Experiential media components up the wow factor in Terminal C. With interactive original content shown on huge LED screens, travelers enjoy virtual visits to an array of Florida ecosystems, including a river populated by manatees. Also on panoramic view are scenes of massive bird migrations, vast ranchlands, the city’s skyline and rocket launches from Brevard County.

FLIGHTS OF FANCY AT NEW TERMINAL

During their respective terms as leaders of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, Carson Good (left), current chair, and Jeff Fuqua (right), past chair, pushed through the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a financial meltdown and a global pandemic to keep the airport healthy and growing.

With the September opening of Orlando International Airport’s long-delayed Terminal C, the increasingly fraught experience of air travel has become just about as hassle-free as anyone could reasonably expect in 2022. 

And even the inconveniences — OIA still notches more late flights than average, for example — are far more tolerable when you’re cooling your heels in such a gorgeous and welcoming environment.

They call it “The Orlando Experience.” When visitors arrive at MCO — which stands for McCoy Air Force Base, the facility’s designator code from 1957 — they realize almost instantly that Central Floridians don’t scrimp when it comes to making a good first impression.

That’s not true of many other destinations, where time spent at the airport is, by definition, not time well spent.

The 1.8 million-square-foot, $3 billion airport expansion, however, is a modern marvel of sophisticated design and state-of-the-art technology that emphasizes the region’s natural beauty and neighborly disposition. If being the home of Walt Disney World has taught us anything, it’s taught us how to treat guests in our homes.

Best of all, the sprawling structure’s iconic architecture — incidentally, when is the last time you visited an airport and remembered anything distinctive (in a good way) about it? — is augmented by technology that streamlines the arrival and departure processes and even eases all-but-inevitable luggage retrieval ordeals.

Well, good for us! But what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with Winter Park? Plenty, as it turns out.

Carson Good, chair of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, was appointed in 2019 by Governor Ron DeSantis and lives in Winter Park. Let the record show that during Good’s tenure, the expansion has finally been completed after decades of unanticipated hurdles: the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the economic collapse in 2008 and the still-smoldering pandemic that began in late 2019.

Another Winter Parker, Jeff Fuqua, was an authority member from 1986 to 1994 and again from 1999 to 2010 — during two of those three disasters — and chaired the organization for 13 years. He says that GOAA’s get-’er-done culture is attributable to John Wyckoff, the original executive director who oversaw the airport’s $300 million initial phase.

“I learned from a great visionary,” says Fuqua of Wyckoff, who ran the airport from 1976 to 1991 and died in 2014. “John was a renaissance man. The city fathers bought so much land (11,600 acres) that it allowed the expansion you see today. You could fit Miami International, Los Angeles International and JFK in New York into our property and have room left over.”

The monumental project was conceived some 30 years ago, during Fuqua’s first stint on the authority. Today, in recognition of his service, a road dubbed Jeff Fuqua Boulevard loops around the spectacular new terminal and the airport’s parking garages. 

Both men — who could live anywhere they choose — know something about what it means to create a sense of place. Fuqua, an Orlando native, moved to Winter Park in 2004 and says “it’s been a discovery” to learn how peaceful his Lake Osceola home is despite its location near the city’s bustling business district. “And I love the lakes,” he adds.

Good, who was raised in Coconut Grove, praises Winter Park’s sense of scale and its lush foliage. “You have to know who you are and what you want to be,” says Good of cities. But he extends that viewpoint to airports. “When you get off an airplane,” he adds, “the ambiance of the airport should tell you where you are.” 

The day-to-day running of OIA — which, given its personality, couldn’t be mistaken for an airport anyplace else — is the responsibility of a chief executive officer. Since March of this year, that person has been former Florida Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault.

Big-picture governance, however, is provided by GOAA, a seven-member volunteer board that includes the mayors of Orlando and Orange County — who hold permanent seats — and five gubernatorial appointees who generally serve three two-year terms.

Usually, like Good and Fuqua, they’re high-powered, well-connected sorts who haven’t suffered too many business failures in their lives. Or if they have, they’ve learned from them. 

The Boulevard in Terminal C will eventually lead passengers on a verdant linear journey that will connect two major civic spaces — Palm Court and Town Square — and lead to a train station (the Intermodal Terminal Facility) that has the capacity to support four rail systems. By sometime next year, Brightline will begin offering train service from the airport to South Florida.

They’re people like Good, president of Good Capital Group, a company that makes investments in commercial real estate. And Fuqua, a longtime land developer who has more that 22,000 residential and commercial tracts to his credit and is now president of Amick Holdings Inc.

In addition to being savvy and successful, both men boast extensive civic resumés and, like most locals, are genial and value friendliness in others. “That’s one thing I love about Winter Park,” adds Good. “The people here are interesting and they’re genuinely nice.” 

Good, who holds undergraduate degrees in English literature and business administration from Florida State University and an MBA from the Rollins College Crummer Graduate School of Business, has most recently served on the advisory board of the University of Florida master’s in real estate program and chaired the Orange County Planning and Zoning Commission.

Fuqua, who earned undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees in mathematics from the University of Miami, can reel off at least 15 past board memberships, and most notably still serves as secretary of the Martin Andersen-Gracia Andersen Foundation — launched in the 1960s by the influential former owner and editor of the Orlando Sentinel and his wife, a generous patron of the arts.

Today, Good and Fuqua (who is no longer involved with GOAA) believe that travelers will find the much-anticipated expansion — designed by Fentress Architects, an international firm known for large-scale public architecture — to be a worthy (and user friendly) gateway to the region.

“I never thought we wouldn’t make it,” notes Good, who watched traffic plummet to almost nothing at the outset of the pandemic. “You can’t let yourself indulge ideas that something won’t work if you’re a leader.”

Throughout history, he says, civilization has been advanced by ports. “Airports are the ports of the future,” he adds. “They’re the single most important economic drivers in Florida and great enhancements to our quality of life if they grow the right way.”

With the terminal’s completion, OIA employs more than 20,000 people, a gain of between 1,000 and 2,000 jobs, not including jobs generated by airlines and suppliers. Its economic impact, officials say, is north of $40 billion annually.

Best of all, OIA — like most large commercial airports — requires no local tax revenue to operate. Half the $683,585 annual budget is covered by fees from carriers, while the other half is covered by assorted user fees, including such activities as parking and rental income from concessionaires and service providers. 

Of course, the COVID-19 years were different. Most airports — Orlando’s included — were bolstered by various federal pandemic relief programs beginning in 2020. For example, GOAA used $144.8 million in relief funds for the payment of bond debt. And federal infrastructure grants have bolstered construction of Terminal C.

