Carving a Niche: Three Local Sculptors Share Their Passion for Art
Photography by Vanessa Rogers
Meet three accomplished Neapolitan artists who started out in different occupations and now share one thing in common: their love for sculpting. Step into their studios and learn how their passion has shaped their careers and changed their lives over the years.
“Stone is my muse and I’m fascinated by it. I love being able to take something that is initially ugly and bring out the beauty within.”
California native Dixie Whatley grew up with a fascination for stone and art. After an expansive journalism career, which included a stint as co-host of Entertainment Tonight in the early ‘80s, her passion for art resurfaced. When she began sculpting for the first time, she was hooked. Whatley’s artistic vision for creating unique stone sculptures is influenced by her extensive worldwide travels and in-depth study of ancient cultures.
Whatley credits the tranquility and fluidity of her work to looking out at the Gulf while she’s carving. She has been a full-time resident of Naples since 2004. The artist is currently creating a wide variety of jewelry pieces she calls “wearable sculptures,” and recently began incorporating semiprecious stones, such as amethysts and opals, into her smaller sculptures.
Claim to Fame: Eric Clapton bought four of my sculptures.
Where She Finds Inspiration: My husband and I go on at least one or two major trips per year, which inspires me. Some of my favorite trips have been to Cambodia and Myanmar in Southeast Asia, and Machu Picchu and Nazca in Peru.
Mood Music: If I’m jumping into a new big piece, I’ll listen to Aerosmith or heavy metal. If I’m doing delicate polishing, I prefer classical music.
Personal Favorite: One sculpture I’ve kept is a woman’s figure called Earth, Water, Wind that is rough at the bottom, flowing in the middle, and wispy at the top. I like how it showcases the rock as solid, liquid, and air.
Art Collection: I collect things from the civilizations of antiquity, like hand sculptures from an Egyptian sarcophagus and a Roman statue, and small, carved heads and masks gathered from my travels.
“Not knowing anything about art when I was starting out helped me because I didn’t have blinders on. I just went forward with my heart.”
Born and raised in the Florida Keys, Ed Koehler grew up surrounded by marine life. He discovered his passion for creating during a stint as a captain on a yacht in the South Pacific. After accidentally destroying the baking paddle the kitchen crew used for breadmaking, he went down to the engine room to make a new one and realized how much he enjoyed working with his hands. After moving to Naples 25 years ago, he created his first fish sculpture, and it sold quickly at a local gallery. Inspired by his initial success, Koehler continued creating exotic marine sculptures and sold them across the country, from New York to California to Hawaii. Within six months, he quit his job, became a full-time sculptor, and never looked back.
Today Koehler specializes in modern, contemporary works. He is known by designers for his intricate mangrove lamps, tables, and coral chandeliers, and by artists for his marine sculptures and sea-turtle shells. The sculptor credits living in Southwest Florida with having a tremendous effect on his work, which often focuses on marine life and native foliage.
Defining Moment: When I could charge an extra zero or two for my work. It took 10 to 15 years to get to that point, and once I knew I could do that, I felt like I had arrived.
Favorite Material to Work With: Epoxy clay. It’s easy to mix up, install, and shape. Plus it’s super sticky, dries rock-hard, and you can paint it immediately afterward. It’s wonderful.
Best Part of the Process: Painting. It’s like icing on the cake after all the hard physical work is done.
Personal Favorite: A lionfish sculpture. It looks so real and wonderful when it’s done. As a scuba diver, I love seeing them in the wild; they’re so regal.
Words of Wisdom: Enthusiasm is the greatest asset. It can beat power, money, and knowledge.
“It has always been an urge for me to create. It gives me peace and tranquility.”
Although he’s an award-winning sculptor today, Joel Shapses didn’t think about art until he took a sculpture course for nonmajors during his junior year of college and discovered a hidden talent. After graduating, he pursued a dual career in dentistry and sculpting in Fort Lauderdale, where he had his own studio for 35 years. He works in glass, stone, and metal, using varying combinations of the materials in sculptures. After moving to Naples in 2006, he retired from his dentistry practice to focus solely on sculpting.
Over the years, Shapses has created more than 700 sculptures for customers across the globe and launched his first show in New York earlier this year. Five of his works were included in the show, which featured 10 artists from every corner of the world with Shapses as the only sculptor. When Shapses visited New York a few years ago, he was inspired by the new World Trade Center and created a sculpture called Ode to 911, and he is currently in the final stages of another piece representing the mood of New York called Shades of the City.
Favorite Sculpture: As soon as I finish a piece, that one becomes my favorite.
Treasured Material: Stone. It can be difficult to work with—sometimes it doesn’t go where you want it to go—but you also have more freedom.
Admired Sculptors: I like free-form, so the late Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and Jean Arp have always had an influence on my sculptures.