TAMPA — She sees them in her dreams, these characters.
A winged ballerina with Harlequin smudged eyes in an ancient wood.
A tuxedoed gentleman in a gas mask with a steaming power plant atop his hat.
A little girl who woke up floating on a bed in the ocean.
Shimmering, magnificent mermaids.
Lissa Hatcher always has something close by to capture the visions so they don't slip away: the voice recorder on her phone, her iPad, sketch books. They become real to her. They have names and backstories and personalities. They push her to keep going.
"If I don't stay true to what I'm doing, then the little characters that live in my head don't get to come out," said Hatcher, 39, a surrealist photographer who will be showing her work at the Oxford Exchange's Holiday Gift Bazaar this weekend. "And that scares me. But it's a good way to be."
It's still strange sometimes for Hatcher, who is warm and down to earth, to think of herself as an artist with a following, an artist whose work is collected by people across the globe. A little more than a decade ago, she had never taken a photo, other than the random snapshot.
In the summer of 2001, Hatcher, a stay-at-home mom, and her two young children were living with her in-laws in Destin while her husband, Jeff, was deployed with the Navy. She borrowed her mother's good camera for a trip to New Orleans. There, she tried to capture the beauty she saw, especially in the old cemeteries.
Back home, she dropped off the film at a Ritz Camera to be developed. When she came to pick up her photos, they were spread out over the counter.
"These are really good," the technicians said. The employees told Hatcher she should enter her photos in a contest sponsored by Ritz.
"You guys are crazy," she thought. But she entered the contest anyway and came in second place, winning $500.
Months later came the terrorist attacks. Jeff had been days away from coming home, with Lissa and the kids set to meet him in Maryland, where he was to be stationed next. But his ship was redeployed. He couldn't call or communicate. Her in-laws had already planned to sell their Destin home and move to Alabama.
Suddenly, Hatcher was a single mother scrambling to figure out living arrangements on her own. That frightening time changed her. What if something terrible happened to Jeff? They had been together since they were teenagers. In addition to coping with overwhelming grief, how would she and the kids survive?
"I realized that if he was gone, I couldn't take care of myself," Hatcher said.
A few months later he came home and, while living in Maryland, Hatcher enrolled in photography classes. She entered another art show and won first place. She was so stunned that Jeff had to nudge her toward the podium.
She started out shooting weddings. She did a lot of family portraits. She won more awards. Jeff was stationed in Oklahoma and then in the Tampa Bay area. As Hatcher's business grew, so did her art. She made her visions reality, with shoots that resembled movie sets. Nearly all of the things in her pieces are shown as they were in real life.
For the dream of the girl on a bed in the ocean, she actually had a girl on a bed in the ocean. For a mermaid in the forest, a model was fitted with a spectacular, gorgeous tail created by local "Mertailor" Eric Ducharme, then carried into the woods.
If Hatcher needs to photograph an elephant or some other wild creature, she heads to Lowry Park Zoo or Busch Gardens. She and Jeff build things like giant tea cups. She's continually collecting costumes and props.
She teaches courses around the country for the Professional Photographers of America on conceptual photography: how to carry out your ideas from the beginning to the end. She feels like she's getting noticed now more than before and feels blessed. She has been able to have the best of both worlds, to be at home with her children and, now that they are young adults living on their own, she can focus on her art.
She continues to do client work, but on her terms. She wants it to be fun and creative, and the people who seek her out tend to want that, too. Recently a young woman said to her, "I've always wanted to be an elf. Can I be an elf?"
"Absolutely," Hatcher told her.
Not all clients know what they want. Hatcher interviews them, sometimes several times, so she can create a concept that fits.
"If you look at the piece, you can always see who that person is," she said.
It's important to her to make real connections with clients. She opens herself up completely and they, in turn, do the same. The results are often intense. Many people come to her at emotional times — a victory after a cancer battle, a family's first portrait without someone whose battle was lost — and times of transition, senior photos, engagements, weddings.
"There is something inside her head that is different than everyone else," said Kathy Bramhall, 45, who found Hatcher at the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts and hired her to do a shoot with herself and her niece.
Bramhall, who has no children, suffers from multiple sclerosis and wanted something fun her niece can remember her by. It was a steampunk shoot. Bramhall, a vice president of business development for Condominium Associates, found herself in spiky boots with crazy hair extensions on the beach. She and her niece had the best time. She now considers Hatcher a dear friend.
"I just love her," she said. "She is amazing."
After the pieces are finished, Hatcher holds a private viewing with the subjects. Often, they are crying and laughing and hugging each other and her. She's giving them a gift, but they are giving her a gift in return. She gets to be a part of their lives, with her work being a part of their families, hopefully for generations. She is thankful.
"I don't know if people get to live that in their lives ever," she said. "I get to do it two to three times a week."
For more information about Lissa Hatcher's works, visit her website at lissahatcher.com, email [email protected] or call (813) 948-6024.