In the early 1990s, James Lodato, purchased what is now The Historic Peninsula Inn, with the idea of turning it into an art center. Artists who lived in the community began frequenting the then-vacant building on weekends, setting up their easels outdoors to paint. Local artist Keith Stillwagon became involved with the group.
“It was almost a ritual where artists brought easels down on Saturdays. Musicians came down to play. Painting became an all-day affair on the weekends,” says Stillwagon.
In 1995, Lodato invited artists to paint murals on the existing building. Stillwagon painted a mural on the wall in the back parking lot featuring one of his favorite subjects, the Florida panther. In addition to the Florida panther, Stillwagon incorporates American eagles in almost all of his landscapes and seascapes plus birds and flowers that are indigenous to the area. Once the mural was complete, he signed and dated the painting.
“The Florida panther is almost extinct due to habitat encroachment. For the mural, I envisioned what Boca Ciega Bay and the surrounding area looked like 100 years ago,” he said.
The building was later sold to owners who turned it into an inn. The mural began to fade, particularly from spray guns used above the mural during construction that dripped down onto the painting, creating fogginess. Stillwagon, who was still painting murals locally and in locations as far away as southern France, repeatedly asked the owners what they planned to do with his mural, but says he did not get a satisfactory response.
Twenty-one years later, Stillwagon is restoring the mural at the request of the new owner of The Peninsula Inn, Veronica Champion. After no contact with the previous owners for the past five years, Champion called Stillwagon three or four months ago, introducing herself as the new owner of The Peninsula Inn and asked him if he would be interested in restoring his mural.
“Of course I said ‘yes,’” says Stillwagon. “I had given up on it years ago. Veronica Champion is my hero. To care so much about art in general and mine in particular was wonderful.”
“I come out back every morning,” says Champion. “I love the mural. I found it beautiful and part of the history of the inn.”
So Stillwagon got to work.
“I had to fill in some gaping holes and repaint every inch. I am also using brighter colors and more current styles,” he says. “It is an entirely new painting, except the panther stays.”
Champion plans to install lighting and create a flower garden underneath to enhance the mural’s design.
“I can see people coming out after dinner and having their picture taken with it,” says Champion.
“This mural means so much to me that I want to give it my full attention until I’m happy with it,” says Stillwagon. “This was my very first mural in the Tampa Bay area, and I am very sentimental about this painting.”
The new mural is almost complete. Once it is finished, Stillwagon will again sign it, only this time with a new date, over 20 years later.