Words to Live By
April 25th, 2013 by J.M. Garlock

Folk artist fulfills dream creating colorful signs with funny, inspiring messages

wordstolivemain-01More than a decade ago, Rhonda Kitchen lived on a boat anchored in Sarasota Bay and dreamed of writing a novel.

She since has sold her work, but not at all the way she envisioned.

Instead of a bookstore, Rhonda’s creative outpourings are sold on the dock of the Star Fish Co. in Cortez, at Gulfport art walks, at Bridge Street Markets in Bradenton Beach, at shops throughout Florida and north as far as Rhode Island.

“I call myself a folk artist as I come to this untrained and, like many folk artists, via necessity,” says RhondaK, as she is known. “I was left on a boat by a man who said I wouldn’t be able to survive without him.”

She was working part time as a librarian at Mote Marine Laboratory.

“They don’t pay real well,” she says. “I started painting up some of my writings and selling them. I’d gone to live on the boat to write a novel. I ended up selling it a sentence at a time.”

RhondaK’s humorous one-liners and inspirational perspectives on life adorn colorful, eye-popping signs on wood she hand paints. She uses found wood as much as possible, and sometimes incorporates rope as décor.

“I create funny tiki bar signs, drinking-sayings art, inspirational work, ‘not your mama’s’ mermaids and more,” RhondaK says, noting she copyrights many of her sayings. “Most of my work comes out of genuine sitting-at-a-bar napkin doodles. I love Old Florida-style bars and places. They inspire me. I support them.

Rhonda Kitchen, opposite page, has found a niche creating colorful signs, above, with sometimes funny, sometimes inspirational messages.

Rhonda Kitchen has found a niche creating colorful signs, above, with sometimes funny, sometimes inspirational messages.

“I love mermaids, palm trees, pugs, bait shacks and tiki bars. I like painting. I can get into a pelican mood and switch over to starfish. Every paint day is different. No two things ever look alike.”

The ninth-generation Floridian not only works at her art full time, but has a full-time job as academic librarian at State College of Florida.

“I come from moonshine makers, mullet men, water diviners and strawberry farmers,” says RhondaK. “My dad picked and sold Spanish moss as a boy. It’s been a long tradition on both sides of my family to do more than one thing to make money—or have to do more than one thing.”

Her art hangs in bars in Mexico, at Flagler Beach and on Anna Maria Island, but much of her work is customized for people attracted to her style.

“I do a lot of mermaids specific to a person,” RhondaK says. “Once a person buys me they usually have me make special gifts for friends.

“I’ve not been discovered by museums and don’t do expensive art shows. I like being local, accessible and affordable.”

RhondaK says she never would have guessed she would be doing something like this.

“I was working with a tiki chainsaw carver,” she says, explaining how her art business came to be. “My drawings and paintings were just displays for his work in 2005. One day a woman wanted to buy a daisy I’d painted.”

That is when RhondaK realized there was a market for her work, too.

“The mermaids I used to draw for his price tags are now the ones I paint and sell,” she says. “I started out trying to help him with his dream, but accidentally ended up creating something for myself.”

In 2006, her companion left her. He killed himself in 2008.

“My inspiration comes from loss, which is funny because on the surface it’s happy, drinky, good-time art,” RhondaK says. “But loss is what gives us the clarity to see, live and love the beautiful, wondrous parts of life.

“Many of my pieces are about my time with the chainsaw carver on the boat we lived on, and some are about my father and his love of the beach and fishing.”

RhondaK draws satisfaction and gratification from her work and its legacy.

“My words and things I love get to live a life beyond me,” she says. “I’ve had people tell me they can feel me in my pieces and feel like they know me.” n

RhondaK’s signs can be found at Siesta Key Hardware; Frills in Matlacha and Naples; Caribongo stores in Venice, St. Augustine and Myrtle Beach; Back Alley and Drift In in Bradenton Beach; and Star Fish Co. in Cortez. For online orders, visit www.rhondakwrites.com.