I have come to refer to the lighthouse, and I had another nice visit today. I climbed up once again and filmed the passing storms in time-lapse. I have had a porch studio set up to paint on in the heat of the afternoons and during rain. This little gem is from my walk this morning. I hope it captures the wind-torn palm fronds and the clouds with the strangely luminous area just right of center. I’m in love with the frigate birds, which were a delight to watch in this wind. — S.T.
On our last few days on Loggerhead Key, I’m feeling the fleeting sense of time. I’ve kept telling myself I have plenty of time, but before I knew it here it was, the last weekend. I’m already starting to regret that I won’t be able to go out my back door and see that lighthouse every morning. For a month we’ve been the sole caretakers, the eyes and ears for the park rangers. I think we both feel a sense of ownership and pride. I’ll always think of it as “my island.” — Carl Stoveland