ISLAMORADA -- For much of her adult life, Barbara Joyce "BJ" Royster harbored a dream of opening an art gallery in the Florida Keys. Born and raised in Miami, Royster worked in retail management to support the two sons she raised as a single mom, shelving her gallery idea for decades.
Now in her 60s, Royster reflects on lifelong determination, her guiding faith and the simple message that it's never too late to pursue your dreams.
She mastered turning fears into a career, overcoming obstacles to support her family, and is now at last doing what she loves: painting transcendent underwater marine life scenes that exude an alluring calm and vivid peace.
As a child Royster turned to drawing and painting as a means of coping with extreme shyness and dyslexia.
"My mom always said I looked at things differently," said Royster, who also was tested for her photographic memory of color. "I didn't just see a tree; I saw the leaves' colors, shades, shapes, how the sunlight brightened them."
Attracted to a photo-realism style of painting, Royster said she was "always drawing in pencil" before starting to try different mediums like chalks, pastels, oils and acrylic. When living on mainland Florida, she mostly painted birds of prey, horses, portraits and landscapes.
"It was when I became a scuba diver in 1995, though, that I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up," Royster said. "And I was in my 40s!"
Her husband James, a diver since the 1970s, introduced her to the diving world. He also helped her confront and overcome a deep-seated fear of the water that stemmed from two petrifying near-drowning incidents she survived as a child.
Seeing her two sons learn to scuba dive inspired her to get in the water with them. Royster took photos on dives, and then painted using both the photos and her experiences and impressions of the dives. In 1998, she made a career transition to become a marine life artist.
"Keeping the integrity of the fish and reefs is a must for me. When I paint reef scenes I feel an overwhelming passion and peace," she said. "But I am still in awe that something that almost took my life as a young child is giving me excitement and reason."
When her sons Bill and John were grown and relocated around the globe, Royster and James — who after 25 years of marriage she calls "the wind under my wings and water under my fins" — took advantage of a chance to move to the Keys. In 2012, they opened BJ Royster Ocean Gallery in Islamorada.
"The gallery is my studio where I paint, teach and have had the opportunity to mentor young artists, but it is also where I showcase and sell my paintings along with my line of jewelry and gifts," said Royster, who serves as an advisor to the Florida Keys Council of the Arts.
Royster recognizes the irony of her busy daily interactions with people, given the shy nature that steered her away from people and toward a solitary craft when she was young.
"I think fears do lead to careers, and what you fear most is probably what you do for the rest of your life," she said. "And I believe you need to stay in tune with what your gifts are. What keeps pulling you in that direction?"
Royster has volunteered as a diver with Key Largo's Coral Restoration Foundation, and earned a Coral Reef Conservation specialty certification through the PADI scuba certification agency's Project AWARE initiative.
She also creates original paintings for auction at the CRF's annual fundraising gala. The 2017 event is to showcase her oil painting of one of the underwater coral nurseries.
"Art is also about reaching the community," she said.
Royster still values family above all else. This year she plans to visit her oldest son Bill and his family in Mongolia, where he teaches English, and meet her granddaughter for the first time — despite her fear of flying.
For others who might harbor a desire to explore the ocean and the islands, Royster advises going all in.
"Get out on the water, snorkel or dive, go on a glass-bottom boat or fish," she said. "Visit our state parks and learn the history of the Keys. Watch the sun rise and set over the water in one day. Close your eyes, take a big breath, smell the salt air ... and count your blessings."
BJ enjoying the salt air.
James and BJ during a dive together.
BJ happily creates marine scenes for community events, including the Coral Restoration Foundation annual gala, pictured here.
Royster's dream of an art gallery in the Florida Keys was finally realized in 2012. BJ Royster Ocean Gallery is located in Islamorada, near miler marker 81.6.
Royster has volunteered with the Coral Restoration Foundation, assisting with corals in their offshore nursery.