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A gallery hidden in the suburbs

The Rotellas' house may blend in among its Westchase neighbors, but inside, art rules.

Published April 22, 2005

WESTCHASE - Forget picking out Joseph Rotella's house from the street.

Visitors tend to zoom past, prompting a cell-phone call from Rotella who just watches and laughs from a front window.

"Okay, you in the silver car, just back up a few driveways and you're here," he says.

In this well-groomed suburban enclave of matching villas and zero lot lines, pretty much everything looks the same.

But walk in Rotella's front door and the dynamics are totally, if not wildly, urban.

"It's the inside that lets the artist loose," says Rotella, 67, a sculptor and art collector who moved two years ago to Westchase with his wife, Murielle, 62, from a condo on St. Petersburg's scenic Beach Drive.

The couple made the switch to Westchase partly because they thought the villa - which they have heavily remodeled and redecorated - was a savvy investment.

And partly because they really loved the area.

An avid walker, Rotella was attracted to the recreation paths, the community pool ("that I don't have to clean," he quips) and the nearby village that features restaurants, a Starbucks and the Great Frame and Art Gallery, where friend and owner Joose Hadley recently held a show of his work.

"Here's a flamboyant artist living in a very suburban, controlled community," Rotella says. "But I'm happy here."

The lushly decorated, three-bedroom, two-bath house breathes color at every turn, from the cappuccino-colored walls to the black granite kitchen counters to the floors, mostly honeyed hardwood and travertine marble.

Choice lighting, switched on even during daylight hours, accentuates the art and enhances the color scheme, making the visitor want to admire everything from the tissue-paper textured, gold bathroom walls to the rectangular painting of water and marshland hung cleverly below the kitchen window, nearly at floor level.

Tortoise-shell pendant lights hang over the eating bar, and a large, lighted glass sculpture twirls electronically on a base.

"Lighting is everything if you want to create ambience," he explains. "Pay attention the next time you're in a restaurant. We probably spent about $7,000 on lighting alone."

Rotella frequently trades his work for painting and sculpture by other artists, and he isn't timid about displaying his vast collection in its entirety.

Hundreds of paintings, sculptural works, pottery and vessels create a gallery effect throughout the house; a dozen paintings hang on one living room wall alone. Over 21 pieces of artwork hang in the 6-foot by 6-foot laundry room. In the guest bathtub, Rotella displays one of his own works: a nude sculpture of a woman at rest.

With so much artwork on display, he always frames with care, paying attention both to the matting and the quality and color of the frame itself.

Even an exquisite, original watercolor he snagged on the cheap at Goodwill receives the same quality of framing as more expensive acquisitions: "It's like buying a great suit but not having the right tie," Rotella explains. "Framing is so important."

He is also a vocal critic of matching art with decor. Instead he loves warming the walls with color, then layering a room with art, beaded throw pillows, colorful glass art and a set of gorgeous red urns made from bamboo.

"There's not a white wall in the place. I hate white," says Rotella, who hired Westchase-based decorator Frank Lombardi to give the interior a textured, colorful, pulled-together look ideal for displaying paintings and sculpture.

Rotella's own sculptures, sensual, Brancusi-like nudes, dancers, abstractions - even a bust of his wife, Murielle - are scattered sparingly throughout.

"His neighbors probably don't know what kind of talent is living right next door to them. He's one of the best-kept secrets in Westchase," gallery owner Hadley says.

Rotella, a first-generation Italian-American who grew up in a large family on a vegetable farm in Danbury, Conn., played in junkyards as a child, rather than with toys.

The woods and trees also teased his eye "because I saw shapes and abstractions," recalls Rotella, who began making sculptures at age 11.

Add trees to the list of reasons he chose his home in Westchase: Densely wooded conservation land abuts his property, creating a serene, natural backdrop to the high-energy decor.

Rotella's work, which sells from hundreds of dollars to $10,000, is carried in galleries throughout Florida.

For years, he made exhaustive rounds of the art show circuit, hitting 28 events a summer. But Rotella doesn't survive by his art earnings alone. He still works in sales and marketing for a medical X-ray company.

While the rest of the world is golfing, he's creating sculptures in his studio in a Safety Harbor industrial complex. Both representational and abstract, carved from marble, onyx and alabaster, his work is displayed in collections all over the world as well as the Vatican Palace in Rome.

Rotella spends a couple of weeks each year in Calabria, Italy, waking up to church bells, people-watching, eating and sculpting. His son, Mark Rotella, a New York editor and writer, wrote the book, Stolen Figs and Other Adventures in Calabria.

At the front door of his Westchase house, near two tissue-paper collages in bright purple, red and yellow, stands a piece of Rotella's sculpture, Tender Hearts, an abstract interpretation of an embracing man and woman posed so that only a single breast is visible. It's a tribute, he says, to his daughter-in-law, who survived breast cancer.

"I was thinking about her a lot as I created this piece," he says.

He plans to donate the sculpture, eventually, to an appropriate charity.

For now, he has no plans to stop acquiring the works of other artists, even if that means filling every inch of wall space in the villa.

He frequently consults with gallery owners to figure out the best way to display a lot of art beautifully, without making the home feel cluttered.

"We gave up living on Beach Drive across the street from the art museum," he says.

"But I love the neighborhood. And with a house, it's always about what's inside. For me, that means no bare walls, lots of color, and nothing too homogenized. After all, this isn't supposed to be a model home."

[Last modified April 21, 2005, 08:33:10]

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