But traffic and revenues have rebounded to stratospheric pre-pandemic levels and OIA retains its AA standing from the major rating agencies, ensuring access to capital for further improvements. 

Terminal C is a modern marvel of sophisticated design and state-of-the-art technology that emphasizes the region’s natural beauty and neighborly disposition. The Prow, a signature architectural element, sets a sun-kissed tone at curbside with its soaring glass walls, which, combined with the terminal’s sky-lit spine, floods the interior space with the kind of ambient rays that visitors expect to see in Florida.

The most recent expansion, with 15 gates, serves international carriers Aer Lingus, Azul, British Airways, Caribbean Airlines, Emirates, Gol, Icelandair, Lufthansa and Norse along with domestic carriers JetBlue and Breeze. It’s initially expected to accommodate 12 million passengers yearly — or a quarter of the total volume at the world’s seventh-busiest airport.

The Prow, a signature architectural element, sets a sun-kissed tone at curbside with its soaring glass walls, which, combined with the terminal’s sky-lit spine, floods the interior space with the kind of ambient rays that visitors expect to see in Florida.

All major building elements — ticketing, security, concessions, gates and baggage claim — are aligned along The Boulevard, which in the future will lead passengers on a verdant linear journey that will connect the terminal’s two major civic spaces — Palm Court and Town Square.

The Boulevard also leads to a train station (referred to as the Intermodal Terminal Facility) that has the capacity to support four rail systems, including Brightline’s intercity service. By sometime next year, you’ll be able to take a train from the terminal to South Florida. Discussions are underway to offer local service by connecting Brightline with SunRail.

Vibrant and garden-like Palm Court — the grandest of the civic spaces, located air side at the terminus of The Boulevard Skylight — features experiential media environments as well as shops and restaurants on the lower level.

On the upper level is the Palm Plaza Premium Lounge, which features a dedicated area for families, a restaurant and bar and several quiet spaces where business travelers can be productive or just watch the people go by below.

 The media components, with original content shown on huge LED screens, offer an array of virtual visits. You can explore a natural spring (with manatees and bioluminescent fish) or marvel at the pastures, forests and lakes of Central Florida’s sprawling Deseret Ranch. Also on panoramic display are scenes of the city’s skyline and rocket launches in Brevard County.

Experiential media components up the wow factor in Terminal C. With interactive original content shown on huge LED screens, travelers enjoy virtual visits to an array of Florida ecosystems, including a river populated by manatees. Also on panoramic view are scenes of massive bird migrations, vast ranchlands, the city’s skyline and rocket launches from Brevard County.

Concessioners combine local and national brands, including such familiar favorites as Chick fil-A, Cinnabon and Starbucks. But other options are distinctly local, such as Barnie’s Coffee & Tea Co. and Provisions by Cask & Larder, both of which are headquartered in Winter Park.

Retailers, likewise, encompass the expected theme-park stores, newsstands and gift shops alongside a new City Arts Market, which features work by local creators. (Speaking of art, the airport boasts one of the largest public art collections in the Southeast and at least half the creators are Floridians.)

Town Square, located landside at the terminus of an elevated international arrivals corridor, offers a spacious, upper-level baggage claim area quite unlike the grim, dungeon-like retrieval spaces found in most airports.

And it’s all as high-tech as it is breathtaking. Gates are equipped with facial recognition technology for an easier and more secure boarding process. And baggage claim includes a robotic bag storage system and radio frequency identification technology that tracks luggage in real time.

“Orlando International Airport, the main gateway to Florida and one of the country’s most popular leisure destinations, is preparing for the future of travel with this impressive construction endeavor,” says Carolyn Fennell, senior director of public affairs and community relations.

For four decades, it has been Fennell’s job to connect the community and the ever-expanding airport, which began in 1962 as the Orlando Jetport at McCoy — a partnership between the City of Orlando and McCoy Air Force Base. 

The authority, which operates both OIA and Orlando Executive Airport, was formed after the base closed in 1975. Fennell, a Tallahassee native who earned a journalism degree from Florida A&M University, joined the organization in 1980 following a two-year stint as a publicist at Walt Disney World. 

What a story she has had to tell. And oh, yes. She’s also a resident of Winter Park. 

It’s all but required that you order the grilled octopus — a plump tentacle served over waves of a roasted tomato romanesco sauce, dollops of Kalamata olive tapenade and a wedge of grilled lemon. Unlike the supplied photo, there were two tentacles on the plate the night we visited.

GREEK AND GLAMOROUS

From the starter section of buzzy Ava MediterrAegean’s menu, try the Greek Spreads, which encompass a hearty hummus, a thick and tangy yogurt-based tzatziki and a smoky eggplant caviar. It’s served with wedges of pita bread and garden vegetables.

Is this Winter Park, or Miami? Step into Ava Mediterr-Aegean and you’re seemingly transported 250 miles south. The youngish crowd sizzles with energy, and everyone in sight — from employees to dining guests — is stylishly clad. It’s not your typical laid-back Park Avenue crowd.

Perhaps that’s because the restaurant has a “smart-casual” dress code that prohibits gym wear and flip-flops. You don’t see dress codes too much anymore — but you do see people wearing shorts and tank tops in places where they ought not to.

Ava, which opened in February where Luma on Park used to be, is one of those places where you ought not to — even if there were no formal policy describing acceptable dress. 

The upscale Greek-inspired eatery — like its swanky predecessor more than a decade ago — has introduced a magnified trend-forward vibe to the city’s historic retail-and-restaurant strip. 

The food is inspired by Aegean flavors — and yes, hummus is offered. The décor honors that region of the Mediterranean with arches and white stucco. The vibe, though, somehow melds Latin-American dynamism with South Beach panache. Such fun people-watching!

As you’d hope for in a restaurant with entrées priced from $26 to $90, Ava has a chef-driven kitchen as well as serious handcrafted cocktails. It also infuses branding savvy into every aspect of its operation. 

For example, Ava has its own scent that subtly wafts through the dining room via diffuser machines — and makes restroom products smell nice, too. 

You may not notice the aroma, yet its presence will, in theory, shift your sensibilities to the summertime “Mediterranean and Cycladic coasts,” according to the restaurant’s marketing materials. Among the signature scent’s key elements are “sun-kissed musks,” “cashmere woods” and “milky fig sap,” the latter of which contributes “clean green limpidity to the heart notes.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Ava’s seared branzino crudo from the raw bar offerings is a refreshing dish that features bite-size slices of European bass, radish and tomato that surround a tomato consommé jelly. A basil emulsion jacks up what would otherwise be a mild flavor. Salt from the Macedonia Sea and French red chili pepper powder (espelette) add dimension.

