Despite the summer heat,  Florida Watercolor Society President Jerome Chesley isn’t sweating. Despite the fact that there doubtless remain a million details to be resolved before hundreds of watercolorists from across the state (and beyond) descend on the Sarasota-Bradenton area for their annual convention and exhibition this month, and despite the fact that he, as FWS president, will likely be called on to resolve them or feel the wrath of hordes of angry artists, he remains blissfully perspiration-free. Because, for right now at least, the weather is holding. 

Artwork by Parent,


Last year, Hurricane Irma made landfall the very day the FWS 2017 Convention and Trade Show was supposed to begin in Coral Springs—washing out the watercolorists in a flood of seawater and irony. This year, Chesley looks to lead the event to its triumphant return in his adopted hometown, all the while looping in local institutions so, as artists across the state strut their stuff, Sarasota gives them a show right back. “There is so much in Sarasota,” he says, “and I want the entire state to see it.” But first, the art.

Artwork by Morgan,


Comprising nearly 1,200 Florida watercolorists, the FWS enjoys status as the largest such state organization in the country, and the annual FWS Juried Exhibition gives membership (and the state) its time to shine. With LA-based and internationally collected watercolor artist Thomas Schaller serving as juror this year, the competition saw close to 600 submissions. And having to judge the lot, says Schaller, was nothing less than “brutal.” In the end, he chose 100 to populate the walls of ArtCenter Manatee for the 47th Annual FWS Juried Exhibition, which runs from September 7 through October 26. 

Artwork by Roberts,


“These are works that could stand shoulder to shoulder with any painting anywhere, in terms of artistic expression, regardless of media,” he says, with the members of FWS exhibiting a wide range of style, technique and even size. “It is a show everyone in the Society should be proud of, because it represents some of the best of the best, and, to a degree, where watercolor is, where it has been and where it might be going.” Only once he arrives in town and can study every painting up close and in person, will Schaller deliver his final determination and bestow the honors upon the winners. “You really get a sense of the hand, the eye, the heart of the artist,” he says.

But the exhibition marks only the beginning, and following the 100 works of art, Chesley expects at least 600 artists to arrive before too long, prowling for the Hyatt Regency Sarasota and hungry for their first convention in two years—and likely preceded by a whole bevy of supply-toting tradesmen jockeying for prime position at a sold-out international trade show. In addition, in the week leading up to the convention, FWS will host a series of workshops, including a four-day session with Schaller himself. Other workshops include a four-day run with nationally acclaimed watercolorist Dale Laitinin, who will demonstrate his latest techniques in capturing the American landscape, and a one-day workshop on abstraction from past FWS president Sue Allen.

Once the convention proper begins, all bets are off and the watercolorists run wild. Rumor has it the Hyatt has taken a doomsday-prepper approach to the whole affair, lining the halls with plastic sheeting and advising guests with weak hearts to stay in their rooms for the duration, lest they be carried away by a passing mob of plein air enthusiasts, never to be found again. In any event, the artists will find plenty to do, with four days crammed full of lectures and demonstrations designed for any audience, whether fresh-faced amateurs or tried-and-true professionals. Learn technique, craft and when to use what brush, what paint and on what paper—all with a trade show conveniently next door with all the fixin’s.

And through it all, Chesley has orchestrated a greater community involvement, allowing the celebration to extend beyond the walls of the Hyatt Regency and ArtCenter Manatee. In solidarity, the Ringling Museum will host a special exhibition from its watercolor collection, and dancers from the Sarasota Ballet will play an instrumental role in a new workshop from artist Janet Rogers, who will demonstrate gestural drawing and how to paint live models. And on Palm Avenue, Art Ovation Hotel will hang a special exhibition of work from past FWS presidents and Chesley himself. To top festivities off in a circus town, the annual gala and awards ceremony will feature performance from the kids of Sailor Circus Academy.

Bringing all of this together for the state’s watercolorists, both amateur and professional, Chesley says, is “invaluable” to their art. But he and Schaller both agree: the convention is also good for the watercolorist’s soul. For the practitioners of such a solitary art, the annual convention flips the world a bit upside-down, but in a way that makes sense, that makes watercolor the norm and not the exception. In every direction, kindred spirits, recognizable by stained smocks and dyed thumbs, paint-flecked shoes and eyes that light up at discussions of the latest pouring technique, reminding each other that, should they leave the studio and venture to bare their art and soul to the world, a whole community will be there to see it and appreciate it. “It’s such a good experience,” says Chesley, “and that is why people love coming again and again.” He began attending in 2005, and missed few since.

Even Schaller, who began his artistic journey enticed by the notion of indulging his introversion, with romantic visions of the lonely genius floating through his young head, admits to changing his stance as he grew as an artist. “I’ve come to believe that art is more of a communal experience and ought to be celebrated in that way as much as we can,” he says. “These things are crucial, not only for our own development, but to remind us of the importance of art.”

The FWS 2018 Convention and Trade Show runs from September 27-30 at The Hyatt Regency, Sarasota.