Don't confuse Jerry Powers' picture of Lolita with children's pictures of Miami Seaquarium's resident orca.
Instead, his childlike portrait of the whale is part of "Jerry Powers: Saving Lolita," the former media mogul's first solo show, opening tonight at 7 at the Design District's Swampspace. The exhibition is part of a national campaign to improve the conditions of whales in captivity, says Powers, who took up the brush and canvas only two years ago.
The 67-year-old calls his style of painting "neo-pop expressionalism." The bold, primary colors and loose gestural brushstrokes give the impression that his work was created by a much younger hand.
"We all colored when we were kids," observes the founder of Ocean Drive magazine, who sold his glossy publication for $30 million in 2007.
"I began painting seriously in my home studio on Miami Beach in 2013, and it's been very therapeutic for me. These days I feel like I am 18 again. I just love painting every day and expressing the rawness of who I am," Powers says. "My only regret is that I didn't start earlier. I want to do this for the rest of my life. For me, painting is like an addiction," he adds.
On display at Swampspace are close to 30 of Powers' wildly colorful creations, ranging from pictures of Lolita to a makeshift map of Wynwood and a series of mixed-media panels depicting mug shots of celebrities such as Jim Morrison, Larry King, and Pitbull, all of whom have been the artist's friends.
"When visiting his art studio, I was strangely comforted by the honesty and uncomplicated nature of the work," says Oliver Sanchez, owner of Swampspace. "His bold strokes in primary colors accentuate images of popular culture such as celebrity mug shots and innocuous scenes of everyday life. When he told me about saving Lolita the whale from captivity, we soon inked in the show."
Powers is a media trailblazer and First Amendment advocate who started the Daily Planet, an underground newspaper in Coconut Grove when he was in his 20s. Back then, on the cover of his insurgent publication, he printed a picture of Richard Nixon with a penis in his mouth.
At one point, Powers' venture earned him a two-day stint in the Coral Gables pokey after he was charged for selling obscene literature at the University of Miami. The conviction was overturned on appeal, and Powers emerged from the arrest as a South Florida counterculture folk hero.
"Jerry is a champion for our First Amendment right to free speech. Back in the early '70s, he brought counterculture poet Alan Ginsberg to open for a musical concert at the Miami Marine Stadium," Sanchez recollects. "Ginsberg's honest, insightful prose riled the crowd but quickly upset the authorities, effectively shutting down the show. Powers was charged with obscenity and a slew of other falsehoods that were later overturned by a judge who sent a court order to the authorities to pay for damages and reschedule the concert. It was a big win for freedom-loving swampsters."
Although Powers has never had formal art training, he says he was inspired by working with artists such as Peter Max, Kenny Scharf, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dalí over the decades.
These days he says his creative passion is his family, painting, and a lifelong desire to help animal rights organizations.
At Swampspace, proceeds from sales of Powers' Lolita paintings will go toward efforts to free Lolita.
"Lolita the whale has been in a matchbox tank, entertaining and soaking gawking admirers for more than 40 years," Sanchez says. "To think that Lolita now has Jerry Powers determined to free her from captivity and return this magnificent creature to her rightful place in nature is inspiring. Jerry has a cargo plane ready to transport her back to a reserve in Washington state once he persuades the water park to free Lolita."
"I want to free her back to the San Juan Islands where she was captured half a century ago," Powers says. "Killer whales can live to be 90, and I want Lolita to end her life in freedom at an age when she can still conceive."
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In addition to tonight's opening, Powers says, there will also be the "Miracle March for Lolita" tomorrow from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at 4020 Virginia Key Dr., Key Biscayne, followed by "Light Up the Night for Lolita" at Little Havana's Ball & Chain from 5 to 8 p.m.
Swampspace, 3940 N. Miami Ave., Miami. 305-710-8631; swampspace.blogspot.com.