Ava has a chief branding officer, Marine Galy, with whom I had a lengthy phone conversation after my anonymous dinner at the restaurant, which I paid for, as per magazine policy. Joining us on the call were heads of the culinary and marketing departments along with a media relations representative.

I later learned that Galy is co-owner and co-founder of Riviera Dining Group, which runs Ava as well as Mila, a “MediterrAsian” concept in Miami. Another restaurant, Casa Neos, is also under development in South Florida.

An additional example of Ava’s dedication to branding: The restaurant, after agreeing to a photo shoot, abruptly backtracked and insisted on providing its own images for this story. That’s highly unusual. Most restaurants are thrilled to host a photo shoot. Just sayin’. 

Of course, that’s all inside baseball and important only to a reviewer (who’s unaccustomed to such a tight message-control operation) and her inconvenienced photographer. You want to know this: How’s the food? Is it worth wearing long pants and closed-toe shoes for?

We’ll get to that. Ava — as its operators will be the first to tell you — is all about the experience, of which food is a key component but not the only component.

Along those lines, I can say that the restaurant provides a thought-out experience geared toward pleasing all the senses. For example, a curated repertoire of global music plays in the background. 

 “You’re not going to dance, but you’ll feel transported,” says Galy, who notes that the carefully curated (and, I’m sure, market tested) soundtrack includes both Balkan downtempo beats and traditional Greek instruments. Duly noted, but the tunes were a bit loud for my taste — especially in an already noisy environment.

For a decidedly less subtle visual treat, the chefs finish dishes in an exhibition kitchen and the servers theatrically present several of them on oversized dishes, under smoky domes or set ablaze at the table. Your guests, if they like dinner and a show, will be suitably impressed.

So, here’s how an Ava evening might play out. Upon arrival, you’ll be greeted at a small stand with a bar behind it. The lounge, with another bar, is to your left. A stairway down to a private club is in front of you. And the dining room, with its grand kitchen view, is to your right. 

I suggest that you dine indoors. I chose an outdoor table, which was amply sized and covered with a white linen cloth. But sidewalk seating simply can’t provide the full-on Ava ambiance. 

Indoors, you’ll note that limestone plaster, gray-tone stone and natural fabrics cover the surfaces in an homage to Greece. Chef Michael Michaelidis, however, is quicker to use the terms Aegean and Cyclades. Are those terms branding-dictated? 

Ava’s kitchen team of Chef Michael Michaelidis (above) and Executive Chef Keith Bombaugh (below) both boast impressive culinary resumes. Michaelidis works from home base in Miami but frequently visits consults with Bombaugh on visits to Winter Park.

Oh, it doesn’t matter. Either way, the décor is beautiful and elicits the intended feel in a classy way. A wooden sculpture along a main dining room wall is by up-and-coming artist Etienne Moyat. Winter Park-area artists will be invited to display their creations, on a rotating basis, near the front door.

And then there’s the food. You’ve likely already thought: “Is she ever going to get to that?” Well, here we go.

In addition to his Mediterranean roots, Michaelidis has culinary cred. As a kid, he fished for octopus with his dad. As an adult, he notched stints at Michelin-rated restaurants around the world.

While Michaelidis works primarily from the restaurant’s Miami base, he visits Winter Park regularly to consult with on-site Executive Chef Keith Bombaugh, whose resumé includes a stint at Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago.

The kitchen team partners with local farms to buy fresh fruits and vegetables. For (clearing my throat) Cycladese dishes, they import specialties from the source. For example, extra-virgin olive oil from Messenia in Greece’s Peloponnese region is a pantry staple.

So much work goes into Ava’s cocktails that it’s worth beginning your adventure with a spirited starter. “A Toast to Amalfi” is a gin and Campari combo with limoncello, vermouth, Cynar bitters and toasted pistachio. 

The use of porcini mushroom as an ingredient drew my attention to the “Onassis Old Fashioned.” The mushroom was subtle enough to make the drink better. Brown butter, chamomile and apricot were among the other ingredients. Differently shaped ice cubes were thoughtfully paired with each cocktail.

From there, delve into the appetizers. The flaming cheese, called “saganaki” at pedestrian Greek restaurants, here is grilled halloumi. A server sets the licorice-flavored liqueur ouzo aflame atop the cheese, which is firm yet fork tender. The dish is also served with honey and sesame seeds along with imported caraway, fennel, cumin and coriander seeds.

From the raw bar, we tried the seared branzino crudo. It’s a refreshing dish that features bite-size slices of European bass, radish and tomato that surround a tomato consommé jelly. A basil emulsion jacks up what would otherwise be a mild flavor. Salt from the Macedonia Sea and French red chili pepper powder (espelette) add dimension.

Ava’s chicken tagine, which arrives in a conical earthenware cooking vessel (called a tagline), features chicken slow cooked with seven spices that shares a plate with a scoop of saffron-laced couscous and chunks of al dente vegetables. The dish is finished with fresh mint, preserved lemon, and green and black olives.

For more familiar flavors, share “The Greek Spreads,” which comprise a hearty hummus, a thick and tangy yogurt-base tzatziki and a smoky eggplant caviar. Piping hot lavash bread would have enhanced this starter — instead we received a few wedges of pita that weren’t particularly special.

For entrées, it’s all but required that you order the octopus. Two long, plump tentacles were served over waves of a roasted tomato romanesco sauce together with red pepper coulis, dollops of Kalamata olive purée and a wedge of grilled lemon.

The chicken tagine, as the name suggests, arrived in a conical Moroccan-style earthenware cooking vessel. With the top lifted, we saw three wee pieces of moist, flavorful bone-in dark meat chicken swimming in a luscious sauce. 

The poultry, which had been slow cooked with seven spices, shared a plate with a scoop of saffron-laced couscous and chunks of al dente vegetables. The dish is finished with fresh mint, preserved lemon, and green and black olives. Were the portion larger, I’d have pronounced this entrée perfect.

Equally spectacular, the rack of lamb arrived under a glass cloche. As the server lifted the dome, the smoke — enhanced by dried fennel and wild oregano — danced its way over through our olfactory glands. 

The meat, which had been seared over fire and swiped with thyme oil, delivered superb flavor and texture. The half rack was small for $48 — four little chops with a bowl of a saucy thyme demi jus. You might opt for the full rack at $85. It’s so flavorful that you’ll want to eat double the portion.

Kudos, too, for the barigoule, a side dish in which artichoke hearts are slow cooked in olive oil with citrus zest, oranges, thyme and coriander seeds and served with olives, herbs, garlic crisp and fried Kalamata olive chips.

