ZEPHYRHILLS — By age 11, Dorie Anderson knew she was an artist.
She had already spent a year taking formal drawing lessons and roaming the galleries of the famous Wadsworth Antheneum museum in her hometown of Hartford, Conn.
"The experience offered more than just classes; I was exposed to a whole world of art within that museum, including the Hudson River Valley painters," recalls Anderson, now 65. "It really opened my eyes."
But adult life took her another direction: First as an X-ray technician and, later, as the wife of an aircraft engineer and mother of five.
In recent years, Dorie found her identity again, both as an artist and as owner of the Artful Gardens Gallery at 38465 County Road 54 in Zephyrhills. She landed in the small, historic Florida town in the late 1990s because of its "roller coaster hills" and beautiful old trees.
Her husband, who was retiring, wanted Florida's warm weather; she wanted a place that felt unique. They looked up and down the state's Gulf Coast, checking out places like Sarasota and Naples before settling in Zephyrhills.
"I consider it part of the greater Tampa area," she says, "much like the north where people drive 30 or 40 miles to get to a city."
Now the couple live on 4 acres in a house they built on Skyridge Circle. Anderson's studio looks out over a neighbor's adjoining horse pasture. Sometimes the white horses she sees grazing appear in her paintings, sometimes it's the trees on the property.
"It's absolutely stunning morning, noon and night — I get inspiration there," she says.
Her self-described "juicy" watercolor paintings, lyrical oil portraits and mixed media works hang alongside other Florida artists in the gallery she opened several years ago next to the East 54 Mini Storage. At first blush, the Artful Gardens Gallery (www.artfulgardensgallery.com) looks so small she says she "never bothered to measure" the square footage. She's able to hang as many as 75 paintings for an art exhibit, and she does it cleverly, lining them under the front counter and hanging them in multiple rows, one atop the other.
Over the years, Anderson renovated the modest three-room space, adding Pergo floors and painting the walls. The third room is actually a converted storage locker, but with art and plants and music it transforms into a magical space.
"I like a more industrial look so I left it with no ceiling and an exposed I-beam," explains Anderson, who calls the gallery "an alternate space gallery."
She teaches painting in the light-filled front room and often uses it as her own studio. The natural light reflects off several wall mirrors left by a previous tenant, a glass business.
"At first I was disappointed that, because of the mirrors, there wasn't a lot of room to hang art,' she says. "But when I have a show I just line easels up in front of the mirrors."
Last year, she hosted three shows, including one sponsored by the New York Times that included the works of 35 artists. This year, she's hosting a total of three more shows and plans to host another New York Times show in January 2009.
Anderson, who also helps coordinate events for the North Tampa Arts League, says she is busy enough these days. She teaches classes at the gallery — painting, drawing and sculpture — to adults and children. And although she doesn't own the lovely white horses that often appear in her paintings, she does own her own 8-year-old Andalusian gelding, Galileo. Although she doesn't ride him ("I want to stay on the ground; I don't want to break bones," she says with a laugh) she exercises him regularly on a lunge line.
She enjoys painting horses for their physical beauty, but she also takes inspiration from a wide swath of other subjects including landscapes and the human figure.
In the gallery's main exhibition room hangs an oil painting by Anderson, a woman in a red gown, lounging elegantly for the portrait John Singer Sargent-style. In a surprise twist, she looks in a mirror and a younger face gazes back.
Older self looking back at younger self?
"Maybe," she says.
Hanging above it, an abstract nude of man and woman, arms intertwined, a splash of blue ocean behind them. The inspiration came from two snakes that briefly conjoined in her backyard, reminding her of the medical symbol, the caduceus, which depicts two serpents twined on a staff.
"It's definitely has nothing to do with the Garden of Eden," she says with a laugh. "I'm not that analytical."
Living on 4 scenic acres and having her own gallery has stirred her creative soul, she says. Her work is diverse and prolific, and though she works in many mediums, she likes to joke that her favorite is "the one I'm working in at the moment. It gives me freedom."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.