Tampa Bay's over-50 creatives find their voice in their art

Allen Pettigrew loved to paint as a kid but put the hobby aside when he grew up, went to work, got married and started a family. At 52, he’s still working at his everyday job as executive director of the recreation center for youths with the Seminole Tribe in Tampa.

But four years ago, he picked up the paintbrush again. Now, he paints every night. He starts about 6 o’clock and paints till 11 or 12, losing track of time.

“I find peace, solitude and just a spiritual awakening,’’ he says.

He hates to miss a day at it. 

“I can feel the balance not being there,” Pettigrew says.

Staying creative, staying healthy

A creative outlet helps people stay well into old age, says Frances Duran Brea, general manager of senior centers for the Hillsborough County Department of Aging Services.

To promote its clients’ health and wellness, the department used a grant through the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners for instructors from the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts to hold classes at various senior centers in the county. The program started February 1st and the last nine-week class, taught by professional photographers Cathy and Pierre Dutertre, wraps up this month.

“What we love about this class is it covers pretty much six out of the seven dimensions in the class,’’ says Duran Brea.

Brea is referring to the seven dimensions of wellness, which, according to the department, are physical, emotional, intellectual, social, environmental, spiritual and financial.

The Hillsborough County Department of Aging Services uses funding from the County Commission to pay for photography classes led by instructors from the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts at various senior centers in the county.The seniors taking the class were handed Canon point-and-shoot cameras and encouraged to look at the world in different ways, says Pierre Dutertre. The students appreciate the creativity and the companionship, he says. The class keeps them active and intellectually engaged and gives them a sense of accomplishment, he notes.

"We actually also allow them to have a sense of accomplishment because we do prints every meeting for them, their favorite pictures,’’ he says. “And, of course, they share these with their friends, their kids. So there is an added communication component to it.’’

Being creative is apparently addictive. Pettigrew says he takes his canvases and paints with him even on vacation.

“I guess people would say I’m obsessed with getting better and working on my craft,’’ he says.

Vivid colors dominate his paintings. A rendering of former boxing champ Mike Tyson is in dazzling reds, yellows, oranges, blues and more.

“The color is everything,’’ Pettigrew says. “If you see a kid going into a store the first thing they’re going to gravitate to is color. That’s something to make my art pop. It’s all about bringing together all the vibrant colors.’’

Pettigrew went to Central Methodist University on a basketball scholarship, married a month after graduation and went to work, leaving painting alone for decades.

“I didn’t have the sense (that) my stuff was good enough to sell,” he says. “I think that probably stopped me. And I also had a clothing store. I always had a little side business. I had so much going on that it was just, like, the art can’t make me no money.”Over-50 artist Allen Pettigrew returned to painting after decades away. now, he says his ultimate goal is His ultimate professional goal is “to just do nothing but be an artist.’’
He started painting again in the middle of the pandemic and says he’s seen great improvement over the last four years. And he’s making sales. He shows his work at the Ybor Saturday Market and at Armature Works on the second Sunday of the month. His art is also on display at the Carrollwood Cultural Center. His ultimate goal is “to just do nothing but be an artist.’’

That was a decision Tampa watercolor artist Donna Morrison faced 23 years ago. She decided to sell her graphics arts business and become a full-time artist, and it has worked out. She’s owner of Donna Morrison Fine Art and Commissions in Tampa, a member of national, regional and state watercolor societies and was named one of the top 10 emerging national artists to watch by Watercolor Artist magazine. She teaches watercolor, holds workshops and shows in juried competitions throughout the country.

She loved coloring and drawing as a kid but says, “I was not really encouraged to do art because basically, we didn’t know anybody being financially successful in an art career.’’ 

Making a career in art

Morrison got a business degree from Furman University in Greenville, S.C., moved to Tampa in 1988 and went to work in marketing for the Brandon Chamber of Commerce. She worked for a while for a short-lived magazine and started the graphic arts business, which she sold after 10 years to concentrate on painting full-time. She worked in different mediums before gravitating to watercolor.

“The more I got to understand it, watercolor has such a variety of approaches and ways of making it look different and respond differently to how you’re using it. Different surfaces you can paint on. The world is huge when you understand the ins and outs of it and it’s constantly expanding,’’ she says.

The technique was daunting at first, she says.

“In the beginning, when you don’t really know how it works and you keep trying to paint, you lose control very easily,” Morrison says.

The best tip came from an accomplished watercolor artist years ago.

“He said, ‘Paint for a little while and walk away,’’’ she says. “It made all the difference for me. When you let it dry, the game changes. When you walk away and come back, the paint has soaked into the paper and dried, so it’s now locked in. You’ve got it locked into where you want it to be.’’

Morrison is a photorealism painter specializing in Florida nature and culture. She was influenced, she says, by Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth.

“My passion is nature,’’ she says. “I see a thing in nature that I love and I can recreate, it gives me a lot of pleasure and then it’s kind of out of my system. So if you come along and you see this and you’re like, wow, I’d love to have that in my house, that is such a huge blessing for me because not only have I been able to live that and enjoy that, I’ve given you something that you can now live and enjoy. And I help tell the story. That’s the passion along with the painting, is telling the story.’’

“My passion is nature,’’ Tampa painter Donna Morrison says of her art. “I see a thing in nature that I love and I can recreate, it gives me a lot of pleasure and then it’s kind of out of my system."Her favorite place to go, she says, is on the Chassahowitzka River to “be by myself in this incredible nature.’’ She paints and listens to games on the radio.

“And I’m sitting there thinking that I just paid 20 bucks to rent this boat for the day,’’ she says, “and I’m having a thousand percent better time than somebody that just spent $3,000 in the middle of Disney World. It’s just who I am.’’
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Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.