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Issue 676

01/23/2014 at 4:47pm

Dan WalshIsland Neighbors A Creative,
Giving Spirit: Dan Walsh

Many wonderful and talented people grace our island community of Fort Myers Beach. Some have long histories here; some pass through briefly; while others get so hooked on the beauty and the friendly vibe that they return year after year. A few who suddenly appear on our shores shine so brightly and share so much of themselves that they captivate everyone who crosses their path.

Dan Walsh is one of these special people. He first showed up to visit friends at the Red Coconut RV Resort just one year ago, and already he enjoys a wide circle of friends and admirers there, and beyond.

Caricaturist, illustrator, storyteller, producer of musicals, humorist, publicist, social activist . . . Dan is a multi-talented Canadian artist whose ready smile and dancing brown eyes are windows into a warm, creative soul.

"Dan is such a talented, yet humble person, with an infectious spirit and a love of life,” comments Stephanie Webb, owner of The Print Shop Ink in Key Estero Plaza. Stephanie has overseen the printing of many of Dan’s greeting cards, caricatures, and other artworks. ”His talent abounds in so many areas, and he always lends a helping hand, wherever needed,” Stephanie adds. "Dan’s heart is as big as his talent.”

By turns humorous and intense, Dan welcomed questions about his life and work from a total stranger reporting for The Island Sand Paper. He expressed delight at having landed among us.

"Last winter my friends urged me to take a break from my career in Toronto and visit Fort Myers Beach,” Dan says. He stayed for a few weeks at Red Coconut, which he calls "an amazing community”. At a Monday afternoon Happy Hour in the RV Resort, Dan gained instant popularity when he quietly started drawing caricatures of each guest.

"He said ‘How are you? What’s your name’?” recalls Sharon Partyka, Social Events Coordinator at Red Coconut. "He’d ask a couple of questions, then sketch and sketch. Another question, more sketching, and within minutes, he was done. The caricatures captured each personality beautifully. How does he do that? We were just amazed at Dan’s talent.”

No good deed goes unpunished, so Dan was quickly recruited to design and help decorate the Red Coconut float for the annual Shrimp Festival Parade in March 2013. After just a few weeks of absorbing the Fort Myers Beach ambience and scenery, Dan sketched a plan to capture the theme: "Celebrate US at the Sea”. He worked into his colorful paintings the sailboats gliding on the Gulf of Mexico, dolphins that frolic alongside his kayak, palm trees, parasails, sunshine, and blue skies.

As is not unusual for Dan, he turned the weeks-long project of decorating the massive float into a teaching opportunity. Red Coconut residents were invited to grab a brush and join him in painting the many scenery boards, as Dan patiently provided instruction on technique.

The Red Coconut float was a hit in the Shrimp Festival Parade, winning First Prize in the Business / Professional category. Individual sections of the float scenery were raffled off in the RV Resort, with all funds going to support Red Coconut Club activities – such as community dinners at which local firefighters are invited to dine as guests. Now, the bright, cheerful decorations adorn the sides of scores of RVs throughout the Resort.

The Power of Love, Image, and Story

Dan Walsh grew up in North Bay, Ontario – a small city 200 miles northeast of Toronto. From early childhood, he loved to create images. "I learned to draw caricatures when my parents had parties in our home,” Dan recalls. "I got used to drawing while people were hanging over my shoulder, watching. It’s not something every artist wants to do, but then, I’m a bit of a ham!”

Inspired by a gifted high-school art teacher, Dan went on to formal art training at the Ontario College of Fine Arts in Toronto. He sustained himself by drawing caricatures at parties, corporate events, and weddings, and also worked as an illustrator. Soon, he was hired as a Resident Artist when the massive Eaton Centre shopping mall opened in Toronto. There, Dan met another resident artist, Skye, who became his wife.

"We were married for 25 years, and in all that time we were only apart for two weeks,” Dan says of his late wife, muse, and creative partner. "When I met Skye, I knew it was destiny. She was such an amazing, magnetic person, with many dimensions: a portraitist, writer, lyricist, and environmentalist. We inspired each other. I still feel her spirit with me all the time.”

Together, the couple created two musicals, which have been Dan’s core projects in the four years since Skye passed away. "These are our legacy,” Dan notes. "We loved to collaborate. My goal is to produce both musicals, either onstage or in animation, so they can take their place among the stories that deepen people’s understanding of the human condition.

"We live in a story-telling culture,” according to Dan. "Stories carry truths that are sometimes life-changing. This is what motivated Skye and me. People might see a movie or a musical that changes their perspective. They decide to do something, change something. That is the magic of great stories and theater.”

Art can transform a simple story into an archetype, says Dan. "People can never get enough stories. But they must be told well. A life-changing story has an arc, and a moral. Music transports the words into the heart. Sound and images add depth and power.”

