TAMPA — Carolyn Heller painted the world around the way she lived, boldly and with bright colors.
She painted stars and the moon, fish and flowers, ladybugs and martinis. She painted a chair for Ronda Storms and a pool table for another customer, complete with legs that looked like palm trees and a Key West theme on the sides. She painted purses and bar stools, aprons and ice buckets and watering cans, shoe bags and tote bags.
Most famously, Ms. Heller transformed art sales into multi-purpose entertainment in her South Tampa townhouse. Browsers at an annual happy hour art sale met a large woman with a big laugh and a Southern accent as distinct as sorghum, who used terms like "fabulous" or "kick a---" to describe the things she liked and who expressed disapproval with similar gusto.
Ms. Heller, one of Tampa's most recognizable artists, died Monday as the result of a blood clot. She was 74.
"She was part Auntie Mame, part Tallulah Bankhead and part queen mother," said longtime friend Jim Porter.
Her work has filled private and public collections, raised big bucks for AIDS prevention and brightened countless living rooms.
"Carolyn's work was decorative," said Art Keeble, the arts council's executive director. "It was playful. It was accessible; you understood it. And she was pretty prolific."
The woman who drove around town with a license plate that read 4 ART enjoyed good food, foreign films, and a late afternoon cosmo or Long Island iced tea with an eclectic range of friends.
"She was able to build this army of friends that grew and grew," said Janet Heller, her daughter, "to a point where she couldn't walk anywhere … where she wasn't considered an important, big-deal person."
She leveraged the force of her personality even with people who didn't know her. For example, Ms. Heller escaped a traffic fine by laying Southern charm on the judge. She knew it would work, she told friends, the moment she saw his seersucker suit.
On the other hand, she dismissed those who somehow fell short of her standards. "I couldn't warm up to her if I was cremated next to her," she said of one acquaintance.
"A Southern accent usually went with someone demure," said former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, a close friend since the days when both had children enrolled at Berkeley Preparatory School. "With her, you would think, 'Oh, my goodness, did a girl from the South just say that?' "
That fearlessness also translated into loyalty. "In those days, it was not necessarily politically correct to be accepting of all people, and Carolyn was," Freedman said. "Black, white, gay, straight, whatever — if she liked you, she liked you as a friend and would stick with you no matter what anyone else thought."
Carolyn Frohsin was born in Alexander City, Ala. She graduated from H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, then a women's affiliate of Tulane University, with a fine arts degree. In 1958 she married Edward Heller, a future tax lawyer.
The couple moved to Tampa in 1961. Ms. Heller joined art classes, garden clubs and Congregation Schaarai Zedek, winning people over at every stop.
She seasoned her parties with live jazz, unforgettable gumbo and a guest list that mixed gay activists with the elderly, and free-spirited twentysomethings with society matrons.
"She would see you and figure out a way for you to buy a piece of her art," her daughter said. "And you would feel glad, you would have a good time, and you would feel like you had been somewhere."
Ms. Heller's civic involvement only increased after her divorce in the late 1970s. She sat on the Arts Council of Hillsborough County from 1996 to 2004 and a public art committee that secures funds for artwork through construction projects. In 1997, a painting of Ms. Heller's was the centerpiece and top seller in an auction sponsored by the Tampa AIDS Network.
Ms. Heller entered Tampa General Hospital Aug. 18, where doctors found gastrointestinal blockage caused by a blood clot, her family said.
She died four days later at 5 p.m.
Happy hour, her friends noted.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]