A couple years ago, I met a newcomer to our area. Brenda Smoak, an artist from Washington DC, had recently moved to Bradenton and opened an artist gallery in the Village of the Arts. It was easy to see that she was very passionate about her art and gallery and she quickly became very active in her new community. Brenda and I became friends and talked often about the possibility of working together in the future. About the same time, Dave & I met a local teacher, Holly Clouse. She enthusiastically told us how she had attended our pond tour that we hosted each spring to raise funds for a local school waterfall project and how she had always wanted to create a project like that for her "kids". This past September, while attending an art walk, Holly met Brenda. Holly mentioned to her that she was looking to find a project to help motivate her students. They began brainstorming about a possible mural project. Brenda had the idea to extend the project into the garden and knew that we had been involved with school projects in the past. She called me to see if we would be interested in being a part of her project. I said yes immediately.


Here we are a couple of years later and we finally have the opportunity to work together on a fantastic project. Three women from three very different backgrounds, arts, education and marketing, brought our ideas and skills together with a common goal to bring the Learning Takes Flight project to life for the students in the STAR program. The main goal was to create a project that would not only beautify the school but also give these students a sense of belonging within their school community and feelings of accomplishment.


The Learning Takes Flight project was Brenda’s brainchild. She collaborated with local artist, Barbara Gerdeman on the design and execution of the mural and came up with the idea for the students to create individual clay leaves with words that were inspirational to them. She then brought in Dave & me to design & help the students create a wildlife habitat, adjacent to the mural, complete with a pondless water feature.


Brenda Smoak has been an artist her entire life owning a decorative painting company for 10 years and working as the West Coast painter for Smallbone, Ltd out of England allowing her to travel all over the country and England to do faux finishing jobs. Currently she is a VSA fellow and was chosen as one of only five teaching fellows nationally by the VSA this year. The VSA is an International Organization on Arts + Disability. The focus of Brenda’s work as a VSA fellow is to bring art into the classroom, especially for students with special needs.


Holly Clouse has been a teacher for 31 years with a focus on at-risk populations. She ran an off campus school for five years on a working 13 acre mini-farm, teaching horsemanship along with the “three R’s”. The last five years she has been teaching in the Haile STAR program. STAR stands for Students Taking Another Road. It is a program designed to help those students who are failing or at risk of dropping out and do not qualify for special services.


As for myself, I spent most of my career in marketing and managing retail businesses owned by others. Until about seven years ago, when my husband, Dave told me he wanted to turn his hobby and passion for ponds into a business. I was skeptical at first, water gardening was fairly new to me. Dave on the other hand had been playing in the water for years. I found that I really enjoyed getting my hands dirty while still being able to manage the business aspect.


As we worked alongside the students, we watched them transform from being shy or indifferent to being proud of what they were accomplishing. The words on their clay leaves spoke volumes, trust, faith, confident, believe! One of the students told an interviewer that he learned that nobody can do it all himself that it takes teamwork to get something done.

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