DUNEDIN — In the sometimes proper world of community arts, Nancy McIntyre was a redheaded, big-hearted, big-voiced giant.
For 18 years, she led the Dunedin Fine Art Center as executive director, spearheading the creation of its hands-on children's museum, expanding community arts classes and expertly navigating the sometimes-strained tensions between artists and the people who pay them.
"She was a true original," said Catherine Bergmann, an artist whom Ms. McIntyre recruited to work at the center more than 11 years ago.
Widely credited with transforming the Fine Art Center into a beacon of activity benefiting artists and community members alike, Ms. McIntyre led with humor and force, never shying from the avant-garde when sticking with still lifes and pastels might have been more politic.
When Ms. McIntyre died July 29 at age 61 of complications from cancer, she left behind a legion of fans, many of them artists who credit her with playing a pivotal role in their personal and professional journeys.
Jeffrey James DaCosta remembers riding his boyhood BMX bicycle 2 miles to get to summer art camp at the center. "I used to look forward to the summer programs calendar like nothing else," the Arizona sculptor, now 31, wrote in an e-mail to Ms. McIntyre, recalling his days there "amongst my most influential and formative experiences."
DaCosta's note to Ms. McIntyre arrived an hour after her death.
Growing up in St. Petersburg, Ms. McIntyre loved drawing and painting, and, as an adult, pursued the textile arts. But she never thought of her own work as being very good, said her husband and longtime professional partner, David Shankweiler.
Still, her enthusiasm for art and the role of artists in the community spilled over into what others described as an intuitive ability to look past traditional professional qualifications and identify burgeoning talent.
Bergmann, an artist who'd always worked day jobs, was pregnant when Ms. McIntyre met her. She recruited Bergmann with a offer she couldn't refuse: "When you have your baby," Ms. McIntyre said, "you should come back to work for us and bring your baby."
Eleven years later, Bergmann remains at the Fine Art Center as a curator and director of adult education.
Ask people about Ms. McIntyre, and funny images emerge.
Shankweiler remembers during one of those push-the-envelope exhibits that his wife sought, one artist's installation of found objects included an old mattress exploding with blue-painted legs and arms.
Aaron Fodiman, a longtime center supporter and former board chairman, pulled then-curator Shankweiler aside: "David," he said, "there are ants coming out of the sculpture."
"She had more fun doing that kind of thing because it shook people up," Shankweiler recalled.
She infused humor into business. During one staff meeting, she passed out votive candles and warned that anyone who uttered a negative word would have his or her flame blown out. During another, she ruled with a comic foam mallet to be used if anyone got "out of hand."
"She still hung on to the mystery and magic of being a child," said Todd Still, the center's director of youth education, whom Ms. McIntyre hired 14 years ago.
But with the fun came battles.
McIntyre of Dunedin found herself repeatedly defending the arts as worthy of public funding. "They are seen as a frill," Ms. McIntyre said in 1994, "and that's okay if you want your world to be gray."
She departed her post suddenly in 2004 in a painful separation. Today, those involved still speak guardedly about it.
Officially, Ms. McIntyre left "to pursue other options," Shankweiler said. But Fodiman said she was in declining health and the board wanted a change.
Besides the Art Center, Ms. McIntyre loved collecting art, giving gifts and swimming in gulf waters. And anyone who knew her personally knew her greatest love was Shankweiler.
Theirs was a 28-year romance that began with Ms. McIntyre's trademark goofball humor.
He saw her across the room at 10 Beach Drive piano bar. She smiled back, then pulled her shoe off and stuck it on her head.
He was smitten: "She knew by looking at me that I was that weird."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or email@example.com.