"Red Lionfish"

Tom De Vita's "Red Lionfish" is on display with his exhibit "The Locals" at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. (Tom De Vita/Courtesy / May 2, 2013)

The locals in Tom De Vita's painted pastiche of South Florida life may read like a college sociology class gone hypersurreal. There is "Red Lionfish," his portrait of a Jamaican student assuming a dignified posture, which is undermined by the goofy appearance of the invasive coral-reef fish perched on his head. The lionfish's red-and-white quills take on the shape of the man's dreadlocks. There is also “Bleached White,” De Vita’s painting of a Haitian graffiti artist and Florida International University student who paints with bleach and here sports a protective respirator mask. The artist is oblivious to the small squadron of floating, wind-up chattering-teeth toys that hover around her.

So if De Vita's exhibition "The Locals" manages to disturb a few inbound travelers at its current home in Terminal 2 of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, he may consider that a small victory.

"These are supposed to be locals in South Florida, There's a lot of inside baseball going on," says De Vita from his home in Pembroke Pines. "Everyone here is kind of a transient, and people here are re-inventing themselves from old lives, and it's especially fitting for an airport, because people are flittering in and flooding out all the time."

So, too, are the locals in De Vita's portraits a type of transient, including the Jamaican student, whom he teaches as a professor at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. The lionfish and the man, he says, are "united by the idea of being foreign" to the United States. De Vita extends the same label to himself, a 43-year-old Queens, N.Y., native who moved to Miami Beach in 1993 and plied his trade painting well-received reproductions of Caravaggio, Matisse, Monet, Dali and Picasso. The self-portrait, "Prop Breathe," is a diptych depicting De Vita inhaling and exhaling, with twin submersible propellers attached to his forehead to convey the idea of "blowing wind."


Pictures: Hollywood Beach Broadwalk

"There's an open-ended narrative overlaying these bizarre, surreal images," he says. "I like ambiguous images taken out of context, and inserted into a new narrative that probably only makes sense to people who know the person. To me, it works more on a spiritual level. The answer is not always evident. The mystery for me is always more fascinating."

De Vita's "Dance of the Stingrays" shows his two children, Christopher, 11, and Jack, 4, sitting on a beach, surrounded by a swarm of floating stingrays. He says the "reserved, intelligent but ready to attack" demeanor of the fish best resembles his boys' personalities. De Vita captures other members of his family with his paintbrush. "Birdman Watching" is a portrait of his French-Canadian brother-in-law, shown glaring at the viewer, with a pair of birds perched on tree branches jutting from his shoulder and forehead.

"He's an amateur ornithologist. He goes bird-watching all the time, and I thought it was funny to have a guy that looks like a big lumberjack surrounded by pretty birds," De Vita says. "But don't tell him I said that. I've got family functions. But I love the idea of nature imposing itself on the narration. It feels majestic."

Tom De Vita: The Locals

When: Through July 1

Where: Lee Wagener Art Gallery at Terminal 2 of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, 100 Aviation Blvd., Fort Lauderdale

Cost: Free

Contact: 954-357-8542 or search "Lee Wagener Art Gallery" on Broward.org