If one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, then the late Key Largo resident Stanley Papio was a treasure hunter extraordinaire. And ultimately, he became a treasure creator — crafting some of the edgiest and most eclectic metal sculptures of his generation.
In fact, Stanley Papio was a pioneer of recycled art, so it’s only fitting that his work and legacy are celebrated on Earth Day 2023 — with a colorful people-powered parade of recycled and repurposed artistic creations.
When Stanley settled in Key Largo in 1949, he wasn’t known as an artist. He was simply a former amateur boxer and wrestler who opened a welding business on his property.
But that seemingly mundane business evolved into a far more imaginative pursuit. He began creating “junkyard art” constructions welded together out of scrap metal from recycled car parts, appliances, beds, pipes and other discarded iron and steel.
Much to the dismay of his neighbors, he encouraged people to drop off decrepit cars, washing machines and other “art supplies” in his yard for future use. Nearby residents were incensed, but his skill and offbeat imagination blossomed.
Stanley’s welded creations, blending satirical social commentary and gritty whimsy, often represented actual individuals, animals or objects. Eventually the pieces overran his property and morphed into a roadside exhibition that he dubbed Stanley’s Art Museum.
By the time he died in 1982, Stanley Papio’s visionary craftsmanship was beginning to earn him a bit of notice from critics, collectors and even museums. After his death, much of his collection was donated to the Key West Art & Historical Society — and today his sculptures, acclaimed for their inventiveness and humor, are recognized as culturally important American artwork.
Recycled art like Stanley’s takes center stage in Key West on Earth Day, April 22, during the Art & Historical Society’s Papio Kinetic Sculpture and Art Bike Parade. Its entries — all powered by human effort alone — are expected to include sculptural floats with moving parts, decorated bicycles with costumed riders, and other mobile works of art that incorporate recycled elements.
The eco-friendly promenade kicks off at noon outside the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House (281 Front St.), with entries crafted by local school groups, environmental supporters and those who share Papio’s passion for turning found objects into eclectic art.
“Stanley Papio was doing upcycling before anybody knew what it was, and we encourage recycling and people to use found objects,” said Michael Gieda, executive director of the Art & Historical Society. “Whether it’s in the trash or recycling bin or lying on the side of the road, it’s all possible art.”
Parade participants will propel their kinetic creations from the Custom House to Duval Street, and then up the entire length of the street — delighting spectators along the way.
Standouts in past processions have included a huge red dragon whose scaly skin was made of bubble wrap, a prowling 30-foot-long iguana with spines crafted from scrap cardboard and a giant duck with recycled paper “feathers.”
Co-produced by Key West’s Wonderdog Studios, the Earth Day parade will be followed by an awards ceremony and block party at the Duval Street Pocket Park (located in the 1400 block of Duval beside the Atlantic Ocean).
Art lovers can also explore the “Stanley Papio: Junkyard Rebel” exhibit at the Art & Historical Society’s Fort East Martello Museum (3501 S. Roosevelt Blvd.). The fort-turned-museum features more than 100 of the late artist’s distinctive creations.
Stanley Papio’s work is an exuberant celebration of found objects. For fans of renegade art and the joys of recycling trash into treasure, there’s no better place to be on Earth Day than Key West — to salute the legacy of this true Florida Keys original.