The long, lonely two-lane road finally yielded its prize. White board fences flanked the lane. A small airport also served as golf cart central next to the guard shack at the entrance. Past that small complex, I found a festive atmosphere with a beehive of activity in a dude ranch setting. I found a saloon, rodeo, marina, hotel and campgrounds with swimming pools galore.
Hayrides behind tractors took wagons full of people through the luxury RV haven under great oak hammocks with manicured flowerbeds. Sparkling bass boats roared off in search of big fish. People gathered at the stables to go on a trail ride through the themed complex and out to the edge of the tropical wilderness. Golf carts meandered over the 18-hole golf course. Motor homes rolled in and rolled out, all the result of the hoopla that attracted the camping crowd to this luxury resort.
I adopted a new pattern of behavior. I drove my decorated 76 VW bus in search of yet another masterpiece to paint. I couldn’t believe it. Here I was, a lone brokenhearted yet determined artist, in the midst of high-energy opulence.
I landed in this wonderful scene the year before as the result of an invitation from a motorhome owner who sought a mural for his coach. I had no idea what I would find. Upon arrival, I found opportunities galore to ply my trade. I made plans to return.
Again, a frenzy of activity began once I landed at this luxury resort. Word got around that an artist had arrived. One by one, I met interesting and friendly people from all over the country and learned to fit in as the artist in residence, a concept I had not explored before.
I have a background as a sign lettering man. Now my days were filled with lettering names on motorhomes. I also painted small dog portraits on entry doors and prepared large surfaces on RV’s for airbrush artwork and finish paint. My specialty became airbrushed murals with depictions of patriotism and other custom themes to reveal the personality and elevate the status of the owners along with gold leaf emblems and monograms that serve to distinguish the motorhome. I caught on quick with this demographic and focused all my attention and energy on doing my best.
I was introduced to the RV culture while mending from a broken heart. Only a few months had lapsed since, what I refer to as, my first true love relationship had ended. I was devastated and remain to this day mystified as to why it was over. What I needed at this time in my life was a distraction. To stay busy at River Ranch met that need nicely.
I recall a thought I had that first day. After I parked my rig on a camp-site, I paused to look around at the beauty around me. I perused the comfortable features of this wonderful place and the coup that had occurred. A thought came to mind: “Gail would love this place.’ The thought just prompted more sadness for the loss that seemed to be my constant companion.
Slowly the luxurious surroundings and the abundance eased my pain. My portable housing was the tiny but comfortable living quarters in the front of my gooseneck horse trailer. A one-ton truck pulled the trailer here with the VW bus hooked on behind. Success was simple. Basically, all I had to do to find work was to get up in the morning and step out the door. Once outside, someone saw me and asked me to paint something.
As the weeks went by, completed images of wolves in the snow, tigers in the jungle and eagles flying in a colorful sky dotted the campground and provided proof that an artist was here.
Being visible was valuable. I frequented all the places where people congregated. A small congregation had started in a makeshift chapel area. I fit right in. This dude ranch was truly a people person place and I was becoming a people person.
Volkswagen vans, through the years, had provided not only housing and transportation but also an area in which to organize my paints and supplies. The Volkswagen’s interior housed a drawing table on which I made patterns. Underneath this surface was ample storage for paints and brushes and a small air compressor. Add a couple of stepladders and a work plank and I had everything needed to put an airbrushed mural on the back of a motorhome. It all packed inside this van. With one exception.
High quality clear-coat was the final step of the process for an airbrushed mural on the back of a motorhome. The spray equipment necessary to clearcoat large areas required more volume of air than the small compressor in the van could handle. The final protective finish involved using the larger air compressor mounted on my truck.
Typically, the procedure for creating a mural on a motorhome went like this; I arrived on the campsite in the van with two ladders and a plank. I set up the ladders and placed the plank between them to stand on. Then I began the prep work. The prep work consisted of cleaning, sanding and application of masking paper. Next came the artwork. I laid-out the artwork with a stabilo pencil and when satisfied, I used the airbrush to lay in the lines using pink lacquer. When all the lines of my design were intact, I erased the stabilo marks with a damp towel. Then I started the paint process. I painted in the background first. Features in the foreground were last. These processes were also a form of entertainment. Many times, I looked around from these tasks and found a semi-circle of people sitting in folding chairs watching me.
