■ BY SUE ERWIN
Debbie Baraoidan has taught elementary school for 31 years, but the art she creates in her spare time is what makes her an even more special person.
She owns Natureheart Clay Creations, a business known for creating one-of-a-kind custom memory mosaics.
Debbie set up her booth on Park Avenue at the 8th annual Boca Grande Invitational Art Festival held earlier this month, and many curious guests stopped by to inquire about the mosaic pieces made of colorful, unique objects.
“I do custom orders – anything from fitness to music – but the most popular ones are the family and pet memories,” Debbie said. “People have brought me items from their grandmother’s jewelry box, and photos of their pets.”
The artist places the pieces in strategic, eye-catching ways throughout the clay mosaic, filling it in with tiles and natural stones like agate, freshwater pearls, black onyx, rose quartz and tiger eye. She also uses dichroic glass (glass fused in a kiln) in many of her pieces.
Each tile is handmade and is one of a kind.
“I work with two clay forms: high-fire clay pottery that is fired in a kiln and polymer clay that is baked in an oven,” she said. “The baked tiles allow me the opportunity to add embellishments such as turquoise, Swarovski crystals and pieces of jewelry.”
Besides the custom orders, she also makes mirror mosaics and other montages with inspirational sayings.
Debbie is a native Floridian and is originally from Weston, Florida in Broward County. She attended college at the University of South Florida in Tampa and majored in psychology.
“It’s always been a passion of mine, and it’s been very useful in my years of teaching,” she said. “My students are special, and they are hand-picked to be in my classroom. The teachers get together at the end of each school year and discuss which students would benefit from which classroom environments.”
Debbie met artist Carroll Swayze at an Englewood art show last year, and Carroll contacted her and invited her to come to the festival in Boca Grande this year.
The teacher and artist started working with clay about 20 years ago.
“I started out hand-building clay pots, and eventually I moved to the tiles,” she said. “And from there I started incorporating baked clay into the pieces, which allows me to add any elements I want and they will withstand the heat of the oven.”
Her sister introduced her to polymer clay, which is baked at a low temperature in the oven. Once she discovered she could add any element to the pieces, it led her to the family heirloom idea. She had a velvet pouch in her dresser drawer that contained items owned by her dad, and she decided to create a piece dedicated to him.
“He was a lapidary,” she said, “and he loved carving stones and minerals into decorative items.” She took some of her father’s semi-finished works and incorporated them into her pieces, so there are little pieces of her dad’s creations in many of her customers’ homes.
Debbie’s daughter, Sam, is passionate about pet rescue organizations, so the first piece they made together was a mosaic for a rescue fundraiser.
“It just came out so adorable that we made another one and donated it to another fundraiser, where the item will be auctioned off and the money will go to the organization,” she said.
This was Debbie’s first time visiting Boca Grande, but when she was growing up, her dad often took her and her sister to Venice Beach.
“I remember being so excited to go, because there were so many sharks’ teeth,” she said, pointing out that she uses them in many pieces of her work.
Debbie’s daughter Sam is a wildlife consultant in Mississippi. Her son, Sean, lives in Tampa. Both kids traveled to this area in May to spend Mother’s Day weekend with her in Venice.
“We had so much fun – we went hiking and biking and sharks’ teeth hunting. It was really nice to spend time with them. They are both great kids,” she said.
Sean does urban planning with an environmental emphasis.
“He really loves it,” Debbie said.
Sean also came to Boca Grande in June to help his mother break down the tent and booth from the art show and pack the art into her car for the trip home.
Her website has a gallery of examples, but she doesn’t sell any of her work online.
“Since each piece is one of a kind, when I am doing a family heirloom piece I talk to my customers a lot before they give me their items, so I can get a good feel for the person I am representing. I want to know what they loved and what they cared about … what they were passionate about and what inspired them. Often there are tears shed during the discussions … it’s really a very big honor.”
She also gets many requests from people whose pets have crossed the rainbow bridge. Sometimes she’ll incorporate a paw print, a piece of a collar, photos of the cat or dog and inspirational words in the tiles.
And she gets many requests for wedding gifts. Those pieces include everything the bride and groom loved, including photos of family and friends, their names and the wedding date.
Many of the small pieces in the mosaics are repurposed jewelry that may have broken, or glass that has been fused.
Debbie has had quite a year, recovering from open-heart surgery just a few months ago.
“It’s been a very emotional year,” she said. “After I returned to school, my students were so sweet and expressed so much concern about me, it was really heart-warming.”
Debbie is very soft-spoken and likes to keep a quiet and calm classroom.
“Other teachers ask me how it’s possible to maintain such a tranquil classroom, but I think the kids adjust to whatever their environment is, and they reflect it.”
The school she teaches at in Broward County was recently featured in the news for donating to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Staff and students collected donations for a little girl who is battling leukemia.
“She was in remission, and her dream is to learn how to surf, so our school raised the money and presented her family with a trip to Hawaii, where she will take surfing lessons.”
Debbie does about 16 shows per year throughout Florida, most of them during the school year. She has shown her work as far south as Key West and all the way to Ocala. Her goal is to retire from teaching soon and concentrate on creating her art full-time.
If you are ready to honor a loved one who has passed and cherish their items in a unique mosaic art piece, contact Debbie at (954) 562-7697 or visit natureheartclaycreations.com.
Her next show will be in Asheville, North Carolina on July 6th and 7th.