Tucked into his studio space in Blue Mountain Beach and surrounded by thick clumps of colorful acrylic paint splatters, introspective artist Justin Gaffrey is meticulously creating a carefree masterpiece. He inscribes his first name and the year at the bottom right-hand corner of the painting — “Justin, 2000.”
It was a sunflower painting inspired by Van Gogh that catapulted the recalcitrant chef-turned-painter into his successful art career.
“I was painting a sunflower one day when someone walked in the door and bought it before I was finished,” he says. “After that, I kept painting them and they kept selling.” Next, he created the “You Are My Sunshine” sunflower series. “They had a connection with people,” he notes. “The requests kept coming in, and I never stopped painting them.” That was 15 years ago. Today, a larger-than-life painting from the series hangs in the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion.
The 45-year-old’s ties to the Walton County community took root in high school, when he moved to Fort Walton Beach with his father.
“It is hard to imagine that I have been living in Walton County since 1986,” he says. “This community has changed a lot since then, but then again, so have I. When I think of community, it brings me right back home to my family.
Gaffrey still lives above the Blue Mountain Beach studio gallery that he and his former wife of 15 years founded in 1995. Billie Gaffrey, the iconic art teacher at the Seaside School, began painting when she was 18 years old. The creative couple had two children together. Their son, Justin Jr., is 21 years old and in his third year of college at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Aria, their daughter, is 16 and attending Northwest Florida College.
In the early years, the Gaffreys would drive through the remote Southern countryside or into New Orleans in search of tin roofs, windows and doors. They sold furniture, art and other creations at festivals and in their gallery. During this time, Justin was also becoming an award-winning chef. He opened a restaurant called Café Sublime in Gulf Place in 1998. At some point, after weighing the return on a day in the kitchen versus a day in the studio, Gaffrey sold the restaurant in 2000 and picked up a palette knife.
In addition to family and community, the prolific creator is ever grateful for the natural environment in Northwest Florida.
“I love the Choctawhatchee River and its remote nature,” he says. “It leads into the Choctawhatchee Bay, which leads into the Gulf of Mexico. All three areas provide an awesome experience where I spend quality time with the people I care for the most.”
Gaffrey has always been a huge community advocate and donor in Walton County, with a particular passion for the Food for Thought Outreach organization.
“I am inspired by the devotion of Tiffanie Nelson, the founder,” he says. “She helps and put others above herself many times over. Food for Thought reaches hungry children in a big way in Walton and Okaloosa counties. Little things can change a person’s entire life, even just a meal to keep them strong.”