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Artist drowns in his kayak off Key West

James O’Brien, in a photograph from his web site, poses with some of his work.
James O’Brien, in a photograph from his web site, poses with some of his work. www.jamesobrienarts.com

A Key West artist known for his island-inspired wood and metal sculptures drowned off Key West Sunday morning.

James Michael O’Brien was 66.

O’Brien was found floating face down in the water near Channel No. 29 by a boater, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which logged the death as a boating accident.

“He was found naked hung up in some anchor lines,” said Jeep Caillouet, a friend to O’Brien who lived on a boat near Wisteria Island. “Thoughts are, he was ditching clothes so he could swim.”

The FWC’s report confirmed O’Brien was found naked.

O’Brien’s kayak wasn’t found but he was believed to have been using it before he drowned, the FWC report states. Someone reported to the Coast Guard at 9:37 a.m. Sunday that there was a missing kayaker.

“It was stated by the reporting source...Mr. O'Brien, left his vessel between 10-11 p.m. the night before,” said Coast Guard spokeswoman Karrie A. Jeffries, who added O’Brien wasn’t reported missing until Sunday morning.

O’Brien, who friends said lived with his wife on a boat moored outside Key West, also had made several octopus sculptures from the root system of pine trees he picked up on the beach.

“He was just an all-around nice guy,” Caillouet said. “Lived on a boat with his wife on the north side of Wisteria. He will be missed.”

O’Brien worked with buttonwood and other wood and said his art was a moving target.

“I approach art as a series of mood swings influenced at times by the weather, phase of the moon, amount of wine consumed and for the most part a spontaneous attack,” he wrote on his web site. “Kind of a Samurai approach.”

Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen

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