APOLLO BEACH — Diana Gayer spent most of her life creating masterpieces in a salon — coloring, cutting and coiffing other people's hair.
Gayer considers herself a good stylist, somewhat of a perfectionist. She likes to snip even cuts and whip up the perfect color.
In her mid 40s with two children and a busy career, she had never thought about trying anything new until she turned on the TV one morning in 2007 and saw a craft show on sponge art. She thought: I could do that. So she gave it a try.
"I had fun doing it so I did a couple more," she said.
Weeks later, Gayer dabbled with brushes and paint. She blended colors, and soon found her way trying to paint flowers on a canvas.
"It was just an experiment," she said, laughing about the early days. "It went from 'that was fun' to 'now let me see if I can do this.' "
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Gayer's work left friends and family impressed. She grew brave enough to paint animals: pelicans, turtles, egrets, manatees and dolphins.
Soon, her art filled the walls of her Apollo Beach home. The detailed feathers on her pelicans and lifelike manatees attracted the attention of more people. Later, she, too, described her paintings as pretty good.
Visits to art shows made her think her pieces were not that much different than the ones hanging on the wall with signs that read: "For Sale."
Maybe, she thought, this could be more than a hobby. Maybe, she wondered, it could be a second business.
At the urging of friends and family last year, Gayer packed some of her paintings into her SUV and drove hesitantly a few miles down the road to the Apollo Beach Manatee Festival of the Arts. She waited nervously in her booth.
She sold her first painting. Then another. By the end of the day, customers had scooped up 16 of her paintings.
"The first sale was so exciting," she said, still thrilled nearly a year later.
Gayer returns to the Apollo Beach Manatee Festival of the Arts on Saturday and Sunday at the Tampa Electric Co.'s South Shore Community Events Center, which is also home to TECO's Manatee Viewing Center. More than 90 artists and craftsmen will join her from across the country.
The festival promotes the arts and elevates awareness about manatees, which winter in the warm waters at TECO's power station at the end of Big Bend Road in Apollo Beach.
Gayer looks forward to attending this year's festival and says she is especially proud because one of her paintings will get great exposure at the event.
Gayer's painting of three manatees caught the eye of festival organizers and will be prominent everywhere. Her painting will be featured in ads promoting the festival and on T-shirts that will be sold at the festival. As the logo contest winner, she also earned $100 and free booth rental.
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Despite all her sudden success and growth as an artist, Gayer, 50, still calls herself a hairstylist.
"I feel like I could be an art student," she said. "It's hard to call yourself something you didn't train to do."
But, she admits, she might not be too many years away from saying "artist" and her name in the same sentence. At last year's arts festival, another artist stepped into her booth, looked around, and praised her work.
"He said, 'You keep doing it,' " she said. "It made me feel good. It made me feel better than selling them."
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Gayer doesn't have to go far to get inspiration for her art. Her home sits by a saltwater canal in Apollo Beach.
Herons, egrets, ibis and other wildlife pass by her back yard daily, settling in the mangroves or taking a break on docked boats. Gayer and her husband, Rick, own a boat and often search the canals and bay in search of wildlife. They also go to the beach looking for the perfect scene.
Her creative juices get going by taking photos of interesting subjects, a great blue heron resting on dock pylons, a pelican snapping up a fish at John's Pass Village. She shoots a lot of pictures. Then she pores over the photographs in her studio, chooses one and starts to paint.
"I look at the photograph and try to re-create it," Gayer said. "I like to re-create where I was."
She paints Florida scenes and vacation spots she visited with her husband and two college-age children. A favorite painting in a prominent spot in her living room is a beach scene from a trip they made to Cape Cod, Mass.
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Gayer spent her childhood and early 20s in Minnesota and Ohio. But don't expect her to visit those states in the winter so she can create a painting of a snowstorm or a snowman.
"I kind of like Florida," she said, standing in her back yard as birds frolicked nearby and the sun started to heat up the morning. "I love what I see."
It takes Gayer about two months to complete a painting. Most days, she wakes up early, grabs a cup of coffee and then holes up for hours in her studio, once her daughter Kristen's bedroom. While she paints, her golden retriever-mix, Holly, rests at her feet.
"I want to do the best quality I can with detail," she said. "I want people to say it looks like a photograph."
Gayer said birds are her favorite subjects. She loves the beaks, the coloring and even all those feathers.
"The birds are my favorite to paint," she said. "I love the details. Nothing more frustrating or thrilling than doing the feathers."
Gayer doubts she'll ever tackle abstract painting. Remember, she is a hairstylist, and it's all about the symmetry.