Overall, the food is impressive — and extra enjoyable in the ambitious setting. One service snafu, however, colored my experience. Ava encourages family-style communal dining by serving dishes in the middle of the table to encourage sharing. Which turned out to be a bit of an ordeal.

The appetizers were, indeed, shareable. The entrées, though, were not. First, they were of standard size, not the larger portions one associates with family-style dining. Second, sharing required my group to reuse our small appetizer plates, which were already smothered in sauces from the first course. 

If “parea” (Greek for dining with family and a group of friends) is, in fact, the goal, then servers should have either removed the plates and served the entrées individually or provided fresh small plates and flatware. Still, we polished everything off and still had room for dessert.

Of the three desserts offered other than ice cream, we chose the mille-feuille tart. It’s crisp and flaky phyllo dough layered with gentle mascarpone cream, almond crumble and berries, then topped with a berry sauce infused with a light Lillet wine. 

It’s all but required that you order the grilled octopus — a plump tentacle served over waves of a roasted tomato romanesco sauce, dollops of Kalamata olive tapenade and a wedge of grilled lemon. Unlike the supplied photo, there were two tentacles on the plate the night we visited.

The Ava experience will be further enhanced with the introduction of a members-only space downstairs called MM Club. Fans of Luma on Park will remember that upscale bunker, which was the scene of many special occasion gatherings. 

Members will walk through a “secret entrance,” Galy says.” She describes the “secluded new culinary journey” as “Japanese-inspired and extremely multisensory driven.” A sushi-roll bar and a Japanese-driven mixology program will be among the offerings.

Take a trip to the Cycladic region. (Giggles.) Enjoy the sights, sounds, aromas and flavors. A little over-enthusiastic branding — despite my grumbling about it — may very well work magic at Ava MediterrAegean. 

Ava MediterrAegean
290 South Park Avenue, Winter Park
407-794-9896
avamediterraegean.com

WHEN NERDS LIKE TO COOK

Photography by Carlos Amoedo

Chef Eliot Hillis, along with longtime culinary partner Seth Parker, take their cuisine at Orlando Meats very seriously. Each dish is creative, often interesting, with such a profound profusion of innovative housemade elements that many aren’t even mentioned in the menu descriptions.

Grab a meal at Orlando Meats and you’ll quickly learn that what you see is not what you get, at least in the culinary complexity department. And, unlike in most such situations, you’ll be very glad. 

Orlando Meats — admittedly not a particularly alluring name — started as a butcher shop. Several years and two locations later, it’s a restaurant-retail combo in Winter Park’s spiffy Ravaudage mixed-use development (which means, unlike its previous digs, this one has ample parking). 

The space comes across as casual, with counter service and a sparse dining room enlivened only by cheerful paintings of chickens and steaks on the wall. The food, though, is what we expect in higher-end restaurants — and often don’t receive.

“Everything is made from scratch. Full stop,” says chef-partner Eliot Hillis. “We do buy some bread from Olde Hearth but make half the breads ourselves. We process the meats ourselves. We make all our own noodles. We make our own pizza dough.” 

He then goes into major food-nerd mode, tossing out details about enzymes, hydration levels and other science-related phenomena that somehow relate to what’s on the plate. I didn’t major in science but found his apparent knowledge impressive.

Orlando Meats is a restaurant-retail combo (above) in Winter Park’s spiffy Ravaudage mixed-use development. The dining room is enlivened by cheerful paintings of chickens and steaks on the wall. The food, though, is what you’d expect in higher-end establishments. For example, the Cumin Lamb Udon (below) is composed of housemade udon noodles tossed with lamb that has been seared and braised in a cumin-laced broth. Then it’s shredded, repacked into its own stock and chilled before being heated and served. For a contrast of flavors and textures, the meaty pasta is covered with crushed peanuts and fresh cilantro leaves along with scallion bits and jalapeño slivers.

Light meals, yes — mostly sandwiches, pizzas and pastas. Only each is creative, often interesting, with such a profound profusion of innovative housemade elements that many aren’t even mentioned in the menu descriptions. 

“Sumac is a very common Mediterranean spice, used every-
where but America,” notes Hillis. “Black limes, too. We make black limes here and use them in our recipes, but we don’t say anything on the menu. It’s not helpful for anyone because the cashier must explain what they are, which is scary and confusing.” 

Black limes, by the way, are small limes that have been blanched in saltwater and left to dry until they’re shriveled, brittle, lightweight and have a dusty black hue. They’re key to some Middle Eastern dishes, providing a distinctly sour flavor. 

See? That’s why it’s better to hand off tasty meals without anyone knowing why the flavor is deeper, more complex or more vibrant than you’d expect. Just enjoy and don’t ask too many questions — unless you’re genuinely curious, of course.

Anyway, you can also get food that you’ll understand at Orlando Meats, and I’ll get to that. First, however, let me tell you about the dish called Cumin Lamb Udon. It’s an example of how darn seriously Hillis and his long-time culinary partner, Seth Parker, are about what they do. 

During my first of two visits to Orlando Meats, I chose this entrée because it sounded like a specialty that I’d previously found only in authentic Szechuan restaurants. How, then, would a butcher shop that serves mostly American burgers and sandwiches handle this distinctive flavor combo? 

Do you know what? Those noodles are rolled and cut by hand. That means the folks in the kitchen stir together ingredients to make a thick and chewy Japanese-style wheat-based pasta dough. Then they slice it into long, thick strips and boil it to order. 

The breakfast selections at Orlando Meats include the Egg MeatMuffin (above left), which consists of eggs with bacon, garlic aioli on a Szechuan bun; and Chicken & Waffles (above right), which consists of fried chicken, dulce de leche, whipped cream and pickled strawberries on a brownie waffle.

The cutting? “That involves a Chinese thing that seems like it was built in a prison under duress,” Hillis says. “It doesn’t have any pre-set notches. It’s spartan. You have to play it like an instrument.” 

The chefs toss the noodles with lamb that has been seared and braised in a cumin-laced broth. Then it’s shredded, repacked into its own stock and chilled before being heated for your consumption.

And that’s not all. For a contrast of flavors and textures, the chefs top the meaty pasta with crushed peanuts and fresh cilantro leaves along with scallion bits and jalapeño slivers. You might balk at the $15 price tag. But in a table-service restaurant with a nice decor, the same dish would cost $25. And it might not be as good. 

Hillis and Parker never stop creating. Whatever you read here might be readjusted — or gone — by the time you visit Orlando Meats. In fact, regardless of popularity, it’s unusual for a dish to linger long on the menu. Indeed, some 750 dishes have come and gone since the out-of-the-ordinary eatery opened in 2017.

