Palmetto Art Center Creates Sense Of Community, Manatee

To meet "the clay lady," head south of Tampa to Palmetto.

Just before you get to Bradenton on Business U.S. Highway 41, this town of 15,000 residents is reminiscent of old Florida with waterfront vistas, restored bungalows and Spanish moss. In the heart of historic downtown is the Palmetto Art Center (PAC), the brainchild and full-time passion of owner and operator Gretchen LeClezio -- "clay lady'' to local schoolchildren who take her pottery classes.

LeClezio is a certified teacher specializing in learning disabilities who taught decorative glazing and hand-building classes in Cape Town, South Africa, before returning home to Manatee County. Her passion for art, education, family and community were the inspiration for opening the PAC. The Center is open for classes Monday through Friday at 907 5th Street West. It houses a gallery featuring established and up-and-coming local artists that is open noon to 2 p.m., except Wednesdays. Class prices vary and discounts are available. Gallery admission is free. The PAC also is available for private parties and meetings, and holds a variety of free art shows, usually in conjunction with community events such as First Friday.

It is a social place where friends and neighbors gather.

"We sit, socialize and have coffee after class," she says. "I think the more time groups spend together, the more compassionate they become about one another. One thing we do when we go to breakfast or have coffee here is ask someone new, 'What's your story?' We all have stories to tell and it helps people open up. I think people have this longing to connect."

LeClezio considers the Center a work in progress. "We are still figuring out what the community needs and wants in an art center, and what we have the time and energy to accommodate," she says.

Listening to the community is integral to the PAC's success. While there is no formal advisory board yet, LeClezio gets plenty of feedback.

"People feel pretty open to make suggestions, enough to come to me one-on-one and give advice." The best sounding board, she adds, is her husband and co-owner Dominique, who paints walls, does the website, press releases and many things behind the scenes.
Creating Community Through Art

More than an art center, the PAC has grown into a venue for a variety of programs besides clay and pottery, including yoga, Pilates, tai chi, cooking, dance and sewing. LeClezio received grants to create special programs for Just for Girls, a Palmetto alternative school, and the Palmetto Elementary 21st Century after school program. Families drive up from as far as Venice and Punta Gorda to participate in the PAC's growing home school program.

Just For Girls Director Dee Ralph appreciates the confidence and life lessons her students learn at PAC.

"We've enjoyed our ongoing relationship with PAC. Our students struggle with traditional learning programs and don't get a chance to express themselves creatively on a daily basis. We try to educate the whole student by introducing community service and teaching them to make good choices," she says. "Last year, the girls made two pottery bowls -- one to keep and one to give to the Meals on Wheels 'Empty Bowls' fundraiser luncheon."

Pam Williams, a fourth-grade reading and social studies teacher, has high praise for Palmetto Elementary collaboration, particularly the "Florida's First People and Their Craft of Clay" program about the Weeden and Calusa Indians. "Gretchen does a good job integrating the history with the crafting. Kids learn how hard it is to craft something utilitarian. This is a worthwhile program for the students," she says.

The home school programs are a place for students to be social and creative, says LeClezio. "They learn some art history and have hands-on experience, but there is more freedom so they don't feel like they are still in a classroom after eight hours." Some of these children have special needs such as autism, and the environment at the PAC is positive, where it is all about the experience, not personal skill.

PAC also donates event and exhibition space to "heART and SOUL,'' a fundraising exhibition of Manatee County School student artists. LeClezio also is public art coordinator for the Palmetto Community Redevelopment Agency. 

The Art Of Legacy

Through PAC's seasonal art shows, LeClezio has built an extensive network of local artists. While the number of shows has varied each year, the Center has featured well-known local artists such as Jean Blackburn, Helen Romeike-Wisniewski, Cheryl Moody, and others affiliated with the Studio at Gulf and Pine.

"One of our popular shows is 'Art Meets Agriculture' that takes place during Farm City Week here in Palmetto in November. All the parks around town participate and the art has an agricultural theme," she says.

She's earned respect from the local artists. "I think Gretchen is a gifted, brilliant young woman, who, with the help of her husband, is providing the community of Palmetto with a surprisingly broad program of creative, uplifting classes and activities. Other art centers seem to need committees and staff to do less than what Gretchen does on her own. The receptions are truly lovely, and it's heart-warming to see local families walk through to see the art," says Anna Maria artist Maro Lorimer.

The Center has inspired others to grow their own business. Former PAC teacher and returning Iraqi veteran, Terry Bibbins, after growing his Tae Kwon Do class at the PAC, has since opened his own dojo on U.S. 41 in Palmetto. Jimmy White started with PAC when he first quit law to follow his photography passion.

These are her rewards, says LeClezio. "I'll go over to the schools and they grab me and say, 'Hey, you're the clay lady. You're over at that clay place.'  You know you only had them for about hour, yet you had a positive impact on their learning experience."

Sandra Caswell Hice is a freelance writer living in Tampa with two dogs, two cats and husband Joe. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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