Steve Whitlock is a former Navy man and a die-hard sportsman from South Florida who grew up fishing and hunting in the Everglades.
He’s got a true Florida accent, construction worker’s hands, a boat under his carport and a few deer heads mounted in his living room.
A successful game-fish artist, whose work is sold at Bass Pro Shops, Whitlock also has a degree from Ringling College of Art and Design. His darkest claim-to-fame, a presidential pardon, is framed in his foyer.
“I’m the only kid in the art fair with a president’s pardon,” quips Whitlock, who will be among 250 artists exhibiting work at next weekend’s St. Armands Circle Art Festival.
Issued in 2007, the pardon granted Whitlock clemency for a crime he committed 23 years ago.
While working as a fishing guide in Naples, Whitlock, a newly married father, was arrested for smuggling marijuana across the Everglades.
It’s a part of his past he can’t ignore. Without it, his successful life as an artist doesn’t exist.
It’s a sort of Cinderella story, the kind of thing that lends itself to a Hollywood film or a memoir.
Served with a five-year sentence for conspiracy to import marijuana, the 52-year-old fishing guide was taken to a minimum-security federal prison, where he met a watercolor artist who was serving time for money laundering.
Armed with plenty of time and a cheap set of watercolor paints, Whitlock started taking lessons from the inmate. After a few classes, it became obvious that the fisherman with the drug-smuggling charge was a lousy criminal, but a natural artist.
A self-described “Florida redneck,” Whitlock never knew he had artistic talent.
In high school he was always doodling in his notebooks, but art classes weren’t mandatory, so he never developed the skill. He was more of a shop guy.
That is, until he made a big mistake and went to jail.
“My wife would take the prints home and frame them,” Whitlock says of the watercolor landscapes he painted from prison. “She was working at a roofing company at the time, and one of her clients –– an artist by the name of Dick Kramer — took an interest in my work.”
Two years into his sentence, Whitlock was released from prison.
At the urging of Kramer, a well-known tactical and military artist, Whitlock moved his family to Sarasota so he could study illustration at Ringling.
At 38, he graduated with a fine-arts degree. His senior thesis project was a saltwater, wildlife illustration, a theme that would set the tone for the rest of his career.
Business savvy and ambitious, Whitlock started peddling his work door-to-door. His most popular pieces were what he calls “chart art” — game fish and marine scenes painted on navigational charts.
Within days of graduating from Ringling, he drove from Sarasota to Naples, selling his work at frame and tackle shops along the coast.
In two days he made $7,000.
“I went as far as Boca Grande and ran out,” Whitlock says. “That’s when I knew I had hit a homerun.”
Since then, the North Sarasota resident has become a household name among local collectors of marine and wildlife art.
Working out of a studio in his house, Whitlock produces an ongoing stock of inventory that he sells at art festivals in coastal towns from North Carolina, to Texas.
His collection has grown to include note cards, tournament art, custom commissions, book illustrations, cutting boards and apparel.
From 2004 to 2008, he licensed a line of T-shirts to Bealls. And he’s currently negotiating a T-shirt deal with Bass Pro Shops, where he already has a distribution deal for some of his art.
Whitlock spends his summers painting and fishing for more material. In the winter and the spring he exhibits at dozens of art festivals in coastal towns across Texas, North Carolina, Alabama, and Florida.
It’s a pretty cushy lifestyle, and no one seems more dumbfounded by it than Whitlock.
“It’s pretty unbelievable,” he says. “I figured I’d be a charter boat captain for the rest of my life. I’m just a common working guy who stumbled upon this path. A lot of it was hard work, but a lot of it was dumb luck. I’m convinced the fish gods love me.”
IF YOU GO
The ninth annual St. Armands Circle Art Festival runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Jan. 28 and Jan. 29. Rated one of the top fine-art shows in the country, the festival will feature work by 250 artists. It’s free and open to the public. For more information, visit artfestival.com.