Lately, recognizing that they need to be practical as well as playful, the chefs changed the names of some forever favorites. The original monikers were clever, such as “Shake Hands with Beef” for what’s now simply called a roast beef sandwich. The name was also the title of a 1997 song by the funk metal band Primus, a fact that was lost on me and, I suspect, many diners.

Call it what you will, it’s obvious that this meaty masterpiece didn’t come from Arby’s. It’s made from a seared chuck roast cooked overnight sous-vide-style in garlic, spices and seasonings. The beef is then sliced, seared a second time and placed on “very clean butter bread” with a horseradish crema (a creamy sauce) plus mayonnaise, sour cream, salt and pepper. 

Likewise, the fried pork sandwich was long dubbed “The Danzer Two,” an obscure reference to the band The Tony Danza Tapdance Extravaganza. Few got it — hence the name change. 

Yet simple names have an upside: Customers order more unusual items when they know what to expect. At Orlando Meat, sales of almost everything went up once customers could discern what they were ordering, says Hillis, who now saves his creativity for the kitchen.

Orlando Meats, as you might expect, has a signature burger. The “medium-rare burger” — so described on the menu because it’s only served medium rare — consists of house-ground beef, bacon, XO sauce (a condiment made from dried seafood), garlic aioli and provolone cheese served on a French roll. The patty was too rare for my taste.

Here’s bonus news for our readers: Both chefs are local boys. Hillis and Parker were born in Winter Park, and each worked in local chef-run kitchens elsewhere in Central Florida before joining Orlando Meats.

Their culinary upbringings, however, were starkly different: While Parker grew up “eating canned vegetables and crap,” Hillis’s ethnically diverse extended family exposed him to Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean foods. Early Asian influences, he says, explain the “intense amount of fermentation” and the “noodle obsession” at Orlando Meats. 

The roast beef sandwich (above) is made with seared chuck roast cooked overnight sous-vide style in garlic and spices. The beef is then sliced and placed on a New England roll with horseradish crema, shallots and provolone. The personal-size Chicken Pizza (below) is very spicy, thanks to an unusual Japanese curry. The flattened chicken breast is battered, fried and coated in a chili oil and spice blend. Hillis likens the pizza crust to “an augmented focaccia.”

Fermentation? Orlando Meats’ corned beef sandwich swaps sauerkraut for kimchi, a Korean pickled cabbage. “Says Hillis: “Kimchi is a different cabbage and has a different flavor profile, but otherwise kimchi and sauerkraut are very, very close.” The corned beef is pickled in-house, of course. 

Hillis and his team have two other ventures going at the same time: Red Panda (Instagram
@redpandanoodle) is an Asian-themed pop-up restaurant that shows up roughly once a month outside local bars and serves several creative noodle dishes plus a composed salad and a dessert.

Separately, the culinarians hire themselves out as caterers to locals who want 18- to 20-course gourmet dinners for small groups served in their homes. “I adore incredibly overly indulgent Michelin behavior,” says Hillis, referring to the world-renowned Michelin restaurant guidebooks. 

Well, I’ve run out of room for more food details. I’ll skip the fancifully presented corn dogs with mozzarella — containing gooey cheese and swirled sauces — which are better for photographing than for eating. 

Ditto for the nice-enough chicken and waffles, although the chefs deserve kudos for the shredded brownie inside the waffle batter plus the French-style whipped cream on top.

Chicken pizza is an apt place to end. The personal-size pie is so spicy, thanks to an unusual Japanese curry, that I preferred it the next day, when the heat level had simmered down. The flattened chicken breast is battered, fried and coated in a chili oil and spice blend. Hillis likens the pizza crust to “an augmented focaccia.” I’ll be back for this as well as for the more traditional pizzas on the menu.

Orlando Meats’ chefs geek out on every detail and we get the benefit of their geekiness. We can stroll in, order at the counter and soon have a hot meal that seems simple but is really fancy-pants — if you know what goes into making it. 

Orlando Meats
1035 Orlando Avenue, No. 105
Winter Park
407-598-0700
orlandomeats.com

Art can be outdoors, too, even in and around swimming pools (above left). Hanging near the deep end is an untitled painting and floating in the water is Iris the Balloon Dog, both by Marla E, who was named Seminole County’s Artist of the Year in 2016. If the subject in the portraits (above right) looks familiar, then perhaps you’ve seen him around town. They’re of Mark Cosgrove, painted by Orlando artist Theo Lotz of Flying Horse Editions.

TOO MUCH ART? NO SUCH THING

Photography by Rafael Tongol

The Winter Park home of Laura and Mark Cosgrove is packed floor to ceiling with the most eclectic collection imaginable, including The Triumph of Samson Over the Philistines by an unknown artist after Guido Reni, an Italian painter of the Baroque period.

Works of art so permeate the Winter Park home of Mark and Laura Cosgrove that it’s sometimes hard to figure out what’s art and what’s not.

Those paintings and drawings hanging on the walls (or propped against them) are obviously art. But that dress draped over a mannequin? Also art. That inflatable dog floating in the swimming pool? Again, art. 

Those books lining the shelves? Mostly (but not necessarily) art. Those molded-plastic chairs placed in one of three themed gardens in the backyard? Art, but you’re nonetheless encouraged to sit on them. 

And those dainty cookies on the kitchen counter? Not art, so you’re welcome to have one. “I tried once to catalogue our collection on a spreadsheet,” says Laura with a sigh. “I just never finished it. One of these days we will.” 

Mark, founder of Cosgrove & Company, an investment banking firm based in Winter Park, and Laura, an attorney who heads the arts and entertainment division of éclat Law, a legal practice based in Altamonte Springs, became acquainted when they found themselves attending the same fundraisers, auctions, exhibitions and events such as Art Basel in Miami.

The couple married — and merged their burgeoning collections — in 2006, when Mark was 47 and Laura was 41. It was the first marriage for both. “That’s because we wanted to wait and get it right,” jokes Mark.

It’s nice, of course, to share a hobby with one’s spouse. But the Cosgroves are certainly more than hobbyists. Yet, they aren’t investors, either. They buy art that they like simply for the joy of having it in their home and in their lives.

You can’t turn around (or sit down) at the Cosgroves’ without encountering art. The image topping the fireplace (top) is Butungatanatulu by Cristina de Middel, a Spanish documentary photographer. The print hanging from the shelves to the right is Women with Amphora by groundbreaking French artist Henri Matisse. A backyard sculpture garden (center left) features intriguing (and usable) Magis Spun Chairs by Thomas Heatherwick. Elsewhere you might happen upon a circa-1960s drawing by Pablo Picasso (center) or an other-worldly roof fragment from a Spirit House in Borneo (center right). Walls are adorned by Family Hands of Fatima by Marla E (above left) and Spots Flying Off Dalmatian by Gandee Vasan (above right_, a painter and photographer from Sri Lanka. Most surfaces in the home are laden with art, including sculptures, glassware and whimsical objects that all have stories to tell.

