The best time for Kim Wells to paint is after she gets her three kids off to school. She cranks up Metallica and Nine Inch Nails and grabs her brushes.
"The energy of the music takes me to a happy place," said Wells, 44.
Her art is more than a hobby. She sells paintings of strawberry fields and antique cars. And now, several of Wells' pieces hang on the exposed-brick walls of an art gallery in downtown Plant City that opened last month.
Eight artists have joined the Art Lounge Gallery, an art co-op in a chic little storefront on Reynolds Street that features about 130 pieces. There are enhanced photographs, abstract paintings, portraits, still-life renderings and landscapes.
"It's a great opportunity, as artists, to have your work seen by people," Wells said.
Several of the artists have already sold pieces and received commissions from visitors. For one, a priest, it's not about money; he uses the exposure for evangelism.
In the gallery, Wells points to an acrylic painting of an antique blue truck sitting near a strawberry field at dusk. It's her favorite piece, and it received first place in the adult acrylic category at the Strawberry Festival last year.
"It's a peaceful moment," she said of the painting. "I imagine myself as a farmer on the field who just finished a day's work."
Wells had a hard time adjusting to life in Tampa when her family moved from the Seattle area four years ago for her husband's job. She had worked for years as a bartender and server, and it was difficult to quit her job and move.
She started painting to feel as if she still had a career.
"I could be at home and not feel guilty," she said.
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The gallery was Heather Davis' idea. Davis, the co-owner of the former Coffee 101, writes about local artists for Focus magazine, and she thought they needed a place to display their work.
For months, Davis and the artists huddled in living rooms making plans until they had a core group of eight, all Plant City residents.
"They really took the ball and ran with it," said Davis, now the group's treasurer.
On a recent afternoon, Debra Bryant, 57, painted by the light streaming in through the large window at the front of the narrow room. She was working on the face of the bishop in her reproduction of a portrait by 19th century Czech artist Václav Brožík. It'll be displayed at Brandon's Center Place in December.
Bryant picked up a brush about 15 years ago, after a back injury kept her from work. She painted landscapes with her sister. A year later, she took a portrait class that focused on reproducing the style of the old masters. She fell in love.
"And I've been doing that ever since," she said.
Bryant, who teaches a painting class at Center Place, said she thinks anyone can learn to paint. It just takes work.
"I've read one novel in the last 15 years. The rest were art books," Bryant said. "I tell people, 'I don't read. I study.' "
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Father Carlos Rojas has to draw. He doesn't do it for money or attention. It's a form of self-expression.
"It's a way of getting out my thoughts," he said.
In July, he had a lot of thoughts flying through his head. He was in Mexico City, and his traveling buddies — parishioners from St. Clement Catholic Church who had been sightseeing — returned to Florida. He had some time to himself, and he didn't know what to do.
He prayed, and it came to him, he said: He'd walk about 140 miles from Mexico City to a shrine in Querétaro, Mexico.
Still, he was still torn. He wasn't sure if that's what God wanted.
"There is a thin line between being courageous and being stupid," he said. "It sounds very stupid to go to Mexico and do this hike by myself, in the context of swine flu and the increase in kidnappings."
The next Sunday, the Bible reading at Mass was from the sixth chapter of Mark, in which Jesus sends out his disciples to preach and instructs them to take nothing for the journey except a walking stick.
Inspired, Rojas took a backpack with only one change of clothes, a few toiletries and a first aid kit. He didn't bring food or water, and he didn't need it. In his seven-day walk, he came across small stores and helpful people whenever he became hungry or thirsty.
He expressed that experience — the self-doubt and epiphany — in an ink self-portrait he created when he returned to Plant City. Rojas appears curious and contemplative in the portrait. Next to his face, he transcribed the journal entry from the day he was debating what he'd do.
He displayed the piece at the Art Lounge Gallery for a month; it's now at Plant City's Bruton Memorial Library with several other pieces inspired by his trip.
Rojas said it's important that Plant City have a gallery to encourage artists and to inspire residents.
"Art isn't just creation. It inspires the soul. It moves and encourages," he said. And the Art Lounge is "a great place to hang out."
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.