HUDSON — Dave and Mariangela Smith know what it's like to ride a wave.
For nearly two decades, the husband and wife art team who specialize in realistic murals and fine faux finishes painted their way through their native Toledo, Ohio.
Mariangela's photo-realistic landscapes — inspired by her unabashed love of nature and God — adorned the walls of top builder's homes throughout Ohio. In 2004, her murals even garnered a "Best of Show" award in their local Home Builder's Association Parade of Homes.
At the same time, their career was cresting, the Smiths began to notice something else going on. Born and raised in Ohio (Mariangela was a fine arts major at the University of Toledo), the couple had a good grasp on who was buying their services: affluent home buyers with disposable income, as well as less affluent buyers with disposable income and a taste for home improvement.
Then things began changing; business slowed down and the people who had once been their target customers were cutting back: "The economy started souring much sooner in Ohio than in Florida," says Dave, a licensed painting contractor who quit his job as a car salesman to start the mural business with Mariangela. "Manufacturing jobs were disappearing; big companies were disappearing, it was very scary."
Too young to retire — Mariangela is now 54, Dave is 60 — they began looking at moving and resuming their business elsewhere.
"We had always planned to retire to Florida, we just accelerated our moving plans," Mariangela recalls. One of their grown sons had moved to Pasco County and, compared to their native Toledo, west central Florida began to look more and more appealing to them.
"We really researched this. We heard Pasco was a rising community in the state of Florida," Mariangela says. "People told us to come on down, that there weren't enough artists doing what we do, that we could hook up with the best builders."
So in 2004, the Smiths took a chance and sold their house in Ohio and bought another one in Fairway Oaks, a golf course community in Hudson. They started their business back up and, for a short time, things — although slower than those halcyon years in Ohio — were going fairly well.
"People don't want to pay as much for services in Florida — they barter more and the expectation for quality workmanship is lower," Dave says.
But the Smiths worked hard to make the business grow, traveling constantly in their three-quarter-ton white Chevy van — that Dave grimly calls a "gas guzzler" — through a three-county area, painting murals and faux finishes in million-dollar condos and model homes.
They took their sales pitch to major Florida home shows; they painted the walls of conference rooms and factories, including a historic mural in a factory that makes parts for airplanes. Their whimsical mural of a land shark eating a cheeseburger and a jumping whale with daisies in its mouth adorns the children's bereavement room at Gulfside Regional Hospice.
Mariangela networked and got to know other artists in the area. She has had her work displayed at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and her paintings currently are featured in a three-artist show at the Progress Energy Art Gallery in downtown New Port Richey.
Then, not too long after they moved to Pasco, the Smiths noticed what they had noticed a few years ago in Ohio. The same thing was happening in Florida, only this time they were caught in something far more bleak.
"A lot of the best builders were going bankrupt and even people with a lot of money were cutting way back," Mariangela explains. At the same time, the Smiths say, it was getting a lot more expensive to stay in business themselves.
"Our expenses have skyrocketed — just the cost of gas alone, which in most cases we won't recoup," Dave says. "We've taken a cut in pay working in Florida anyway, and our clients with the big, deep pockets are really hurting now."
The Smiths work out of a small studio, tucked away in an old, terrazzo-floored cottage across from the new Wal-Mart on U.S. 19 in Hudson. One room is devoted to Dave's workshop as well as storage for scaffolding, ladders, paint and other supplies they need to do their work.
Mariangela's studio is tucked in a corner that holds her portable easel and tubes of acrylic paint. A vase of fresh, bright pink bougainvillea serves as inspiration for a still life she is creating. Her paintings of local natural scenes adorn the walls: a wetland at Pine Island in Hernando County; a lazy day at Lake Seminole; even the locally famous blue and yellow parrot at the nearby Crab Shack.
"God is the author of all of these paintings. I just get to hold the paintbrush," says Mariangela, who, along with Dave, became a born-again Christian 25 years ago. "I paint to bring people to the recognition that He created all this. I even find it fascinating that God put feathers on that parrot."
At a small patio table in the center of the studio, they offer a visitor coffee and oatmeal cookies. Both kind and intelligent, with a genuine Midwestern lack of pretense, they wear splattered white painter's paints, neat ball caps and crisp polo shirts adorned with their company logo. They would rather tell the truth, they say, than pretend.
Earlier this week, the Smiths received a troubling notice from the Pasco County Property Appraiser's office: They learned that the value of their home has plummeted by thousands.
That night Mariangela couldn't sleep: "This is the biggest shock of our lives — that we bought into a nice community and now we can't count on the equity in our home; that our equity's just upside down."
Dave believes they are not alone in their predicament: "We're just another statistic; a small business struggling in this bad economy."
The couple says they don't know how much longer they can count on their business as their sole source of income. At this rate, "we eventually aren't going to be able to make our bills," says Mariangela, who is trained as an interior decorator and plans to try to find full-time work with a store.
Mariangela points out she isn't a pessimist — not at all, in fact.
Just a realist.
They are just like the millions of other Americans caught off-guard by the real-estate downturn, only they can see the truth even more clearly because their specialty business is tied directly to the housing market.
"We're scared. We need a new president. We need consumer confidence," Mariangela says. "Without it, people will continue to tighten their purse strings. This isn't about our talent or hard work, it's about disposable income. And even the people at the top of the heap are holding back these days."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at [email protected]