The Art of The Henderson
Featuring everything from glass art to handcrafted furniture, the Henderson Artist Project has transformed the luxury new resort itself into a work of art with more than 465 creative pieces on display.
By Ashley Ryan
The emerald waters and sprawling white sand beaches along the Gulf of Mexico make Destin, Florida, one of the country’s most desirable beach destinations. But at The Henderson, the natural wonders aren’t the only aspects that catch the eye. The leaders of the luxury seaside resort, which opened in fall 2016, recognized the area’s vast amount of local artistic talent and tastefully incorporated it in The Henderson’s design.
Fondly named the Henderson Artist Project, the initiative showcases 465 pieces of artwork from 13 different artists throughout the property. From paintings and sculptures to glass installations, practical wooden pieces and jewelry sold in the on-site boutique, the variety was an important part of the project.
The process as a whole ensured a level of uniqueness that is rarely seen in resort art collections. The resort’s owners requested participation from some of the artists while still others were selected following an interview process. After narrowing the final 25 candidates down to 13, they were commissioned to produce multiple custom pieces that were installed in time for the hotel’s grand opening and continue to be an important part of The Henderson’s story.
“We have so much opportunity as a hotel to honor local artists,” says William B. Dunavant III, CEO and president of Dunavant Enterprises, which owns The Henderson. Dunavant adds that the artwork was intended to set the feel for the property, reflect the vibrant art community along the Gulf Coast and turn The Henderson itself into a work of art.
The Henderson Artist Project is just one avenue that the resort uses to give back to the local community, along with its Loved Locals program, which provides hotel discounts for Florida residents that live nearby. Dunavant says that the hotel plans to develop an array of community events as well, from jazz concerts to art fairs featuring local musicians and artists.
While many of the pieces included in the project stand out by providing a sense of place, like the six large works in the Living Room depicting sand dunes similar to those found along the Destin coastline, still others provide a historical component. One such piece, which was donated by Dunavant himself and place in the hotel’s boardroom, is a full-length portrait of his father, William B. Dunavant Jr., who took control of Dunavant Enterprises at the age of 29 and currently serves as the chairman of the board.
Here, discover just a few of the stunning pieces on display as part of the Henderson Artist Project, as well as the process and inspiration behind them.
The artwork was intended to set the feel for the property, reflect the vibrant art community along the Gulf Coast and turn The Henderson itself into a work of art.
Russ Gilbert’s Art Glass
One of the most prominent pieces at The Henderson is the “Oat Grass Glass” installation that sits behind the reception desk in the front lobby (pictured above). Crafted by local glass artist Russ Gilbert, the piece is reflective of the coastal environment, with sea oats maintaining a strong presence on local sand dunes (and in the hotel, with the theme carrying over to the numbers outside of the rooms).
The piece features a stunning display of three panels, each featuring its own illuminated glass sea oats set against a deep blue background. Gilbert, who has made glass art for more than 30 years, is fueled by the idea of creating—of making something that didn’t exist earlier that day. “It was quite a bit of work, but I sure did enjoy it,” Gilbert says.
This isn’t Gilbert’s only piece on display in the hotel. He also crafted a stream of aqua-colored glass fish called “Groupings of Fishes” for the wall in the Primrose restaurant as well as a glass centerpiece reminiscent of an underwater aquarium for the Salamander Spa hallway called “Illusion.”
“I think it [is] the most generous, forward-thinking thing that I’ve seen in this community in a long time,” Gilbert says of the Henderson Artist Project. “… I’ve never had an association with a group like that, and had absolutely nothing but good things to say about everybody involved.”
Justin Gaffrey’s Acrylic Paintings
While layering paint on wooden panels wasn’t the first career Justin Gaffrey tried his hand at, it came naturally, as the process of mixing colors is reminiscent of the way he blended flavors while working as a chef. He didn’t start painting until he was 30 years old, but looked for a unique way to challenge himself with his artwork—and he found it.
Using a palette knife and heavy-bodied acrylic paint, Gaffrey creates texturized works that rise up off of the wooden canvas and bring his paintings to life. Vincent van Gogh originally influenced his impasto style, but he continues to find inspiration in the quiet nature that surrounds Destin, whether in the lake behind his home or the nearby state forest.
Since Gaffrey was originally in the restaurant business, it seems fitting that his large-scale landscape paintings can be found in the private dining room at Primrose. With one piece plastered across one wall, and two smaller paintings continuing the same scene on the wall to the right, they are definitely the focal point of the room. “Mixing colors, to me, is exactly like blending flavors,” he says in a video made for the project, adding that local lakes and forests are also major sources of inspiration for him. “ … That inspires me to make art—not just the landscape of what it looks like, but just the peacefulness of it. … It inspires calmness in me that allows me to create.”
