Looking at a mural by artist Karen Lewis is a little like peering into the soul of her subjects. Her realistic, but deeply felt, images often include touches of the world she is painting: a client's dog or pet finches or a favorite tree.
Sometimes the personal reference is tucked into a scene of old Florida or Tuscany or an imaginary landscape that looks comforting and familiar. It's her subtle nod to the idea that a mural is a very personal statement.
"Occasionally people give me a picture of what they want; sometimes we talk and I come up with an idea for them," says Lewis, 60, who began painting murals seven years ago.
A farmer in Polk County sat on his front porch and told her about his beloved lychee trees. Another client wanted her pet birds and tree frog from the yard in the mural. The owner of a historic home in Hyde Park agreed to have his cream-colored Lab represented in the picture.
"That dog was the sweetest thing. He sat at my feet every day when I was painting. When I was done with the job, I went back to visit him," Lewis says.
Her clients have included homeowners all over Hillsborough County, from Cheval and Avila to South Tampa and Brandon. She travels with paints, primer, drop cloths, brushes, sponges, scrapers and other tools stowed in the back of her mobile art studio: a silver Kia Sorrento that she calls her "rolling cart."
Word of mouth keeps her so busy, she says, that there's been no need to advertise.
A 30-year resident of Fox Hollow in Northdale, Lewis began exploring art in the early 1980s when she joined Classy Crafters. The popular group attracted legions of serious crafters and held annual three-day holiday craft sales in members' home.
Lewis, whose parents were both artists, grew up in Bethesda, Md. In younger years, she was a hairstylist in a salon owned by Frank Stallone, Sylvester's father.
She and her husband, George, a computer analyst for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, moved to Tampa nearly 30 years ago "to follow the good weather and because George loves to play golf." They never looked back. They raised two sons - one bought a house just two doors away.
"It's a great neighborhood. We like our neighbors, we like our yard," Lewis says. "And besides, we have everything we need."
Lewis started painting murals when good friend, Beverly Bakalyar, a Tampa faux painter, asked for her help on a seascape mural that featured a lighthouse on the ocean. It was such a hit with the client's friends and family that Lewis' business "just took off after that," she says.
Lewis likes smaller jobs - "it's definitely a part of my psyche" - and being able to develop relationships with her customers.
After she completes a mural, Lewis wants people "to feel like I've really been there," she says, "Like I really know them on a more soulful level."
Lewis and Bakalyar still collaborate on occasion and worked on a job together at a large home in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
"We've been good friends for 35 years," Lewis says. "Beverly still brings me in to help paint a child's bedroom or a niche or alcove in a new home."
The two have been very involved in the Florida chapter of the Stencil Artisan League Inc., a national group that attracts faux finishers, muralists and decorative artists. They also continue their education by taking classes and workshops with artists who are well known in the business.
The best murals, Lewis says, incorporate layers and depth.
"Layers are what you do with the paint; depth is what you experience with the eye."
Lewis says she can make a small room or bathroom seem bigger "by making the eye go through it."
In her own modest living room, she painted an Oriental-style mural with mountains and mist, adding "another 5 feet onto the room."
She typically works for days on a project, painting in silence and sometimes asking clients not to hover, so she can concentrate.
For now, she says, word-of-mouth demand for murals keeps her busy at just the right pace: "I don't envision going crazy with it; I'm comfortable."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at email@example.com.