The musical The Great Gugelhupf Robbery by Skye and Dan Walsh is a whimsical fairy tale based in Tyrolean culture, adapted from a true story. (Gugelhupf is a southern German, Austrian, and Swiss pastry similar to a Bundt cake.) Three brothers plan to steal a precious gugelhupf that has been baked full of gold and jewels. Plot twists, amusing missteps, and of course romance complicate the quest.

Dan Walsh created a complete suite of illustrations for the musical, based on research into clothing, food, and architectural styles of 19th-Century Tyrol. His colorful ink and pastel drawings brought the script and lyrics to life.

"We mounted this as a theater project in Toronto last year, with both professional and amateur actors and singers,” says Dan. "Part of the proceeds from the staging went to support social-action programs in the Toronto area. It was very gratifying, and I’d like to involve a local theater, like the Fort Myers Repertory Theater, in staging it again.

"After the Toronto production,” he continues, "I decided it would be even more dynamic as an animated musical, perhaps for Disney Studios. And I already have all the illustrations! It’s a question of putting the right resources and people together. That takes time, hard work, and connections.”

Dan also aims to produce the musical Humbug, which he and Skye created. It’s a modern twist on the holiday classic, A Christmas Carol, and has one of the most moving songs Dan thinks most audiences have ever heard: Christmas in Your Heart. "The lyrics are not what Broadway producers classify as ‘moon, tune, June’,” says Dan. "Skye captured some beautiful truths in her writing.”

Then there’s the book project. "Skye wrote a children’s book that I illustrated,” says Dan. "Ralph, The Thing Downstairs, took its inspiration from an iguana that Skye once owned.” The book – illustrated with delightful creepiness by Dan – builds suspense by portraying the mysterious basement-dweller as perhaps a monstrous beast that turns out to be a beloved pet.

"Another big goal is to get this book published.” Dan gazes out at the sunshine and tropical greenery. "Everything I do these days involves my creativity, and Skye’s and my artistic legacy.”

Work, Service, and Serendipity

Lately, Dan’s livelihood flows from illustration and caricatures. Clients range from McDonald’s to Shania Twain, the Toronto Board of Trade, University of Toronto, Fairmont Hotels, and Hallmark Cards, as well as private events. In 2013 Dan drew the lively, quirky illustrations for the children’s book How Connie the Elephant Got Her Scarf, penned by Ft. Myers area educator, Charlie Jean Harris Zlobik.

What has been his most prestigious gig? For the past 11 years, Dan Walsh has created caricatures for retiring Federal Supreme Court Justices in Canada. These images convey not only the personality and likeness of each judge, but also symbols of their major cases and interests. Each caricature involves hours of research.

"I’m told this is one of the favorite items that Justices receive upon retirement,” Dan proudly states. "They display the framed caricatures in their homes and offices.” With a grin, Dan shows of a photo of himself in a tuxedo at the tenth annual Black-Tie Dinner for the Justices, which he was specially invited to attend in summer 2013.

Community service and social activism are integral to Dan’s life. When he found himself devastated by the loss of his wife and barely able to function, actor Nick Mancuso persuaded Dan to lift himself up by serving the needy of Toronto.

Soon, he was volunteering at the Seeds of Hope Foundation, an adult learning center in Toronto, where Dan leads animation workshops. He drew caricatures for the Set Sail for Hope Fundraiser, which raises money to send kids with cancer to summer camp.

"I have a certain gift,” Dan reflects, "which is also my livelihood. I want to use it to bring hope and delight to those who are marginalized. I get totally immersed in restoring creativity in people.”

While Dan was walking down a Toronto street one day, three men asked him for directions. Seeing that they struggled to speak English, Dan offered to show them around the city. He took them to an evening art gallery function, and discovered that the men included two top Peruvian designers and an artist. They had been sent to Toronto by the Government of Peru to showcase their country’s art and design.

Dan helped mount the show, and then was hired to travel to New York City for the Peruvians’ next exhibition. From a neighborly, generous gesture, Dan secured ongoing contacts, work, and friendships. He has a trove of such serendipitous stories.

"Someone said to me: ‘You make this stuff up!’ But a friend answered for me that I don’t need to make anything up. Life has handed me immense challenges. But life has also showed me the beauty and surprise that’s around every corner, if I remain open to it.”

Dan observes: "My home and my work are in Toronto, but I come here to relax and recharge. I am so drawn to the ‘can-do’ spirit of Americans, and to the warmth of this climate and this community. Fort Myers Beach is a place of beauty and nature that is very spiritual.”

While Dan has gone home to Toronto this week, he plans to come back for a visit in March. His friends and fans eagerly await his return. Perhaps, like many others before him, Dan Walsh will get hooked on our little island.

He may owe his unique path in life to serendipity. Or Dan Walsh may just have landed the Karma contract.

Janet Sailian