The loss of a legendary artist and friend: Rest well, Patti Middleton

May 9, 2021
By Marcy Shortuse

BY MARCY SHORTUSE – It’s amazing how such a diminutive body can wield such a mighty soul, but everyone who met Patti Middleton recognized her tremendous spirit. The tiny body that could get easily lost in a crowd had the roar of a lion when she needed to, and the fiery passion of a tempest when it came to those humans or causes that she loved.

Patti passed away this week, having been sick for quite some time. She died in the beginning of tarpon season, when summer had just begun, and the boats were filling Boca Grande Pass. It was one of her favorite times of the year.

She was born Patricia Lanning and was raised in Brighton, Michigan on a 20-acre farm. Her parents ran a gas station, and Patti worked there as a child. She attended Brighton High School, where her artistic talent and love for history was quickly unveiled. She was one of just a few girls in her mechanical drawing class, where she was at the top of the list grade-wise. She also worked for a local veterinarian, as she was a great lover of animals, and he attempted to persuade her to go to medical school. She would have none of it, though, because in her heart she knew she would be an artist for the rest of her life.

Patti had said she believed her love of older buildings began near Ann Arbor, Michigan as a child, and her first subject to draw was her grandfather’s old icehouse. To say she became very good quite quickly is an understatement, and in 1967 she was commissioned to create the official seal for Brighton’s centennial. From that point on she began to establish a name for herself as an artist.

After graduating from high school Patti studied illustration at the Kendall School of Design in Grand Rapids, then in 1970 she left Michigan and moved to Sarasota. After searching the area for just the right place, she ended up in a cottage on Casey Key that she rented for $65 a month and worked as a server at the Venice Yacht Club. It wasn’t long, though, before the Sarasota Ad Agency asked her to come work for them. She also worked for Sarasota Trend Magazine at that time and created her own calendars for extra money. 

Around that time, she also started drawing and sketching historic homes all throughout Southwest Florida. Everywhere from Nokomis, to El Jobean, and beyond, after a few years she was very familiar with just about every little Florida town between St. Petersburg and Fort Myers. The clean lines and utilitarian features of the old buildings spoke to her, as she would travel far and wide to find unique “Old Florida” architecture to sketch.

She also started drawing Florida wildlife during that time period, and never stopped. Her work quickly became very popular, and was used on posters, T-shirts and in written work all over Florida.

In 1977 she married Stuart Middleton and they settled down into a newlywed nest on a boat at Platt’s Marina (now known as Royal Palm Marina in old Englewood). In 1978 they moved into a little trailer in El Jobean – their first owned property – when Patti became pregnant with her first child. They raised two boys, Stuie and Leith, in this area of Florida.

It was in 1976 that Patti first visited Boca Grande, when she was working with Marguerite East on a book titled, “Island of the Mind,” which described historical events on Gasparilla Island. After Patti and Stuart divorced, she and the boys became full-time residents there in 1983. She started working for the Boca Beacon as a layout artist and graphic designer and loved her work. At that time she was also a contributing artist to the Audubon Society’s Florida Naturalist, to the Sun Coast Gondolier and its subsidiary newspapers, and was a member of the Englewood Guild of Artists and Craftsmen. 

In 1985 Patti opened a studio in “Hotel Hell” on Railroad Avenue called “Patti’s Drawing Room.” Prior to that she had shown work at Barbara Seitz’s studio in the building that was then known as “the Village Center,” then managed a gallery for Miller’s Marina called The Osprey II Gallery. 

She eventually moved to Grove City, but her work on the island and her love for it never waned. There are so many homes in this area that have a “Patti Middleton,” and they are prized pieces in many art collections.

“Patti was a legend,” said John Mitchell, an island artist of resounding acclaim since decades back. He remembers her as a founding member of the Boca Grande Art Alliance, and loved the dynamic personality that she was.

“I grew up 25 miles from their home in Michigan,” he said. “We always had that link and loved to talk about it. The pallet of her watercolor was wonderful. Patti’s subject matter could be whimsical or very detailed. Most often they told a story about Boca Grande and Gasparilla Island. I was delighted to be in her company when we both were exhibiting members of the Boca Grande Art Center.”

