Friday, November 14, 2008


Every time I travel to Frostproof, Florida, I visit with a cousin in the Sullivan clan who, through the years, has developed notable skill in the decorative arts. The artist, “Toni” Blackwell, lives up the road from Frostproof in Babson Park, a small hamlet that boasts it is the birthplace of Webber International University. Toni paints murals, note cards, mail boxes, glassware (including wine glasses and champagne glasses), vases, canvasses, candles and candle holders and tinware, using acrylics to create her colorful decorative art on metal, glass, ceramics, cloth, wood, terra cotta pots, even kitchen cabinets.

During this last visit when “Toni” brought me a set of beautiful note cards as a gift, she talked with me about the origins of her decorative art, tracing her artistic inspiration back to her paternal grandmother, “Gacky” Thomas. “She really loved beautiful things – jewelry, furs, silver, and china, just to name a few,” Toni told me. “My sense of color can be linked to her, as she encouraged me to use color. She loved for me to wear red. We had a special bond because I was her first grandchild, so her deep appreciation for beauty transferred to me.” Because Toni dresses in colorful, flamboyant clothing, wears lots of bracelets, necklaces and rings, her mother, Mary Thomas, gave her Gacky’s large garnet ring which Toni wears as an everyday accessory, rather than for dress-up as less artsy people would do.

Toni was born in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, attended Gettysburg schools, then migrated to Florida where she graduated from Webber International University in Babson Park, Florida. She worked as an administrative assistant to executives of Florida Power Corporation (now Progress Energy) for 35 years in Longwood, Sebring, and Lake Wales, Florida, retiring in 2002.

I remember when Toni first began to express her interest in decorative art as I was visiting her mother, Mary Thomas, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at the same time Toni had flown up from Florida to vacation. Toni was experimenting with her paints and a watering can on a card table set up in her mother’s living room, and although she considered her initial efforts “modest,” I was impressed with her first paintings. Through the years, I have followed her progress with pride and encouraged her to “swing out” with her work.

Toni studied art with Dawn Kelly, a certified instructor of Donna Dewberry’s One-Stroke technique. This is a method that originated in an unusual genre called “one-stroke painting” as demonstrated on PBS-TV by Donna Dewberry of Orlando, Florida. Using this technique, the artist blends, shades, and highlights the painting with one stroke of the brush. Toni uses this technique to render her Florida Florals. She has gradually expanded her repertoire to include almost any blank surface. I sat beside her at a birthday luncheon in Lake Wales, Florida recently, and she began to eye the white linen tablecloth, laughing as she announced that she’d like to decorate this surface. She has also become interested in a technique similar to watercolor which utilizes acrylics for her larger canvas paintings. “I really appreciate a number of techniques as I can get more definition with other types of painting,” she says. Her florals are exquisitely rendered in vivid colors, some of them expressing the flamboyant red her Grandmother Gacky once urged her to use for dress-up occasions.

Toni exhibits her work primarily in Polk County, Florida, New Iberia, Louisiana, and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and continues to decorate her own home in Babson Park with vibrant colors and unusual design. She has a small studio off the kitchen in her home where she stores glassware, tinware, vases, and other objects she has garnered from special discount sales -- those “blank” surfaces that entice her to render her one-stroke paintings. Toni has one son, Chad Blackwell, who is a mortgage broker in Orlando, Florida. If you’re interested in Florida Florals, contact Toni at
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