I arrive at an unassuming estate located on a trio of lots in the southeast corner of a city block in Old Naples. Catbirds, ensconced in the prolific surrounding greenery, announce my arrival with meow-like squawks. I follow a driveway lined with skillfully placed white Florida river rock that leads to the small wooden door of a charming house and feel as if I am wending my way into a mythical setting. My eye is immediately drawn to a Carrara marble sculpture basking in the morning sun.
Selma Nettles, the owner and sole inhabitant of the residence, graciously welcomes me inside. I step into a cool, dark foyer with low ceilings that opens to a sitting room to the left and a dining room to the right; every available space on the wall or the floor showcases an object of fine art in somber hues of browns and blues. A dramatic, purple-veined mantel, carved from old building columns, occupies center stage. A 500-pound wooden sculpture, by American figurative artist Leonard Baskin, sits opposite the marble mantel in the sitting room.
“I’m not a minimalist,” says Nettles, with a chuckle. She explains that she purchased the home in 2004 as a second residence—she also owned a home in New Hampshire at the time. Built in 1958 and considered vintage for Southwest Florida, Nettles admits she bought a “quirky old house.”
Realizing an Outdoor Masterpiece
Quirkiness aside, Nettles had a plan for her purchase. “Art is my passion, along with gardens,” she says. Creating the garden on this property took precedence. Between 2000 and 2010, Nettles visited Italy a dozen times. “I love Hadrian’s Garden Villa in Rome,” she says of a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing the ruins and archaeological remains of an immense villa complex. Nettles made copious notes during her visit, hoping to create a smaller yet similar looking space of her own one day. “I wanted traces of history everywhere—both personal and cultural,” she says.
Nettles also admits to loving the “colors and sculpted, yet wild look, of English gardens.” She credits Hungarian sculptor Márton Váró and local landscape designer Lawrence Perillo, a principal at Blue Landscape Contracting Group in Naples, with helping create the hybrid Italian/English garden she walks me through today.
Nettles had met Váró by accident in 2004 at a local gallery opening. As she recalls, they were both admiring a painting she eventually bought. While conversing, Nettles shared her admiration of Michelangelo’s figures trapped in stone found at the Gallery of the Academy of Florence, a prominent art museum in Florence, Italy. “I have my own version,” Váró declared. And just like that, a friendship began. However, she adds, “My garden was already planned when I met him.”
Gardens are a work in progress and constantly undergo reinvention. Natural disasters, especially, necessitate change. Following Hurricane Irma in 2017, Perillo was tasked with the redesign of nearly 90 percent of the garden that was originally completed in 2008. Perillo, a Naples resident since 1995, is a certified arborist with a bachelor’s degree in plant science. “He kept the colors and designs of an English garden and created a sense of hidden rooms,” explains Nettles. “He really listened to what I wanted.” Today, Nettles describes it as a “symmetrical garden, a little ruffled around the edges, but a peaceful place, grounded by the sculptures.”
Over time, Nettles purchased more of Váró’s sculptures: five live outside in the garden and six smaller ones reside inside. Her favorite, however, is the first one she bought the night she met Váró, called simply Female Torso. Known for his life-size figurative sculptures that often depict draped female figures emerging from a block of carved marble, Váró uses an approach that’s true to classic form; he carves directly into the stone, as the masters did.
Today, Nettles’ garden plays host to a diverse collection of sculptures. There is a bronze sculpture of two dancers by Vietnamese artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen. A smaller bronze and stainless steel ribbon sculpture, created by Paige Bradley, an American sculptor, is a copy of the original she gave to her husband, Victor, as an engagement gift. Nettles also has a cement face hidden in her garden’s banana grove. “It’s not significant art,” she claims, but “just for fun.”
Reviving a Vintage Home
Once the garden came to fruition, Nettles realized her “little old house could not stand up to the grandiose garden.” Undaunted, she embarked on yet another project; she tore down walls and replaced windows, rebuilding the house from the ground up. Her goal was to maintain the basic footprint and feel of the home, while widening doorways and resizing and revamping rooms, like the kitchen. Most importantly, she wanted “the house to sit comfortably in its natural setting.”
Nettles considers herself a very organized person and thought she could easily take on the role of general contractor for the remodeling project. New to town, she admits that she “did not know anyone, nor how things worked,” nor, she quickly found, “were contractors interested in rebuilding a small house.” Eventually she passed the remodeling baton to a contractor and along with ample aggravation, the house was completed in 2008.
