Diving Into Art in the Land of NASCAR


Diving Into Art in the Land of NASCAR
Story and photos by Tim Leffel

In the region where stock car racing went pro and you can still drive autos on the beach, a vibrant community of artists balances out the aesthetic scales.

Atlantic Center for the Arts

The Atlantic Center for the Arts is a collection of elevated wooden buildings and boardwalks in a quiet setting, adjoining a 67-acre biological reserve. Active since 1979, it's a place where artists, actors, and writers come to summon their muse and reach creative heights with the guidance of varied professionals from different disciplines. It's a good bit quieter than Daytona Beach's main attraction.

The famous speedway, home of the Daytona 500, is massive. The length of 11 football fields, it's so huge that there's a seven-inch difference in the bottom of the stadium from one side to the other due to the curvature of the Earth. The track is lit by 178 light poles holding up 2,000-watt bulbs. My assumptions of who would come to the visitor center for a tour are confirmed by the cars in the parking lot—mostly gas-guzzling pickup trucks and giant SUVs—and the restaurant sign logos across the highway: Bob Evans, Taco Bell, Checkers, and Hooters.

Beach sign in Daytona

You can also drive your car on the beach in Daytona, though you need to go 10 miles per hour now instead of 200 like they did in the founding days of stock car racing. Daytona is also the home of Biker Week, the giant motorcycle enthusiasts' rally that recently passed the 75-year mark. It seems an unlikely spot for finely-tuned aesthetics and the creative class. Thanks to some progressive benefactors and some favorable turns in history, however, NASCAR and fine art manage to co-exist in peace.

Magnets for Artists

Wood sculptures at Atlantic Center of the ArtsThat Atlantic Center of the Arts is just one piece of the artistic mosaic in the area. It is a major force though, with its studios for sculpture, music, painting, dance, and theater hosting regular workshops. The visiting instructors in residence are usually better known in the art world than in the public, but there was an exhibition from well-known portrait photographer Jack Mitchell when I visited. With the number of residence sessions now past 160, the process to make the final invitation cut for this well-established program is very competitive. The center also hosts film festivals, teen writing summer workshops, and theater performances in an outdoor amphitheater.

The center is located on the edge of New Smyrna, which is just one barrier island south from Daytona Beach. It's the center of the arts action in the region, thanks also to The Hub on Canal. This 9,000 square foot facility right in the center of town is housed in three buildings that went up in the first decade of the 1900s. Divided up into combination studio and exhibition spaces, the non-profit center opened in 2012 and hosts more than 75 local artists.

Mixed Media at Atlantic Center of the ArtsRecycled magazine creations from Cindy Burkett

Full of glass and open doorways, the space is a delightful unfolding of creative whimsy and variety, going far beyond the seaside watercolors I was expecting when I walked in the door. Woodcarvings and scarves, custom guitars and innovative mixed media collages, and jewelry all blend together into an impressive collection. In some cases, you can see the artists in mid-project during a visit.

Guitars by Joe Munij Handmade working electric guitars from Joe Munij

Besides showcasing work from those who have their creations for sale on site, instructors lead a busy schedule of hands-on classes throughout the year. They also sponsor competitions in local schools; Impressive winning works from 12-year-olds were on display when I visited.

A walk down Flagler Avenue and its offshoots leads to an array of galleries and boutiques continuing the artistic vibe. That sensibility is also extending into the service sector, with a microbrewery and a local coffee roaster opening in recent years.

Florida Art and the Museum of Everything

I was finding plenty of artists in this part of Florida, but many of them have drifted here from other parts of the country and the world, attracted to the sunshine, the warm weather, and the beaches. When those visitors or transplants are artists, they're often inspired by the different light and landscapes to create something new. Cici and Hyatt Brown started buying up paintings depicting scenes of Florida 25 years ago and they never stopped. In early 2016 they finally got a fitting place to display this largest collection of Florida art in the world, in the museum of art that bears their name.

Florida art collection

The $13 million facility houses about 350 pieces of their still-growing 2,800-painting collection, on a rotating basis. The facility itself is a work of art inside and the paintings explore a wide range of themes from across the state, from wildlife to landscapes to dramatic weather.

It's part of the larger Museum of Arts and Sciences, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian and is just as eclectic. Much of this region was shaped by captains of industry from elsewhere, including founder Matthias Day, John D. Rockefeller, and Chapman S. Root. The latter may not be a household name, but his grandfather invented the first Coca-cola bottle and he founded the company that went on to make all their iconic bottles for decades. One wing of the museum now houses a fun collection of Coke memorabilia from the past, including bottles, a rebuilt apothecary, and a wide variety of vending machines—some of them a real work of art disguised as industrial design.

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