GULFPORT — Ten years ago, Anne Morton of St. Petersburg picked up her first paintbrush in an art class at the Gulfport Senior Center.
This month, she's hosting an art show in the lobby of another part of the same building, the Catherine A. Hickman Theater.
In between, she made two missionary trips to Kenya, Africa — teaching Maasai widows and orphans how to sew. It became the basis for her paintings and her Maasai Women exhibition.
Morton, a former teacher and Ohio native, manages to capture a genuine happiness on the faces of the proud African women who wear brightly colored garments and beaded jewelry and live in the highlands on the border of Kenya and Tanzania.
"I fell in love with the Maasai women. They are the happiest people and have the most beautiful smiles — and they are so eager to learn," she said.
Morton went to Kenya, which is on the eastern coast of Africa, with a missionary group called Threads of Hope, formed in 1996 by her friends, Al and Gail Barrett of Dunedin. It wasn't a coincidence sewing became their missionary work. Al Barrett designs and sews canvas boat tops, covers and upholstery for a living.
"Our purpose is to bring sewing skills and equipment in order to meet the needs where God directs us. Our intent is to help them gain financial stability, giving them a start they could not otherwise have on their own," the group's mission statement says in part.
The Maasai, Morton said, were thankful for the donated sewing machines — electric and treadle for places there is no electricity — thread, material and other sewing accessories but the beads, not so much.
"They wouldn't use them. They only use the traditional beads," she said.
In the four weeks Morton spent in Kenya in 2004 and again in 2005, she and several fellow missionaries stayed in the tribal chief's compound and ate lots of stew: potatoes, beef or lamb, carrots and onions.
The Maasai are herdsmen. They raise cattle but grow very few crops.
While Morton is not sure she'll go back— it's very expensive— she said she believes her group made a difference in the lives of the hard-working Maasai women.
"They made great strides in their sewing ability because they kept practicing."
Exactly what Morton said she plans to do with her painting.
Patti Ewald lives in Gulfport. Reach her at email@example.com.