Photos by Kurtis Boggs/The Coastal Star
By Ron Hayes
Judy Dempsey knew exactly what would happen. But she wrote the email anyway.
Hey Guys: I am a mural artist in South Florida. I am a huge fan of your show. My specialty is underwater sea life and I would be interested in donating a mural for one of your projects …
And hit Send.
“I expected to get a reply that said, ‘Thank you, if we ever need …’ ” she admits.
Four hours later, the phone rang and Dempsey was talking to Irwin Raymer, whom dedicated TV viewers know as “The General,” a star of the Animal Planet series Tanked.
Along with his son and son-in-law, Raymer owns Acrylic Tank Manufacturing of Las Vegas, which boasts that it’s the “No. 1 Aquarium Maker In The World.”
Every week, The General and his crew travel the planet, building customized aquariums.
Beer-keg tanks and pinball tanks. A customized tank for a nail salon and a tank with remote-controlled submarines.
“Lifestyles of the Fish & Famous,” they boast.
An aquarium built from a car? That, too.
“Were you serious?” The General asked Dempsey, and on March 5 she was flown to Las Vegas and put up in his 14-room mansion.
When she flew home to Boynton Beach on March 21, the exterior wall of Acrylic Tank Manufacturing had been adorned with a 10-by-80 foot mural of a mammoth aquarium filled with great white sharks and a greenback turtle, stingrays, sea horses, eels and living coral.
“It’s on the side of our new building,” reports The General, “and between 300 and 500 people pass it every day and say ‘Oh, God, how beautiful!’ She was very sweet and had dinner with my family. We had a fun time while she was here.”
What begins in Boynton Beach, however, doesn’t stay in Boynton Beach.
You may not know her name, but it’s hard to live here and not know her work. Dempsey’s tropical seascapes adorn the side of Beachcomber Arts on Federal Highway and a wall in the city’s industrial arts section. Her dolphins are on a pharmacy on Woolbright Road. She’s painted the children’s room at the Boynton Beach City Library and the Delray Beach Marriott’s pool bar.
Private homes in Boca Raton, Cape Cod and the Bahamas are alive with her aquatic works as well, but none quite so ecstatically as her own house in a quiet neighborhood west of I-95.
Mermaids swim on her living room wall, and a marlin in the den. In the backyard, a concrete patio has been painted to resemble a koi pond. Orchids and parrots, flamingoes and sunflowers: Dempsey lives in a flurry of tropical colors.
Born in Toronto, she came to this house when she was 2, and except for a few years away for what she calls “a bad marriage,” she’s lived here ever since.
But it didn’t always look like this.
“Twelve years ago, I moved back in with my father,” she says. The marriage was over; she was 33, a single woman looking for a new life.
“I had a dumb job in a frame shop,” she says, “making basic money, but I always wanted to do murals.”
She’d studied for two years at the Fort Lauderdale Art Institute and dropped out at 18.
“When I was younger, I used to say I was an artist and sit in a chair and do nothing,” she says.
Dempsey started a painting club, several women meeting weekly on her back porch. A friend urged her to take a chance, put herself out there, and try to find work. Her father was not supportive.
And then, based on her early work, she was hired to paint polo ponies on the bedroom wall of a 6-year-old girl in Wellington, and then an underwater scene in the den. The owners paid her $8,000.
“I quit my job at the frame shop and handed my father a grand,” Dempsey says. “The next day, he packed my lunch and said, ‘Go get another one.’”
She’s been getting them for 12 years, but never as big as the mural she created in Las Vegas.
“I worked 14 hours a day for two weeks, with one day off to visit the Strip,” she says. “It’s all hand brush, no airbrush. Tour buses came by to see the company and people were taking my pictures while I worked.”
A crew from Tanked came by as well and spent two hours filming her at work for a time-lapse sequence in an upcoming episode.
“I didn’t get paid for the work,” she says, “but it was worth it. They’re going to link to my website, so I may get more jobs.”
“I never dreamed that I could do this for a living. Now I make a living, but it’s more to me than a living.
“It’s what I always wanted to do.”
Tanked is broadcast at 9 p.m. Fridays on the Animal Planet channel. Dempsey’s episode has not yet been scheduled. Visit www.judydempseyart.com.