A native of Buffalo, New York, Mark graduated from the State University of New York in Geneseo, where he majored in history and political science, and moved to Central Florida in 1982, where he earned an MBA from the Roy E. Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollins College. 

He then became an investment banker in Miami and CFO of a company that pioneered CAD (computer animated drawing) for architects and building designers. In 1988 he returned to Central Florida, founding Cosgrove & Company and later becoming a partner in Capital Strategies, which specializes in mergers and acquisitions.

His various ventures prospered, but Mark had been collecting art for years. Due to the nature of his business, he says, funds tended to come in lump sums — especially early in his career. A windfall of any size was almost always followed by an art-buying binge.

“When I had money, I started buying whatever I could afford, but I never looked at it like an investment,” adds Mark, a philosophy that may sound incongruous coming from someone who made his living seeking lucrative investment opportunities. “It was always just about the art.”

Laura, on the other hand, is a third-generation Central Floridian. She attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where she majored in political science, and then the University of Florida’s College of Law, after which she served as a clerk with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

She later joined Eidson Insurance — founded in 1943 by her grandfather, George — and rose through the ranks to become president and CEO. The agency was sold to Marsh & McLennan, one of the world’s largest insurance brokers, in 2012.

In 2018, Laura joined éclat Law, where the firm’s arts orientation — there’s a gallery in its lobby and its clients are drawn heavily from the creative sector — seemed ideal for an empathetic attorney who understood what artists needed to be successful. 

You can’t pigeonhole the Cosgroves, who also own a “Souper Dress” by Andy Warhol. Laura Cosgrove actually wore the dress once — although it’s usually displayed on a mannequin.

Laura enjoyed accumulating nature-focused, wildlife-related art, and says that the most meaningful work she ever bought was a painting of a giraffe while she was on a wildlife tour in Kenya. 

She can’t remember the name of the artist, who was an obscure local who sold his work at a roadside stand. But such a lapse is understandable for someone who’s more interested in art that pleases her than art that might impress the cognoscente with its pedigree.

Which isn’t to say that you won’t find works by famous creators — plenty of them — in the Cosgrove collection. Much of what they’ve accumulated — and continue to accumulate during vacation jaunts planned around gallery and museum excursions — is on display, although much is also stored away for lack of space. 

“We always have certain things we’re looking for,” says Mark. “But most of the things we buy we just happen to see and like — things that weren’t even on our radar. That keeps the hunt fresh.”

Consequently, the Cosgrove home contains paintings in all genres: drawings and etchings, works in glass, sculptures both classical and modern — and even a notable piece of clothing. 

For example, that dress we mentioned earlier is an Andy Warhol “Souper Dress,” silk-screened with Campbell’s Soup cans. Laura even wore this highly collectible example of pop art ephemera once and it fit perfectly — although it’s obviously too valuable to wear while enjoying a spaghetti dinner. 

Indeed, roaming from room to room at the Cosgroves’ is like taking a survey course on the history of art. There are paintings and drawings by Degas, Matisse, Picasso and Rembrandt, among many others whose names would be familiar even to casual viewers. 

The collection even includes a Yoko Ono creation, a small object wrapped by Christo and a vivid oil-on-canvas landscape from one of the Highwaymen, a cadre of African American painters who sold their works from the trunks of their cars back in the 1950s.

There’s no genre that the Cosgroves shun, but they gravitate toward works on paper. Mark’s favorite piece, he says after due consideration, is a gouache-on-paper piece by Alexander Calder. (“It has sentimental value,” he notes.) Or, on second thought, perhaps it’s an assortment of stencils by Henri Matisse. Who knows? It’s like asking parents which child they prefer. 

Both Cosgroves place French impressionist Claude Monet atop their respective lists. “He’s the master of light, color and impressionist composition,” notes Laura. “Plus, we’ve attended many exhibitions of his work and his settings are some of our favorite places to travel — France, London, Venice.”

When they explore arts fairs, Mark is always on the lookout for works by conceptual artist John Baldessari, who died in 2020. Laura is a fan of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died in 1988 and whose current exhibition at the Orlando Museum of Art is the subject of an authenticity controversy. 

Although Basquiat prices make it unlikely she’ll ever own one of his works — a piece sold for $110 million in 2017 — Mark did recently present his wife with a Basquiat-imprinted dress, which she proudly rocked at a party celebrating the 2022 Winter Park Spring Sidewalk Art Festival.

As for currently active local artists, Mark likes the work of painter and photographer Peterson J. Guerrier, whose work has been displayed at CityArts in Orlando among other regional venues.

Laura is an admirer of paper and fiber artist Kelly Joy Ladd. The University of Central Florida graduate originally worked in oils but switched mediums after her husband developed a severe allergy to the chemicals in paint.

The Cosgroves are also aficionados of themed gardening. Their magical backyard consists of a Sculpture Garden, a Moroccan Garden and an Asian and European Garden, all interconnected by pathways. That means you’ll enter a different world around every bend. 

Art can be outdoors, too, even in and around swimming pools (above left). Hanging near the deep end is an untitled painting and floating in the water is Iris the Balloon Dog, both by Marla E, who was named Seminole County’s Artist of the Year in 2016. If the subject in the portraits (above right) looks familiar, then perhaps you’ve seen him around town. They’re of Mark Cosgrove, painted by Orlando artist Theo Lotz of Flying Horse Editions.

And peeking (sometimes subtly and sometimes not) from behind exotic plants and shrubs are works of art — often sculptures — that add to the ambiance. (Laura designed the Asian and European Garden after taking a pandemic-era Zoom course on gardening from Cornell University.)

As you might expect, the Cosgroves are involved in numerous arts-oriented organizations. Although both are members of the National Arts Club in New York, most of their volunteerism — arts-related and otherwise — is local.

Laura is advancement director for the Friends of the Mennello Museum of American Art and co-chair of the museum’s major capital campaign to expand its facility in Loch Haven Cultural Park. 

And she’s one of four co-founders of the Foundation for Foster Children, a nonprofit started in 2008 to improve opportunities for children in the foster-care system. Today, the organization helps hundreds of children annually, has a staff of more than 20 and a budget of more than $3 million per year.

Mark is past chair of the Rollins Museum of Art and is a member of the board of directors of Flying Horse Editions, the fine-art press of the University of Central Florida. 

