BROOKSVILLE — Two hours into the party, the watercolor artist hadn't made much progress on her rendering of the Weeki Wachee River.
As guests mingled around her, Spring Hill resident Karen Heidler demonstrated her technique, brushing in some of the green and brown foliage on the riverbank. She hadn't yet dipped into her palette's light blues and greens to capture the crystal-clear waters.
Still, Heidler decided to take a break.
"I should be painting right now, but I'd rather be talking to people," a smiling Heidler confessed a few moments later.
That battle of priorities at the recent party to celebrate the opening of Hernando POP's Brooksville headquarters offered a sign that the county's newest cultural organization had already made progress toward its goal: bringing people together to promote, preserve and encourage the arts — and make sure to have fun doing it.
Short for People of Passion, the nonprofit group can do that in ways both basic and grand, said executive director Lynne Simone.
It can be as simple as offering classes to help people explore hidden talents. And it can be visionary, expanding the borders of Hernando's cultural picture beyond what some might think possible.
"All of the artists know we've needed a place for a long time, and now we have one, and it can only get better," Simone said, addressing a few dozen guests at the party on a recent Friday evening. Many were artists and volunteers such as Heidler who helped transform the old building at 417 W Jefferson St.
"Thank you," Simone said, "for believing in us."
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A businessman familiar to many in Hernando provided the spark for POP.
Simone, who also serves as publicity chairwoman for the Spring Hill Art League, went to Gus Guadagnino last fall to get some ideas on how to market and raise money for arts events. The owner of Joni Industries, a marketing company in Brooksville, Guadagnino is a well connected, active community volunteer.
Though he had ideas for Simone, Guadagnino would soon seek some input from her, too.
By then, he had already purchased the one-story building on Jefferson Street. Built in 1929 and nestled on a small, oak-shaded lot at the bottom of the hill just east of Mildred Avenue, the former home has over the years housed businesses ranging from a florist to a print shop.
Guadagnino took Simone there one day last spring and opened the back door. "What do you see in this space?" he asked.
The low ceilings seemed close enough to touch. Few of the angles met squarely. All the walls had been painted white.
A blank canvas, Simone thought. "I saw a creative haven for all of us to work out of," she recalled. "To teach, to meet, to network."
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Guadagnino hired Simone as project manager, and the renovations began in earnest.
The long, narrow back room will serve as studio and classroom. The front rooms are home to Guadagnino's newest venture, Dream House Marketing.
He envisions that a synergistic partnership between Dream House and Hernando POP can help market the arts, and the artists can help Dream House with the creative design.
A former New Yorker who developed a love of the arts in the Big Apple, Guadagnino said he felt compelled to tap that for the county his family has called home for 25 years. His son, Joseph, is getting more involved in the day-to-day operations of Joni Industries, freeing up time for Dad to pursue a dream.
"Because I wanted to be in tune with the arts, I figured I might as well work where I want to be," Guadagnino said at the opening party as the sounds of a live jazz duo floated in from another room.
During a short speech earlier in the evening, Guadagnino said he was thankful for the support of his family, including wife, Annmarie, and daughter, Nicole. He said he has served on various community boards over the years, but was proudest of POP.
"The only thing you can really build this county on is quality of life," he said, "and you can't build quality of life without culture and the arts."
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Among the guests at the opening was Sherry Tarrio, a board member for the Hernando County Fine Arts Council.
The council has spent years building the county's cultural foundation. It will be nice to have another partner to help raise the walls, Tarrio said.
"This center is a spark of things to come in the art community in Hernando County," she said.
Rhonda Hancock, coordinator of Brooksville City Hall's art gallery, said POP is the kind of progress the county needs. And with a tiny budget getting tighter, a government-funded arts center is simply not part of the Brooksville's financial picture, she said.
"This will meet a need the city couldn't," Hancock said.
Next month, POP will offer what's being billed as a "day of discovery." For $25, participants will be able to spend the day with five artists who will offer an introduction to watercolors, pastels and other media.
One of the artists is Evie Harper, whose animal forms shaped from wood and clay are among Hernando's most recognizable creations. She recently turned to a new subject: human faces.
At the party, Harper's fingers molded a winking female visage from clay sunk into a cypress stump she'd salvaged from a fire pit.
POP has ignited something, Harper said.
"It feels like freedom in here," she said. "It's just a positive energy. It's going to be a fun place."
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.