Like so many artists before her, the Danish-born Kathleen Keenan came to Sarasota on a vacation in 2012 from her home in Falmouth, Massachusetts, with no intention of moving here — and then did just that.
“I was in Sarasota for 10 days and had such a lovely time that when I got back to Cape Cod, I couldn’t get this place out of my mind,” she said. “Pretty soon, I was back again, and I hastily bought a house on Siesta Key.
“Then later, when I discovered Towles Court, I knew I had found a place to work in an environment of other artists and people who would want to interact with me because of art.”
She bought a Towles Court parcel that consists of a 4,000-square-foot, two-story home that is a live/work space, built in 1998 by the painter Kathleen Carrillo, and also a circa 1930, 1,000-square-foot, two-story building that consists of two live/work spaces. It came with tenants (a jewelry maker and a therapist) and they are still there. The two residences share a lot and an enclosed back courtyard that is one of Keenan’s favorite places in town to entertain friends or just to sit under the oaks and relax.
The parcel is now on the market for $1 million through David Jennings and Ulrica Regnander of Coldwell Banker. Keenen has used her arts-community house for teaching, retail and as a gallery. And she says it’s been nothing short of ideal.
But now she’s ready to retreat from a public life and become a private artist again, letting solitude become the inspiration she needs for upcoming art projects.
Her Towles Court house has seen lots of activity in the Japanese art of Saori, which is a form of freestyle weaving that is often described as healing or therapeutic. The rules of traditional loom weaving don’t apply. Perfection is not a goal. The object is to be guided by personal creativity and complete artistic freedom. Saori can be used to make wearable art or art objects.
“I became intrigued with Saori because one uses a small loom, and, in Massachusetts, I have a tiny house,” said the artist. “Also, I love three-dimensional textiles, and a free style certainly appealed to me as being joyous and truly creative.”
For the Sarasota Towles Court house, she invested in eight looms, which are in a spacious, light-filled room that overlooks the back courtyard. If not a studio, this room could be the dining room in a home of non-artists.
Tourists and shoppers pass by during the day while inside Keenan works with eight students at a time to set up their looms, choose yarn and plumb their sources of inspiration to make one-of-a-kind woven artifacts or clothing. Keenan studied Saori seriously and became the 10th person in North America to get professionally certified in the teaching of this method that is called “weaving from spirit.”
While the weaving workshops took off and became more successful than she dreamed, Keenan also had a retail component to the business. She was teaching, merchandising, setting up gallery exhibitions, and, in the end, she was producing very little of her own art. Her public success nudged aside the time and quiet hours needed for her own creative process.
“And sadly, this is why I am leaving Towles Court and this unique neighborhood,” said Keenan. “I’m promoting a lot of art, but I’m making less and less myself. And I have so many ideas for projects that I want to dive into — not just fiber art, but also glass and metal, painting, drawing and nature photography.
“This is the first time that I’ve ever lived in such a public environment, and it was really healthy for me to be in this art-filled fun neighborhood with other artists and people who come here especially to experience art. The urban vibe is the best, and not just for artists. I bought my place from a couple with two young sons who wanted to live in Towles Court because it’s such a cool place. They weren’t artists, but they appreciated the character of the neighborhood.”
The main house, painted vivid coral with bold blue trim, has a metal roof and Hardiplank siding. A high fence screens it from Morrill Street’s traffic.
The Towles Court historic arts district came about during the 1980s, when developer N.J. Olivieri bought up several derelict cottages left over from a neighborhood that used to be pretty and well-kept by winter residents. The district is old. Sarasota’s first mayor, John Gillespie, had a house there in 1905 and the neighborhood continued to be prized well into the 1920s and ‘30s. But by the time Olivieri had a concept for revitalizing the area, the homes were derelict rentals. An idea for an artists’ colony evolved, and, in 1995, the first Towles Court artist put down money to buy a live/work place.
Since then, artists have come and gone, restaurants have emerged and Towles Court houses became attractive to yoga instructors, therapists, and young professionals who work nearby and love walkability and the personality of Towles Court. Today it’s a mix of retailers, artists, interior designers, hair salons and professionals, such as lawyers and accountants, who have live/work space in Towles Court.
Keenan intends to move back to her Siesta Key house. No more teaching for a while, and not much socializing. She’s intent on being alone with her art for months at a time. Consequently, the eight Saori looms in her Towles Court studio are for sale, although she will keep her personal loom because dyeing yarn, spinning and weaving, Saori-style, continue to provide her with artistic inspiration and serene pleasure.