Mention the name Charlie Sembler and people are apt to describe him as a businessman, commercial fisherman, environmentalist, former state legislator or tax collector. They are all correct. But for the past several years he has been recognized for the larger-than-life, eclectic art sculptures dotting his Sebastian riverfront property on Indian River Drive.
Sembler transforms pieces of driftwood, shells, scrap metal and industrial materials into looming sea creatures, mermaids and, his latest, a 7,000-pound, 21-foot-long alligator made from recycled battleship chain and excavator track. Quite the Renaissance man, he also makes custom furniture and home décor items, writes short stories and poetry, and paints.
For generations, his family supported itself through fishing and farming and, having limited means, repurposed out of necessity.
“My family was in Indian River County before it was Indian River County, so we measure our Florida roots in centuries,” says the Florida native. “We wasted absolutely nothing. Literally everything was saved and recycled and used time and time again. I remember my grandfather giving us wooden toys carved from driftwood for Christmas and, while I didn’t realize the sentimental value they would have in the years to come, I still cherish them as an adult.”
Similarly, Sembler often hand-crafts gifts, enjoying the emotional response evoked from items made with something from the recipient’s past. Old barn wood and a chain salvaged from the demolition of a local pioneer family’s boathouse were recently used to create a frame with a photograph of the former boathouse.
“I reach into the past, pull that piece to the present and preserve it for the future. What may have been perceived as a piece of worthless material destined for the trash pile ultimately becomes a treasured heirloom with a back story,” he says.
His own creative gift began to emerge when he and wife Beth were newly married with a house to furnish. After building furniture from driftwood and other natural materials, he was soon asked to craft items for family and friends.
“It kind of took on a life of its own,” says Sembler, who with Beth now markets his work through Victoria-William Company.
At the age of 25, Sembler was elected to the state Legislature and served 10 years.
“There were so many regulations being implemented at an unprecedented rate on landowners, farmers and fishermen that it was hard for them to survive and I wanted to make a difference,” he explains, adding the experience taught him many life lessons.
“I learned how to read people, the art of persuasion and the value of integrity.”
Quickly advancing up the legislative ladder, he became an appropriations chairman at age 33, handling multibillion-dollar budgets.
“I loved inviting big-city politicians down to meet me at the Sembler fishing docks. They’d pull up and see all the forklifts and guys in white rubber boots and they wouldn’t get out of the car,” he says with a laugh. “Then they realized I was one of those guys, we would meet right there; me in my white boots and them in their blue suits with their prepared presentations. What they saw in Sebastian was real old Florida, not the foreign cars, Gucci loafers and Polo shirts that are more commonplace today.”
When his legislative term was up, he still wanted to make a difference on the political front, but also wanted to spend more time with his family. He served eight years as Indian River County Tax Collector before stepping back to what he loved – working with his hands.
“I was raised in a family that earned a living by the sweat of your brow, the bend of your back and the strength of your hands. I wanted to get back to the independent and self-reliant work that’s ingrained in me,” he says.
As he entered his mid-40s, Sembler says the county was changing, with cow pastures and groves being cleared for developments and water quality in the lagoon deteriorating.
“I realized I came from a time and place that no longer existed. The nostalgia and things that made this county iconic were being forever lost,” he says ruefully.
He tapped into his creative side to create things that would last forever – from sculptures to poetry – that would tell the story of old Florida.
Sembler has visited scrap yards all around the state, collecting stainless steel, old chains from elevators and ships, tractor parts and pieces of old appliances.
“I can walk into the junk yard and pieces of material catch my eye. I envision the sculpture, down to the smallest detail,” he explains. “Some of the scrap stainless steel I pick up is military and food grade, which is the highest quality you can get. It may have been special-ordered by NASA or the government and it was originally very expensive, but since it’s now destined for the recycling plant, I can pick it up for a couple of hundred dollars. Whatever comes to life from this material will literally last for many lifetimes.”
Having grown up on the water, most of Sembler’s creations are marine life, including the 8-foot-tall seahorse with brilliant red eyes that found a home at a gulf-front resort in Surfside, Texas.
“The new owners even renamed their restaurant after the piece and have a signature drink on their menu called the ‘Red-eyed Seahorse,’” Sembler says with pride.
They also acquired several other pieces – a stainless-steel mullet jumping out of the lagoon, a large sawfish sculpture fashioned after one Sembler’s father caught in the river as a child, a 7-foot-long flying fish crafted as a working weather vane, and two dragonfly sculptures. Now part of the Texas landscape, the pieces have survived a hurricane and a snow storm.
The works on display at his commercial aquaculture dock, with its unique driftwood railings, are a popular photo stop for visitors and residents. The massive alligator he and son Charlie created has become a real traffic stopper.
Sembler also crafts pieces on commission, but only after he determines the buyers ‘nostalgic soft spot.’ The process is documented from the first conversation to the final construction and is presented to the owner, becoming their story to tell to future generations.
“Everyone loves a story; it’s human nature,” beams Sembler. “But the true gift is to make the story their own. I want them to be ecstatic and feel like they’ve acquired something authentic that will make their heart full.”
The couple exudes an inner peace that only comes from doing what they love.
“We have reached a point in our lives where we want to protect and preserve the past, while still planning for the future” said Beth.
“The combination of Charlie’s incredible gift of creativity, combined with his deep knowledge and love for old Florida and nature has given us the opportunity to do something meaningful and lasting. Each and every piece he makes, whether it’s a stainless-steel sculpture, a driftwood table, a shell mirror or cypress lamp; it’s one of kind. It’s art in its purest form, the way nature intended.”
Article by: Kerry Firth, correspondent