He’s also a playwright whose work has been presented at such local venues as the Blue Bamboo Center for the Fine Arts, and a trustee of the OnePulse Foundation, whose mission is to build a memorial to victims of the 2016 mass shooting at the downtown Orlando nightclub. 

Both Cosgroves are, above all else, arts advocates who believe — like many of us — that life is simply better when it nurtures and celebrates the creative spirit. But for Mark and Laura, there’s an even more personal aspect.

“We like creating a place where we love to be together,” says Laura. “And sometimes it’s not just about the art. It’s about the experiences that the art reminds us of.” 

“Winter Park’s downtown, neighborhoods and lakes serve up a daily menu of colors, shapes, light and shadows,” says artist Robert Ross, who gets many of his ideas while walking around the city. Photo courtesy of Robert Ross

WRITING’S LOSS IS PAINTING’S GAIN

“Winter Park’s downtown, neighborhoods and lakes serve up a daily menu of colors, shapes, light and shadows,” says artist Robert Ross, who gets many of his ideas while walking around the city. Photo courtesy of Robert Ross

Robert Ross gets most of his ideas for paintings during his daily walks. “Winter Park’s downtown, neighborhoods and lakes serve up a daily menu of colors, shapes, light and shadows,” says Ross, a native of Flint, Michigan, who majored in English and worked for 30 years in public relations. 

He had always loved art, but was determined for years to become an author. He chose to concentrate on painting after finding it difficult to sell poems and short fiction.

A life drawing class with Rima Jabbur at the Crealdé School of Art — where Ross is now an instructor — and landscape painting workshops with Philadelphia-based modernist Stuart Shils persuaded him to become an artist full time in 2013, after he retired from his job as an editor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. 

Since then, collectors have discovered Ross’s distinctive, often geometrically themed images at festivals and galleries throughout Florida. He’s also a regular at the Winter Park Paint Out, a plein air event sponsored by the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, and has been an award winner at the Winter Park Autumn Art Festival.

In 2020, Ross’s paintings were featured in an exhibition, Unique Perspectives: Paintings by Robert Ross, at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach. That same year, the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland displayed two of his oil-on-canvas creations during a pandemic-themed online exhibition entitled Hindsight 2020: Art of This Moment.

Ross, whose works often depict buildings or details of buildings, says he’s “especially drawn to the interaction of man-made structures with trees and the sky. In fact, the spaces between things often become the focus of my paintings.”

This issue’s cover image, which for Ross marks a bit of a departure, was the result of a walk with his wife, Claudia Thomas (also a painter), through the campus of Rollins College. “It’s our favorite place along our route,” he says.

There Ross saw several members of the college sailing team bringing in their boats after a sojourn on Lake Virginia. “I took photos of two of them working at the dock, which I found more interesting than a typical view of sailors on the water,” he says. Ross based the painting, entitled Striking the Sails, on the photos.

Ross has maintained a studio at McRae Art Studios in Orlando for the past decade. To see more of his work, visit robertrossart.com.

Abby Ober, in town for the Winter Park Paint Out, didn’t have to look far for a gorgeous setting. She just set up her easel behind the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, which sponsors the annual event.

HOME, SWEET HOME (FOR YOUR BOAT)

Abby Ober, in town for the Winter Park Paint Out, didn’t have to look far for a gorgeous setting. She just set up her easel behind the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, which sponsors the annual event.

Cover artist Abby Ober today lives and works in St. Michaels, Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay. But she graduated from Rollins College in 1984 with a degree in fine art and has a special place in her heart for Winter Park.

As a student, she worked as a prep chef at the Park Plaza Hotel’s restaurant, then The Palms (later Park Plaza Gardens and now Bovine, which is unaffiliated with the hotel). And she always comes back for the annual Winter Park Paint Out, sponsored by the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens.

The issue’s cover image, with the self-explanatory title of Boathouse on Lake Osceola, shows the view across the lake from the Polasek’s grounds. If the artist’s style looks familiar, it may be because we also used Ober’s painting of the Park Plaza Hotel — where she stays during visits — on the cover of the Summer 2021 issue.

Ober, a native of Illinois, spent her youth abroad as the daughter of a foreign service officer and lived in Poland, Germany, Russia, India and Greece. She dreamed of becoming an artist since childhood and attended the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., following her graduation from Rollins.

After a career in advertising Ober moved to Pennsylvania, where she raised two children and began teaching art to adults and children — including those with disabilities — at Wayne Art Center in Wayne, Pennsylvania.

She also began a career as a fine artist, painting both in her studio and at plein air events across the country. She’s looking forward to returning to Winter Park for the Polasek’s 14th annual Paint Out from April 24 through 30.

Ober’s work has been featured in exhibitions and is held in many private collections. She accepts commissions and does many personalized paintings for homes and businesses. She may be reached through her website, abbyober.com.

SEEKING THE PROMISED LAND

“My father thought art was nothing that a man did,” says Robert Rivers, a native of Alabama who lives in Maitland and has taught at UCF since 1980. “Artists were sort of suspect. Football was a priority.” Photo by Rafael Tongol

Guntersville is a small (population 8,197) city in northeastern Alabama at the southernmost point of the Tennessee River, surrounded by 61,100-acre Lake Guntersville — the largest body of water in the state.

Its residents, like most Alabamians, are religious, politically conservative and forever defined by their degree of fealty to the football teams of either the University of Alabama or Auburn University.

It’s not the sort of place that you’d expect to produce many renowned visual artists, especially those whose thought-provoking works often depict the futility of war and pay horrifying homage to mystical mythologies of different cultures. 

Guntersville did, however, produce Robert Rivers, 71, a University of Central Florida professor of art whose epic 286-panel cycle of mixed-media paintings, The Promised Land, last year won the Florida Prize in Contemporary Art. (There were just 231 panels, and only 69 on view, during the concurrent exhibition, which was held at the Orlando Museum of Art.)

“My father thought art was nothing that a man did,” recalls Rivers, who lives in Maitland and has taught at UCF since 1980. “Artists were sort of suspect. Football was a priority.” 

In that regard, young Rivers didn’t disappoint — as a tackle and a linebacker at Guntersville High School, he competed for a 1967 state championship. He was inspired, he says, by Coach Bill Oliver, who had played defensive back for the legendary Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama.

“I thought maybe I wanted to be a football coach at the time,” says Rivers, whose refined twang would be instantly recognizable to fellow refugees of Sand Mountain, the sandstone plateau on which Guntersville is partially located. “I never thought I’d be an artist. But I drew all the time — mostly horses and football players.” 

In fact, it was Rivers’s father — a former Marine fighter pilot in World War II — from whom he may have inherited his artistic talent. “My dad could draw beautifully,” says Rivers. But the family patriarch would have been sketching missiles and rockets, not tortured figures trapped in snake-infested hellscapes.