Along the way, many of her friends questioned why she was even building a garden and why she wouldn’t just raze the little old house. Nettles herself acknowledges what she was doing was ridiculous. “If I had been practical, I would not have this house. I was underwater on it; I did not know Naples and thought I could do it all.” Ultimately though, she says, “I met great people, and I now have an excellent team to take care of the house and garden.”
Nettles concedes she became what she calls a cliché; although she was only going to live in Naples part-time, she started visiting more frequently and became “mesmerized by the town.” In 2017, she sold her New Hampshire home and became a full-time Neapolitan.
Like a docent at an art gallery, Nettles guides me on a tour of the first floor of her home. As we travel from the foyer down the hallway to the kitchen and a large living area, art that was dark and more serious gives way to more energetic, fun pieces. Smaller-size sculptures are featured, like an orb of ceramic bluebirds resting on a side table by local artist John Carroll Long. A smaller Váró sculpture of a female face, sitting on an antique table, is said to be the likeness of the artist’s daughter. As we become more comfortable conversing and enter the more personal spaces in her home, the colorful personalities of both the owner and her artwork unfold.
Finding the Magic
“My art is basically an autobiography of my life—for better or worse,” she explains. Nettles has been collecting art for 30 years and states she has always had an interest in art—reading and making lots of notes about it. Interestingly, her formal postsecondary education has nothing to do with art. She earned an undergraduate degree in psychology from Salem College and a graduate degree from Harvard in learning psychology. She also is quick to tell me she doesn’t have any artistic talent. “I do,” she emphatically claims, “know what things like to be near to each other.”
“Art is a bit of an obsession for me,” says Nettles. Of the pieces she owns, she says, “I think they are all beautiful, although not necessarily classics.” There is a common thread in the art she chooses: “My mind can enter every painting, and I can walk around in it.” Nettles might not easily remember many of the specific titles of the works, but she does remember where and when each was purchased. For her, art captures moments in time. One of her more outlandish buys—a charcoal sketch on a paper bag of a couple dancing the tango—was purchased at 1 a.m. from a sidewalk vendor in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
She likes to dig deep with an artist and relates she has at least five works from a handful of artists. Her gallery features paintings by Richard Segalman, who brought beaches to life. Another favorite is Gabriela Gonzalez Dellosso, a realistic painter who pops an element of the surreal into each of her works. Nettles often becomes good friends with the artists whose works she purchases, spending time conversing with them and listening to them dialogue about their creations. After reading a short tidbit about growing interest in Cuban art in the Wall Street Journal in 2007, an intrigued Nettles started researching. She now owns two pre-Castro Cuban paintings from the Vanguardia period. Her trusted source for these is Ramón Cernuda at Cernuda Arte in Coral Gables.
“I do not buy art for an investment,” she says. “I go with what I like.” Over time, she explains, “your eye becomes more educated, and as you become more informed, you become choosier.” Constrained by space, Nettles still finds paintings or sculptures that catch her eye. Although she has often stated she is done with buying art, if she sees something she must have and the budget allows, she will find a place for it. Even her garage is filled with paintings; however, relegation to the garage has nothing to do with how much she likes those paintings—it’s just more space for her to indulge her passion.
A perpetual world traveler, Nettles has upcoming plans to visit Scotland, Wales, and England. She also wants to revisit places, with fresh eyes—mostly to see the art again. Nettles always enjoys spending time with her four grandchildren. Close in age, they have only ever known G-mom (their moniker for a grandma who likes to engage with her grandkids) as one who lives amongst objects of fine art. “It was normal for them,” says Nettles, remembering they enjoyed climbing and scrambling over her garden sculptures when younger. Has she passed on her passion to her grandkids? She’s not sure, but she mentions that they all stay in regular contact. Nettles also prioritizes giving back to the community, seeking those causes that focus directly on saving people’s lives. Over the past two years, Nettles has donated 12 of her paintings to The Shelter for Abused Women & Children in Naples.
Reflecting on how she successfully grew her special paradise, Nettles identifies three factors: “do what you love, don’t listen to naysayers,” and “find a little bit of magic.” For her, the magic was in the form of Váró and Perillo—serendipitous encounters with people she might never have met had it not been for her desire to cultivate her passions.