With every revolution of the sun into the Gulf waters, the story of Sarasota grows longer. It is not a story that lives through dates and timelines, through laws enacted, buildings raised, or companies formed—it lives on through people. By the mark they made on those around them, by their presence in the community–in the wake of our actions lies the fabric of the story. Each year passes by and more people add to that story, until it grows into something much larger than anyone could have imagined. In that growth, people become memories and many of them become lost.

In his upcoming series at the Art Ovation Hotel, Sarasota Icons, Javi Suarez wants us to remember them. “The series encompasses some of the traditional Sarasota Icons, like Marie Selby and John and Mabel Ringling, but also some of the lesser known individuals that include members of the latin community and african american community such as John Rivers, Ed James, and Buck O’Neil,” says Suarez. Suarez, an award-winning architect who balances being a contemporary artist with his full-time role as Principal Vice President of Suarez Architecture, moved to Sarasota from Puerto Rico when he was ten years old. In telling the story of untold Sarasota icons, he is also painting a portrait of his experiences as a first generation immigrant.

Javi Suarez working in his studios.


“The series has evolved into a bit of telling the story of Sarasota and telling my story at the same time. I see my experiences of when we first moved here in the 80s and Sarasota’s history differently as an adult, a professional, and a father than I did as I child. The more that I allow myself to try to put myself in someone else’s shoes and interact with other communities, the more I realize there’s a bigger story to tell,” attests Suarez. Some of the portraits that tell the larger story of Sarasota are those of the late Dr. Eugenie Clark, the “Shark Lady,” a pioneer female marine biologist and one of the founders of Mote Marine Laboratory and Dr. Manuel Gordillo, an infectious disease specialist at Sarasota Memorial Hospital leading the fight against the COVID-19 Pandemic. Other untold icons include Sarasota native Buck O’Neil, the first African-American coach in Major League Baseball and John Rivers, a leader in the Civil Rights Movement in Sarasota. “My inspiration was to create a bridge between the different parts of our community–a lot of people paved the way for what we know as Sarasota,” says Suarez.

Painting of Buck O'Neil.


Suarez’s paintings, however, are not to be mistaken for traditional portraits. Just like the identities of their subjects these portraits are multi-layered and complex—a compilation of digital images rendered onto the canvas and fused together by Suarez’s brushstrokes. “I start by compiling images of these individuals that are representative of them and tell a story in and of themselves and fuse them together. It’s my own language that I’ve built over the years. I call it the in-between where you start overlapping the images where they literally interact with each other,” says Suarez. “Within that there’s a series of other layers which are more abstract and impressionistic that deal more in the moment of making and in the process of it. There’s a rational aspect of the paintings and then there’s a more emotive aspect of them as well,” he adds.
It’s a design language and artistic process that stems partially from Suarez’s love of the improvisational nature of jazz music—while studying for his Masters in Architecture at UCLA in 1997, Suarez focused his thesis work on the concept of jazz as a model for architecture. Consequently, his painting has explored much of the same territory. Suarez’s ability to let go–to access the improvisational, in-between state that makes his art his own–has grown over the course of his career. “All those ideas I had from jazz, the improvisation, and layering of different pieces together has bled into my work and gotten more and more sharpened over time as I’ve felt more comfortable in feeling free to let go,” says Suarez.

Painting of Dr. Eugenie Clark.