TAMPA — When local artist Carolyn Heller passed away in August 2011, she left behind little everyday things, like the way she would whistle to get her four children's attention when they were young. • "Now we still whistle for each other," said daughter Fran Heller. • She left big things, too — including a collection of 150 pieces of art spanning a 60-year career. Her children grew up watching her paint, so most of the pieces they found in her South Tampa home were familiar. But there were also about 30 pieces they'd never seen before. • Now her family is sharing her art with the community through an online gallery set to launch next month and a Tampa Museum of Art exhibit planned for March. • On Thursday, they brought three of her pieces to the Kate Jackson Community Center in Hyde Park to teach children there about her life and style.
Katharine Walker-Herbert, team supervisor for Tampa Parks and Recreation, taught a group of 18 children about Heller's work, explaining how she used bold colors and was inspired by abstract expressionism.
"The feeling and the color is more important than making it look exactly like a little boy on a bicycle," Walker-Herbert told the group, pointing to an early painting Heller did of her son Alan on a tricycle when he was 6. "To her, it was more important. That's where she expressed herself."
Heller loved to paint with her five grandchildren. She would spread paint and paper across a table during family reunions.
"The kids would come and sit with her for hours," said Fran Heller, who lives in California. She traveled back to Tampa for the Thursday lesson. Alan Heller, who lives in Tampa, brought his children, Benjamin, 8, and Sydney, 6, to paint with the group.
Heller's work was colorful and vibrant and reflected her bold personality. She had an eye for interior design, often helped friends create flower arrangements, and helped hang artwork in her children's homes.
"She was your classic artist," Fran Heller said. "She had a real gift for arranging and knowing what the right artistic flair was."
Heller died of a blood clot in August 2011, at age 74. She had lived in South Tampa since moving there in 1961. She was a proponent of public art as a member of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County from 1996 to 2004, and helped establish the county's Public Art Committee.
"She had a bigger objective of wanting to see art in people's lives," Fran Heller said. The online gallery is "our way of sharing with the community her body of work."
Heller's family wanted to see her work shared with children, and hopes to offer more activities like Thursday's in the future. Learning about an artist who was a member of their community makes art seem more accessible, Walker-Herbert said.
"If you never know an artist, you might not think it's something that's possible for you," she said.
During the lesson, Sydney and Benjamin painted fish the way their grandmother did. Sydney painted with her often, and Benjamin paints every Friday now at Dale Mabry Elementary.
The online gallery of Heller's work will launch next month and show the range of her career, from pieces she did in the 1950s and '60s to her later work. The website will also share memories and stories of her life from people who knew her, taken from a recording booth set up at her funeral last year.
The Tampa Museum of Art exhibit will run March 1-10, with an opening reception on Feb. 28.
Keeley Sheehan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3321.