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Island fixture heading for the hills

By Staff | Apr 1, 2015

Katie Gardenia will leave southwest Florida after decades as an artist and business owner. She has stories to tell. BRIAN WIERIMA

Florida is transient. There’s sky-high citizen turnover, even in Sanibel and Captiva.

So Katie Gardenia’s exit to North Carolina in the next month may pass under the radar. But for old-timers, those living and visiting the islands since the 1970s, Gardenia’s move will remove another historical face from Sanibel and Captiva, a place that once was a knockabout paradise that attracted the quirky, roughnecks, red-headed barkeeps, characters and castoffs to fill a dozen dime novels.

Gardenia is the former owner of the unconventional Bubble Room in Captiva and another restaurant in Sanibel, an admired artist and dollmaker/collector, a treasure with a deep well of stories who captured many of those memories in “A Bubble Moment,” her 2011 memoir.

Gardenia, whose real name she refuses to divulge “because I don’t like it,” recalls the Captiva postal worker dressed in a witch costume acting as justice of the peace, a woman she rescued that was lashed to a (low tide) dock piling by her husband, penciled (and misspelled) thank you notes from the iconic Robert Rauschenberg, her difficult stories of abandonment as a child, explosives tossed through the Bubble Room window, breaches of trust, mistrust and of poor decisions, and hurricane stories. She’s been rich and poor, a mother, grandmother, alone and married, embraced by rooms of admirers and a ring of friends.

Gardenia’s nature is to celebrate, to find the best in herself and others. To forgive. And to keep moving. Her next home will be her 33rd.

“My next life is living in the big city,” Gardenia said in conversation at the Tower Gallery in Sanibel. It’s where her collectible artwork is sold. A small woman under a trendy mop of hair, her eyes speak from behind her trademark rounded glasses, her animated voice still with the subtle hint of her Texas roots.

Gardenia is a legendary character, featured in a March 5 documentary, “7 Sanibel Artists,” for her fabric artwork, her dolls, her many homes, her friends, even for her broken romances in which one man awoke with half a mustache. She told him she needed the hair for her dolls. The reality was it was his walking papers. She makes no excuses for poor choices in men.

“And I can tell you he wasn’t a happy camper,” Gardenia said of the man whom she still refers to as “he whose name I’ll not mention.”

Her imprint is so profound that the “7 Sanibel Artists” producer will premiere a film on her life in November. “Katie!” will document Gardenia’s life.

“Katie,” island film documentarian David Carter said, “laughs out loud and then laughs at herself for laughing out loud. It’s who she is. She sees things on a much different level.”

Gardenia by the end of the month expects to live in an 1836 post office building that she has purchased in North Carolina. It’ll be her 33rd home. Or maybe 34, she’s not sure. Moving from home to home, business to business, trade to trade, it’s the ultimate signature of the true Bohemian. At 72, the move north Gardenia considers a phase or two before her last.

“I’d like to make 100,” she said, with the odd chirping of her cell phone bracketing her comment.

Will she miss the islands, the history she helped write?

“It has been beautiful,” she said. “But I’m really looking forward to a little down time.”