Betsy Fugate Joiner remembers her smile, and her love for her boys. “Patti was a true island girl,” Betsy said.  “She loved life and sharing her giggles whenever she was close by. I remember her T-shirts, hand drawn, of boats in the Pass, of tarpon, of osprey diving, of cartoon characters. You name it, she would draw it! We spent one fun summer together when Paul Kruder commissioned her to paint a mural for PJ’s wall in the bar. We swapped fish tales, family stories and lots of life lessons. We talked while she painted, adding a school of mullet, birds diving, a fish shack, etc. to one of my most favorite paintings.” 

Marilyn (Hoeckel) Arbor, a co-worker and friend of Patti’s, said she was an amazing artist who captured her beloved island in all its myriad aspects.

“Painting was her life and her passion,” Marilyn said. “Her longtime “Key Boy” cartoon, which ran in the Boca Beacon for years back in the 90s, was filled with the wit, good humor and love of life which was Patti. She may be gone, but her legacy of beauty and appreciation of her adopted land of Southwest Florida will never be lost or forgotten.” 

Joy Wyman had an acutely affectionate relationship with Patti – they were certainly more like family than friends. This has been a hard week for her, to say the least. “What tremendous talent and knowledge dwelled in that beautiful tiny soul,” she said. “I loved Patti’s extraordinary grasp of local and Florida history. She could spin tales that totally took you back in time. She also had talent to cherish good traits in people of all walks of life. The details of life never slipped by her. Just remembering her Key Boy, Conch Man and Mullet Lisa cartoons still cracks me up, especially if you knew which local they were actually based on. Above all, that keen mind and precise eye captured nature in all its exquisite beauty, and I still see Whidden’s dock through her eyes. We lost a major heart of our tribe.”

Patti’s obituary is pending.

A beautiful soul sails off into the sunset …
BY DAVID FUTCH -Patti Middleton was a kind and gentle soul with an infectious, soothing laugh that always put people at ease. She was humble yet witty at the same time. Gasparilla Islanders who knew Patti held her in esteem, other artists heaping praise on one of Boca Grande’s most talented painters. Many homes have at least one “Patti” hanging on their walls.

 She focused her work on all things island – from the port lighthouse to the range light to Whidden’s Marina to just about every fish swimming in and around Charlotte Harbor.

 A talented watercolorist, Middleton depicted island sea life in a manner that would make noted artist Guy Harvey proud. Her tarpon pictures are the finest kind. At every Millers Marina Tarpon Tide Tournament for twenty years, the guide with the most releases was awarded one of Middleton’s watercolor tarpon. I took home most releases May 20, 1989 and it’s one of my treasured possessions, even sweeter because I beat out my brother, Mark, on the Sitarah to claim my prized Patti. 

 All Middleton needed was a glimmer of an idea and she could paint it.

 In August 2004, Hurricane Charley tore the roof off the Temptation Restaurant allowing water to run down the walls and nearly whitewashing its famous murals out of existence. Middleton spent months restoring the original Deo Weymouth 1950s-era drawings that showed all manner of island life – native islanders at work or while fishing, golfing, waiting at the train depot or shelling on the beach. Patti’s attention to detail made the mural right again. It remains one of the most popular attractions in Boca Grande. 

But Patti was more than a close friend. Without her, the Gasparilla Gazette never would have had a second life in 1989. Islander and retired Reuters journalist Frank Oliver started the Gazette in the early 1950s and gave us his blessing to carry on.

Like me, Patti was no nine-to-fiver. She spent many a long night – sometimes until 3 a.m. or later – helping me put the paper to bed. It wasn’t just her ability to create the pages. She had a good eye for magazine-style layout.

Patti created the Gazette’s comic strip “Key Boy and Conchman” based on bait fisherman Scott Johnson and fishing guide Billy Wheeler. We had a blast coming up with ideas.

To get our creative juices flowing, we’d walk across the street from our office to The Temptation where bartender George “Snake” Smolzer would serve us proper adult beverages.  

I never worked so hard in my life or had as much fun as I did at the Gazette with Patti as navigator. I hope my old friend felt the same way.

I will miss her. She will be missed. Another one sails off into the sunset.