Jacksonville artist discovered inspiration in the Caribbean, with the help of a country music star.

Artist Gabriel Mark isn't saying whether he got paid in cash or pirate's booty. But he acknowledges that the nine pirate paintings he completed in June for a celebrity client earned his most lucrative commission to date.

"I haven't come to myself yet. I pushed really hard to get this done," says Mark, 32, who also created this year's poster for the Britt Festivals.

Fourteen-hour work days were the norm during the six months it took him to produce the large-scale pirate scenes. To make his characters believable, he dressed models in costumes rented from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"I definitely tried not to cut any corners," he says.

The pirate fancier who commissioned his work was Big Kenny, of the country music duo Big & Rich, who wanted paintings for his Nashville home that would illustrate his musical "The Pirates of Cookietown."

The country singer has high hopes for "Cookietown," including animated and stage productions.

The commission came about through one of Mark's clients. A good friend of Big Kenny, she brought the musician to Mark's Jacksonville gallery, Élan, while Big & Rich were in the Rogue Valley for a concert last September.

Big Kenny not only wound up buying a few paintings, he gave Mark tickets to the concert and invited him to stop by his tour bus after the show.

Mark was sitting on the couch in Big Kenny's home on wheels when the Nashville star popped the question.

"He asked me if I like pirates," Mark said.

"I was really stunned," Mark adds, "because pirates were such an intrinsic part of my childhood. I told him that I love pirates."

Clearly the author of "Cookietown" had found the right person to illustrate his work. Or had he?

Claiming French artist Toulouse-Lautrec as an influence, Mark goes in for candid character studies, often of people who have withdrawn into their thoughts. He captures a range of troubling emotions in their very expressive faces.

"Getting the face right is definitely the most important element of my art," he says.

Great. But could he do comedy?

In a leap of faith, Big Kenny believed that Mark could bring his mirthful band of pirates to life.

Once the painter had accepted the commission, he spent hours meeting with his client and going over the characters.

"I did some rough sketches until we got closer to where we were going," says Mark. "Once he cut me loose, he gave me complete artistic freedom. It's what every artist dreams of."

Complete freedom — except for one requirement.

"He told me that the paintings had to be happy. That caused a lot of introspection for me. I had to convince myself that what I was doing was serious art," admits Mark.

A preliminary sketch of one character brought a phone call from Big Kenny. The look of quiet intensity on the young lady's face hadn't passed the happy test.

"She went through five different faces until I finally had it right," Mark reveals.

To turn the introspective artist into a merry matey, Big Kenny took Mark on a vacation to the Caribbean.

"I thought it was going to be a breezy holiday with my wife, Naomi," chuckles Mark. "And it was. But the experience also changed my whole idea of the paintings. A lot of them were going to be interiors, but I realized that there is no interior in the Caribbean. It's all open. White sand and blue sea is all you see there."

The wit, innocence and beauty of the finished pieces are evident even in the thumbnails posted on the artist's Web site, www.artofgabriel.com. The juxtaposition of contemporary props with the old-time pirates fits the "Cookietown" story line.

"The pirate ship is totally rigged with modern musical devices," explains Mark. "It has stage lighting and thumping speakers, and the pirates love to rock out."

Mark gave Big Kenny the first of the paintings as a Christmas present.

"He was really taken by it," says the artist. "I realized at that moment that I had arrived."

The whole series is now hanging in the singer's spectacular Nashville home, unveiled at a party in June for 60 guests, Mark included.

The commission did more than pay well, claims Mark. It returned him to his childhood innocence.

"In school, whenever there was any kind of open-ended research assignment, I chose pirates," he says. "This project brought everything full circle."

Paul Hadella is a freelance writer living in Talent. Reach him at talenthouse@charter.net.