Art Connection of Fort Pierce: Creating an artistic mecca for truly one-of-a-kind gifts

Judith Suit, Larry Burchard and Maureen Claire Peterman are the founding members of The Art Connection of Fort Pierce.

FORT PIERCE -- Larry Burchard, Judith Suit and Maureen Claire Peterman truly have a passion for the arts. So much so, that about a year and half ago, the trio and a couple more artists decided to step out on an artistic limb and create an inexpensive venue for artists to display their works, something never before attempted in Fort Pierce.

Although it was a little shaky in the beginning after a couple of the founding artists went their separate ways, today the trio find their vision fulfilled in the Art Connection of Fort Pierce and share the space they rent in the historic Arcade Building with more than 30 other artists and their creations. Mr. Burchard said the idea was never about making money as in the case with many communal galleries but rather about forming a community with their fellow artists.

“We were left with the gallery and we hung in there and carried it on for about seven or eight months by ourselves,” he said. “We do not take a commission from these people -- all they do is pay for their rent. We charge them for their space and a $50 upfront fee for their advertisement for the year. It’s a little more than a dollar a day.”

The location they chose for their gallery, suite 124 in the fully restored 1926 Arcade Building on the National Register of Historic Places, makes the perfect backdrop for the vast array of unique and unusual creations that now call the gallery home. Mr. Burchard and Ms. Suit have definitely cornered the market on that category through their combined artistic works of woodcarving, woodburning and fancy scroll work. Although the couple has a shared passion in woodworking, they found their common ground from truly disparate pathways. Each expressed creativity in their youth but found their professional artistic bent much later in life.

Mr. Burchard first began working with wood as a carpenter alongside his dad in the 1950s but eventually decided to abandon that trade after graduating high school in 1958 and worked as a heavy equipment mechanic for more than three decades. When his health dictated a change from such hard labor, he returned to the work of his adolescence.

“I knew I needed something to keep my mind busy so I reverted back to woodwork as a way of keeping me going,” he said. “I picked up a scroll saw in 1999.”

Meanwhile as Mr. Burchard was truly getting his hands dirty in the 1960s in his newfound career, Ms. Suit was taking painting lessons from one of Fort Pierce’s native sons, Albert Ernest “A. E.” Backus, one of the state’s premier artists known for his vivid Florida landscapes. His young protégés at the time like Ms. Suit were known as The Indian River School of artists.

“I painted when I was 16 and took lessons from Beanie Backus at his home on Second Street,” she said. “It was 50 cents for thre hours. "

Just as her future woodworking partner, Ms. Suit also took a long detour from her earliest art form but still worked creatively for more than two decades as a floral designer. When she arrived at her own career crossroads, she found herself with two much time on her hands and purchased a wood burner out of the blue in 2002. When she realized she didn’t have a pattern to burn by and had never sketched with a pencil, she shelved the burner for several months until her boredom and stifled creativity prompted her to retrieve it.

“I remembered I didn’t have a pattern, so I just drew a tree and a flower, and I thought, I will be myself instead of just copying somebody else’s sketches. I just decided I didn’t want a pattern but wanted to do it out of my head. I was 57 when I finally found my art medium and I now do everything freehand.”

As the two separate artists were slowly evolving toward a common artistic media, they happened to cross paths while Ms. Suit was demonstrating her woodburning techniques at the St. Lucie County Fair.

“He had lost his wife and didn’t have anything to do, and I invited him to a woodcarving group,” she explained. “He took my card home but then through tossed it aside for several months.”

Mr. Burchard eventually joined Ms. Suit in the group and began taking woodburning lessons from his new-found friend, who said she had “no interest in meeting anybody.” After about six or seven classes, he finally convinced her to go out to dinner, and she agreed as long as her elderly mother could chaperone. He eventually won her over, and two have now fused their creative talents as a couple.

“He has progressed,” emphasized Ms. Suit. “He was only doing woodburning, and then he got into carving, and now he really enjoys woodturning. We don’t have a large lathe, but he does smaller items. I do the burning and the dremel carving on them.”

Today the pair make all kinds of distinctive creations, and not all of them involve wood.

“I burn on deer skins, on all kinds of wood and even Plexiglas, Ms. Suit said. “I burn on watercolor paper, and then I use watercolor on the paper after I burn the images. So we do some unusual things.”

By and large, the couple’s most popular works are the wooden dog and cat puzzles that include the name of the canine or feline breed on them. they’re They keep several breeds already made on the shelves and can do custom puzzles upon request.

“Larry cuts them, and they’re not easy to cut out -- trust me, I’ve tried it,” she said. “I do the woodburning and that’s where we can get their personalities and that’s what makes our puzzles more distinctive and have a little more character to them because of the burning on them.”

Their earliest Art Connection co-artist, Ms. Peterman, specializes in art quilts and acrylic paintings, which include the highly usual Fat Cat series not unlike the famous Blue Dog created by the late New Orleans artist George Rodrigue. A resident of Fort Pierce since she was two years old, Ms. Peterman can hardly remember a time when she didn’t draw.

“I remember getting into trouble for drawing on my desk in first grade,” she said. “I thought it was a master piece and was really upset that my teacher made me clean it off.”

Ms. Peterman’s most popular painting today is a formal feline dressed up to paint the town red, an idea that originally arose for a fundraiser and now continues to live on in her head.

“The Fat Cat idea came from needing an auction piece for Hibiscus House over 15 years ago,” she explained. “He never stays quiet for long, then I’ll find myself in another of his adventures. There is well over a hundred paintings featuring Fat Cat.”

The paintings also include a unique touch: three hidden mice in the image.

“Sometimes they’re a toy, sometimes they’re carved in stone, they can be almost anything,” she added.

Ms. Peterman’s other passion is art quilting, and visitors to the Art Connection will find several unique “pictures” on the walls here created out of bits of quilting material. She kind of fell into the genre in a big way a decade ago.

“I love fabric, so when the Backus Museum asked me to enter a show called Through the Eyes of a Woman and I found out I could show anything, I jumped at the chance to show something that was in my head for years,” she exclaimed. “It was a really ambitious piece, took two months to sew it and had over 100,000 pieces of half-inch, hand-torn and sewed bits of fabric. It won Best of Show.”

And the aforementioned artworks are only the tip of the artistic iceberg here, where the offerings range from the quirky to one-of-a-kind handmade jewelry pieces. Here you’ll be mesmerized by the Whizical Mermaid Art of Vishma Maharaj, whose enchanting works of resin and glass are inspired by geodes, and be impressed by the patience and talent of Bookart designer Cathy Estremera. The latter brings new life to old, unwanted books by folding and cutting tedious designs into the edges of the pages, whose sum total creates an outstanding piece of art suitable for any mantelpiece. Customers who purchase birthday or Christmas gifts here will never have to worry about seeing them for sale later on at a garage sale.

Ms. Suit credits these and the rest of the nearly three dozen resident artists here for the real success of the Art Connection of Fort Pierce, which she truly hopes serves as the catalyst for the burgeoning Peacock Arts District next door.

“If it wasn’t for the 30-plus artists that are involved in our studio, we would not be there,” she said. “We are very blessed to have such a great group of local artists who are supporting the arts in Fort Pierce and staying with us and getting the arts to flow into the Peacock Arts District. Hopefully our studio will kind of be the one that pushes people into the corridor and have it grow and expand as an arts district.”

The Art Connection of Fort Pierce is located at 101 N. U.S. 1, Suite 124, at the corner of Orange Avenue in Downtown Fort Pierce. For more information, call 772-801-5700 or visit the website at www.ArtConnectionofFt.com.

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