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Meet the local muralist

December 19, 2018
By JESSE MEADOWS ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Sue Gates will paint anything you give her.

Her house is covered in oil paintings of water birds, knick knacks she fished from the trash bin and redesigned, and old photos of her with friends, painting at the Surf and Us Resort.

Lately she's been refurbishing a trailer next door - one of her many previous homes in Fort Myers Beach.

Article Photos

Gates stands with one of her murals at the Anchor Inn.


There was an efficiency by Times Square, a motor home in a friend's yard, a condo by Santini Plaza - she estimates around 10 moves before settling into her current home.

"I'm a mover, a changer. I like that, a lot of people don't. I think it's healthy for me," she said.

Everywhere she lived, she painted, and many of her murals are still there.

She remembers a big grey house where she lived on the back bay.

"I lived upstairs in that one. The people who owned it would go back and forth, so I painted everything up there. I ran into (the landlord) about two years ago, and she took me up there, and it's all still there! Every painting is still there. She said, I'm never painting over this."

These leftover murals even landed Gates her biggest commercial project at a now-closed French bakery, when the owners happened to stay in one of her old apartments.

"They saw a mural I painted on this wall, and they found me somehow," she said.

The owner baked in the middle of the night, and Gates would go paint in the wee hours, the smell of fresh bread wafting through the building.

Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Gates planned to move to Florida with her husband all their lives.

When he retired from schoolteaching 25 years ago, they moved down to build a home in Tidewater Island, a secluded neighborhood in Island Park.

The neighborhood was full of "cracker houses," an Old Florida style of wood-frame house popularized by cattle drivers in the 19th century.

"Porches all around, built up high so the air could flow through.. and they're all different colors," Gates said.

She didn't like the house, though.

Her neighbors worked all the time and she was bored.

When her husband passed away 14 years ago, she sold the house and moved to Fort Myers Beach.

"That put me in a new era," she remembered. "It kind of made me a free spirit."

So she did what any free-spirited woman would do: found a group of girlfriends and bought a boat.

"Every day we were going fishing on that boat. If we rammed into a pole or something, we would all just laugh, because there were no men to yell at us," she said.

One day, she and her friends were staying at the Surf and Us with their dogs, and she complained to the manager about how plain the walls were.

"They were putting it all back together after Charley hit. Everything was done except the walls were all white. I said, oh my god, we need to paint these walls! The manager said, well, you know, maybe we should talk to the owners," she said.

That's when she met owner John Surfus, who agreed to let her paint.

"I got blessed that day," she said.

John invited her to paint at another one of his properties, the Anchor Inn.

Her first piece there was a giant boat on the back wall of the office building.

Since then, her tropical nature scenes have spread across the back and inside of the Inn's houses.

It's her favorite place to work, she said, because it's quiet, breezy, and the canal behind the Inn was strangely devoid of dead fish and toxic algae this summer.

"People said, where are you painting? Anchor Inn. Where's that? Nobody seems to know. It's like a secret," she said.

Manager Michele Mount agreed.

They like to keep their little oasis tucked away, waiting to be stumbled upon.

"You ride your bike down here, you get lucky enough to stay," she said.

When Gates quit her job at a local preschool in July, she asked Surfus if he needed anything done around the Inn.

He put a weedwacker in her hands.

"So I became the groundskeeper here. Trimming bushes and painting," she said, laughing.

Her latest big project was a large ocean scene on the side of a unit at the Inn.

She has plans to paint the entire house now.

"It just snowballs," she said.

But that will have to wait until after season.

Gates likes to paint in the summer, when it's quiet and there are less distractions.

"I really like to be alone. I don't want to talk when I'm painting," she said.

But one thing is certain: she'll never stop.

"If I couldn't paint, if something happened to my hands, I'd probably figure out how to do it with my toes or my mouth," she said.

"Art.. it's in you. And it has to come out."



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