When the airbrushed depiction was complete and met the approval of my clients, the time came to spray on the protective clear coat. I moved the van out of the way, retrieved the truck, plugged the compressor in, rolled out the air hose and mixed the clear. After my trusty spray gun was loaded, I climbed up on the plank with my face-mask on and started to spray. This usually drew a crowd.
The audience loved watching this step take place right before their eyes. Contrast occurred. The magical transformation from the dull into the shiny finish coat proved spectacular. Three coats of clear urethane made the back of the coach look shiny and wet. Many times, with the last bit of paint applied, I turned and saw the crowd that had gathered. I acknowledged them by raising my spray gun as if to toast them and received applause. Then I made the cowboy-like gesture of blowing the smoke from the end of the gun just fired to get a laugh.
It was after one of these sessions that I met Gene. Gene became one of my best friends. He was among the others overcome by curiosity and joined the crowd to watch another RV get a mural. I rolled up the hoses and put the spray equipment away and was about to drive the truck back to its parking spot but it wouldn’t start. Incidentally, at River Ranch, the second-best way to draw a crowd was to pop open the hood on a vehicle. With the hood up, the next thing I knew, I had a semicircle of onlookers who all suggested what could be the culprit of why it wouldn’t start.
I checked all the obvious things and some of their suggested culprits to no avail. The truck still wouldn’t start. The frustration of not knowing mixed with a feeling of helplessness that replaced the remnants of pride for a job well done.
My predicament was clear. I was not going to be able to get the vehicle out of this luxurious part of the campground and back into its parking spot.
Finally, a man turned to me and asked in a stern manner, “well, …what are you going to do?!”
I turned to him and replied in front of the entire group, “I’m going to go paint an eagle!” which got a laugh.
I turned and walked away. I found out later Gene was in the crowd. Later he confided to me how much that episode impressed him.
As we became friends, Gene became helpful with advice on conducting myself in this, foreign to me, environment. His days were filled with caring for his 1948 Navion airplane and the other vehicles he loved. He made it a point, along with lots of the other residents of River Ranch, to regularly see what the artist was up to today. The friendly curiosity and affirmations from my fellow residents made me feel like I fit right in.
Gene was the first of my growing circle of friends to have found River Ranch. He had tipped off his life-long buddy Art about this paradise in the tropics. They enjoyed the hayrides, the large groups of aircraft that met for a ‘Fly-In’ and the endless stream of motorhome traffic that came for the ballyhoo.
“Hurry, hurry, rodeo every Saturday night” was part of the message along with, “make sure to dance to the cowboy band blaring out country music all weekend long.”
Gene had a friend named Art. They were both from upstate New York. They had mixed with and made friends with people from all over who were impressed with the charm of this luxury destination. The source of all the hoopla was Outdoor Resorts, a corporation selling individual campsites to the visitors. They gave away free nights of camping and hosted rallies of all kinds to get people here.
Big motorhome rallies came here too. Mid-winter, the airport shut down to make room for the Family Motor Coach Association Rally. Three thousand motorhomes came to the Ranch for four days. That represented a huge boost of exposure for me.
The Blue Bird folks had a rally here too but not on that large of a scale. Many sites were reserved for their luxury coaches. Because of my presence established with this demographic, I became quite busy.
One couple from the Adirondacks wanted an airbrushed mural of a Labrador retriever with a duck in his mouth on the back of their coach. As I started and enjoyed the crowd of affluent admirers who gathered around to watch, I received requests to come look at other coaches. My client realized a coup. Before I was complete with his wild life depiction, he commissioned two more. That kept me from serving his friends. His ego got a big boost and he stayed the focus of the gathering.
One couple from Ohio wanted a special image of a baby snow seal laying on the ice with the northern lights overhead to compliment to pastel colors in their coach stripe graphics. Brenda handed me a magazine called Wildlife Art where she found the striking image. Inside I found page after page of images I could use as reference for other projects.
The weeks of production passed quickly that winter and many spectacular works of art on numbers of motorhomes were completed. I took photos and began to make portfolios.
The first of April meant a mass exodus of RVs from Florida going north. The season was over. I retrieved my livestock and headed back to Sarasota to resume my other passion.