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Mural honors Tarpon Springs woman who made gardening impact

TARPON SPRINGS

Her blue eyes sparkle when bathed in afternoon sunlight. Her full lips bear an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile. And she grips a bouquet of flowers that will never die.

Meet Mother Meres — the mural.

"She was a woman who loved plants and loved people," said Siobhan Nehin, queen of the Garden Fairies of Tampa Bay, the group of community-minded, artistic gardeners who have spent seven months creating the massive multimedia art piece.

The mural — 17 feet tall and 22 feet wide — graces the west side of the Meres building on Tarpon Avenue.

During today's 5:30 p.m. dedication ceremony, the good fairies will give the artwork to the city.

Friday, Nehin and fellow fairies Shannon O'Leary-Beck and Kiaralinda added some last-minute painting touches to the portrait. They said the toughest part was the face.

"She's undergone more facial augmentation than Joan Rivers," said Nehin, 53, of Tarpon Springs. "At first, she looked beady-eyed and scary. We had to make her likable."

• • •

Amelia Petzold Meres was born in Germany in 1845 and emigrated to the United States with her family when she was 5.

In 1882, she and her husband, Walter, made Tarpon Springs their home, running the Ferns Hotel on what is now the southwest corner of Tarpon and Pinellas avenues.

Their home was east of the property, and Amelia Meres turned the barren land into a lush botanic jungle. Their guests dined on the fresh fruits and vegetables and honey produced in the garden.

Eventually she became known about town as "Mother Meres."

The kindly matriarch did many things to improve the landscape of the community.

She and others are credited with planting the cycads that gave Tarpon Springs' Cycadia Cemetery its name. Though the plants died during a freeze, the women replaced them with oleander, which still lives today.

She held the town's first Christmas party and helped plant trees to beautify city streets.

With material from noted botanist friend David Fairchild of Miami, she is said to have provided the seed for the famous kapok tree at the former Kapok Tree Inn on McMullen-Booth Road. Though the restaurant is gone and a music store took its place, the grand tree still thrives.

Meres took flowers to the sick and provided greenery for many public events.

She died at age 78 on Oct. 20, 1923 — 87 years ago today. Shortly after her death, her garden was transformed into a public gathering place with palms, benches and a band shell. In 1925, a floral urn was placed in her name by the garden club as a tribute.

The park remained until the 1950s, when the city turned it into a parking lot, with the exception of a small strip of land. The urn remains on the southeastern corner of Tarpon and Pinellas avenues.

Recently, one of Meres' great-grandsons, Hammond Salley of California, visited the city, heard about the project, and shared some pictures and background about Meres.

"This is totally unexpected, quite a surprise," said Salley, 71. "The family is very pleased and this is a great honor for Mother Meres."

• • •

Three years ago, the Garden Fairies started looking for a way to beautify downtown Tarpon Springs with a mural. About a year ago, the city's public art committee suggested they honor Meres at the site of her former garden.

"We took that seed and we made it grow," said Safety Harbor artist and Garden Fairy Kiaralinda, 50.

The parking lot is also the site of the Sunday Tarpon Springs Farmers Market. The market is scheduled to resume Sunday and run through May 29.

"It seems like Mother was guiding the whole thing," said Nehin, who noted the date for dedication was serendipitously planned before anyone realized it was the day she died.

"While doing research on Mother Meres, we came to conclude Mother was the county's original 'Garden Fairy,' " Nehin said. "She was spreading her love of gardening 100 years before our modern-day flock."

• • •

The marathon to make the mural began in March.

About 80 people — Garden Fairies, their friends and family and about two dozen children from the Tarpon Springs Recreation Center — contributed the estimated 2,000 hours to complete the project.

The mural, composed of 46 panels, was installed Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.

As a side note, the concrete walls surrounding the nearby Dumpster also were decorated with 86 smaller panels.

"There will be nothing ugly in fairyland," Nehin said.

Nehin estimates the value of the mosaic to be about $60,000, but she's unsure how many tiles were used to create it.

"We're artists. We just like to stick things on, not count them as we go," she said.

The project received no public funding and was made possible through fundraising activities of the Garden Fairies and Greater Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce, which included a benefit party and the Garden Fairies' 2009 garden tour.

Much of the tile was donated from Tons of Tile in Pinellas Park.

On Friday, Freddie Richardson, 73, of Clearwater parked her van, took one look at the mural with its mosaics, mirrors, glass tiles and sculpted foam vegetables and proclaimed, "Wow. She is gorgeous."

City Commissioner Robin Saenger said she's getting phone calls and e-mails from people who love the mural. She calls it Tarpon Springs' "signature piece."

Saenger is concerned though about cars parking in front of the artwork. "It might be good to have a seating area there, a couple of benches," she said.

For the past decade, the Garden Fairies have helped beautify a number of outdoor private and public areas with artwork, murals and gardens.

Fred Howard Park and a community courtyard and outdoor learning project in St. Petersburg are perhaps the biggest public beneficiaries of their work.

But they've never taken on a project this size.

As Nehin put it, "This is the mother of all murals."

Times staff writer Demorris A. Lee contributed to this report.

FAST FACTS

If you go

What: A dedication ceremony for the new Mother Meres mural, which the Garden Fairies will officially give to the city.

When: 5:30 p.m. today.

Where: Southeast corner of Tarpon and Pinellas avenues on the west side of the Meres building.

After the ceremony: A progressive reception with free wine and food provided by Tarpon Springs restaurants and retail establishments will take place.

Mural honors Tarpon Springs woman who made gardening impact 10/19/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 19, 2010 9:01pm]
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