The process, from meeting with the interior decorator to delivering the finished pieces, took nearly a year to complete, with the paintings depicting an ecological landscape specific to northwestern Florida: a native dune lake surrounded by slender longleaf pine trees.
Gaffrey also produced eight small paintings that were placed outside of the Primrose entrance, each featuring yellow impasto flowers.
Arturo Mennillo’s Historical Photographs
While they may not be from an artist currently producing work in Destin, the rows of black-and-white photographs that adorn the walls within The Henderson are an incredibly important part of the Henderson Artist Project. These images, created by the late Arturo Mennillo, provide an invaluable sense of place while also offering a look into what came before. “History is a very important piece of how we got to where we are,” Dunavant explains.
Mennillo, who went on to become an official photographer for the U.S. Embassy, started out photographing the Emerald Coast from the 1940s through the 1960s. In addition to the many images of sport fishing and sunny beaches that he shot in the Destin region, he captured special moments in time, photographing the area’s most prominent events as well as celebrity visitors.
“[We] want [our guests] to go away with a good experience but [we] also want them to go away with a story,” Dunavant says.
The collection of images was donated to The Henderson by Mennillo’s son, Tony, who is also a photographer. They line the walls of the Historic Hallway on the ground floor of the hotel, but can also be found along the corridors outside of the guest rooms.
Melissa Mercer Brown’s Textured Paintings
Inspired by everything from coastal landscapes and views of the Gulf to hammock vegetation, wildflowers and scenic bayous, Melissa Mercer Brown creates stunning landscape paintings depicting vistas found near her Florida home.
Invited by The Henderson to apply for the artist initiative, she spent nearly four months completing three large-scale landscape paintings that were then placed in the hotel’s entrance as well as in the hallways between the Crystal Ballroom, the Destin Ballroom and Dunavant Board Room.
Brown’s painting style is similar to that of Gaffrey’s, though instead of a palette knife, she uses her fingers to create the impasto effect. Once she has the desired texture, she says, “I also use a layer of washes to give a translucent depth, interest, dimension and liveliness with a haze of impressionism and yet capturing the quiet beauty of simplicity.”
Brown, who serves as a board member for the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County, says that she views art as one way to give back to the people around her, noting that she loves to make people feel good with her paintings.
On top of the paintings, Brown sells Salty Sparrow jewelry in the hotel’s ground floor boutique. Created with co-founder Angel Mabry, the collection features coastal-inspired necklaces, earrings and bracelets as well as jewelry for men.
Donnie Galli’s Reclaimed Wood Furniture
More functional than some of the other pieces that are part of the Henderson Artist Project, Donnie Galli’s artistic woodwork is a unique addition to the initiative. While the most eye-catching piece he was commissioned for lies in the hotel’s Living Room—a table crafted from 1,000-year-old wood found in swamps and rivers in the region that also incorporates a custom floral stained design—Galli also crafted unique purse stools for The Henderson.
Designed to benefit diners in the on-site restaurants Primrose and Horizons, these solid wood purse stools eliminate the need to loop purse straps over the edge of a chair or a purse hook. Instead, the custom purse rests, which sit low to the ground next to guests’ chairs, allow both men and women to put any carried bags on them.
While the purse stools are perhaps the most unique offerings Galli crafted for The Henderson’s project, there are also other pieces that he made for the resort: the custom-built point-of-sale desk in the retail boutique, wooden receipt holders and the tabletops in Primrose, constructed from cypress, barn wood and vintage scrap metal.
As part of Designs by Donnie, Galli regularly crafts reclaimed wooden furniture, though he has only been doing so since his late 30s. Using techniques he learned from his grandfather as a child, he makes beautiful pieces of furniture as well as things like serving boards and candleholders.
Lori Drew’s Oil and Cold Wax Paintings
In a little over two months, Lori Drew crafted 27 different paintings for the Henderson Art Project, using her own impressive technique to produce somewhat abstract images of recognizable local subjects.
She layers beeswax and solvent with various colors of oil paint using drywall knives and ink rollers to create the look that she is after—though she says the beauty of it is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. This technique allows Drew to create complexity in her paintings while still maintaining a certain level of minimalism. The paint mixture combines with the wooden canvas to create a unique texture and, with soft edges rather than hard lines, her artwork retains a sense of peace.
“My goal was to have the viewer feel the natural beauty of the beach and beyond in each painting,” Drew explains of her artwork at The Henderson, which adorns the public restrooms on the hotel’s ground floor. In the ladies’ room, vibrant florals featuring regional flowers decorate the walls while the men’s bathroom features scenes related to golfing and fishing.
“The whole staff was so wonderful to work with, allowing artistic freedom while keeping with The Henderson’s unique style,” Drew adds. “To this day, whenever I go into the bathrooms at The Henderson, I love the feeling and sense of peace my art brings to these private showing spaces.” For more information, including video, visit: hendersonbeachresort.com/play/artist-project.