The elder Rivers was an aeronautical engineer, one of many skilled technical specialists who found homes along the shores of Lake Guntersville when they were hired to work for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, located 37 miles to the northwest. Rivers recalls visits from Wernher von Braun, a neighbor and director of the space flight center.

Much about Rivers’s adolescence seemed idyllic. But much more of his time in Guntersville could have inspired a Pat Conroy novel. His father, he says, was a heavy drinker and often abusive. His mother, he says, was an even heavier drinker who could do little to control her husband’s volatility.

GOODBYE, GUNTERSVILLE

As soon as Rivers could get out of Guntersville, he did, enrolling at Auburn in 1969 and majoring in graphic design. “I sold it to my dad as becoming a commercial artist, which sounded more practical,” recalls Rivers, who found himself drawn to printmaking. 

“Printmaking requires that you pare down and discard the nonessential,” says Rivers. “It helped me focus myself down into the little furrows I was making on the copper surface. I saw the significance of that etched line.”

Naturally the Vietnam War captured his attention, as it did most college-aged young people in the late 1960s. Rivers was horrified by the My Lai massacre, in which a company of American soldiers brutally killed most of the people — including children and the elderly — who lived in a small village. 

As a result, he created a series of drawings inspired by the tragedy and found that his fellow students — especially in the more liberal confines of the art department — admired the work’s power.

Recalls Rivers: “I went from being this big dumb jock to being an artist who was taken seriously.” It marked the first time, but certainly not the last time, that he would return to dark themes that involved armed conflict, human suffering and man’s inhumanity to man.

Among his summer jobs during his Auburn years was an animal trainer at an attraction called Jungle Larry’s in Sandusky, Ohio. An animal lover, Rivers enjoyed caring for and training elephants and monkeys — and even performing with them in shows for tourists.

Although pursuing a career as an animal trainer crossed his mind, Rivers earned a BFA from Auburn in 1973 and started a decidedly more mundane workaday job as art coordinator at the Carpet and Rug Institute in Dalton, Georgia. 

There he designed brochures, annual reports and trade show displays — and found rather quickly that he disliked commercial art. But the institute inadvertently kick-started his career as a fine artist by sending him to the Chicago Merchandise Mart, home to a gigantic annual furniture exhibition. 

Rivers found little to interest him in the displays of tables, chairs, sofas and floor coverings. But a new world opened for him when he visited the Chicago Art Institute, one of the oldest and largest art museums in the world.

“That’s the first time I’d ever set foot in a real museum,” Rivers says. “It was the first time I’d ever seen a Goya painting, other than reproduced in books.”

Francisco Goya, a Spanish romantic painter and printmaker, is considered the most important Spanish artist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His paintings, drawings and engravings were often of asylums, riots, executions and bizarre animal-like creatures.

Rivers had always counted Goya among his greatest influences, but seeing his work in person was transformative. Upon his return to Dalton, Rivers says, his boss asked him to draw “two carpet fibers — one that’s happy because it’s clean and the other that’s sad because it’s dirty.” 

That, Rivers recalls, was the final straw: “I applied to graduate school the next day.”

He earned a Ford Foundation scholarship to attend the School of Art at the University of Georgia in Athens, where he also played rugby. “I burned away any remaining commercialism in my art,” Rivers says. “I wanted to get as far away from that as possible.” 

After earning an MFA in printmaking in 1977, Rivers became an assistant professor of art at the University of Wisconsin-Superior for two years until coming to the University of Central Florida — which had been Florida Technological University just the year before. 

The Alabama-born artist’s creative output was impressive. He had already created a series called The Hospital Prints — jarring, Goyaesque black-and-while images inspired by his mother’s hospitalizations (she died in 1974 from cirrhosis of the liver). 

Rivers also began sculpting thickly glazed and textured ceramic heads — none of them boasting, shall we say, classically beautiful faces — and creating a series of copper-plate etchings featuring animals and figures from mythology called The War Prayer, based upon a 1905 essay of the same name by Mark Twain (see pages 28 and 29). 

As it turned out, The War Prayer series — completed between 1984 and 2010 — thematically presaged The Promised Land. But well before that magnum opus got underway, explorations of tragic death had come to define Rivers’ work — and still does.

Here are two of 286 (and counting) panels from The Promised Land, which last year won the prestigious Florida Prize in Contemporary Art. The ever-evolving work was described by Coralie Claeysen-Gleyzon, associate curator at the Orlando Museum of Art, as “at once overwhelmingly terrifying and astonishingly beautiful,”

THE PROMISED LAND

Is Rivers, then, a prototypical tortured artist? If so, it’s hard to tell. Despite the grim nature of his subject matter, he’s genial and gregarious company — not what one might expect after perusing his portfolio. And he’s always up for an adventure.

In 1995, while on sabbatical from UCF, Rivers says he succumbed to “middle-aged craziness” and trampled across remote portions of South America. There he joined a perilous expedition along the 240-mile Biobío River, which originates in south-central Chile. He also scaled the mountains of Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia.

Rivers recorded his adventures in sketchbooks, which were bound by UCF’s Flying Horse Press into a series called The Handmade Books, several of which are now part of the permanent collections at, among other institutions, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Scottish National Gallery of Art in Edinburgh, where he had been a visiting lecturer and an exchange professor.

But his paramount achievement thus far — and certainly his most expansive — is The Promised Land series, which was inspired by the 2010 death of his nephew, Thomas, a service member in Afghanistan, from the blast of an improvised explosive device.

Rivers received the tragic news from his older brother, the soldier’s father, also named Thomas. “I didn’t fully comprehend what he meant at first,” Rivers says. “They’ve lost Thomas? Well, I asked, can’t they just find him? Then I realized that he had been killed. Operation Enduring Freedom, they called it. I painted my first panel that night.”

The first image in what would become an ongoing series was of a sleeping soldier with a snake coiled around his body. 

The Promised Land, as described by Coralie Claeysen-Gleyzon, associate curator at the Orlando Museum of Art, “is at once overwhelmingly terrifying and astonishingly beautiful,” filled with ethereal wounded soldiers who journey through a barren underworld and encounter severed limbs, thorny plants, open graves and pits that may be portals to the afterlife — along with an odd assortment of mammals and reptiles.

Snakes are a continuing motif in The Promised Land, as well as in earlier works by Rivers, who traces the iconography to his upbringing on Sand Mountain. There, pockets of snake handlers still worship while dancing in the spirit and grasping writhing serpents, who sometimes lose their patience and inflict fatal bites on the faithful.

In fact, the TV news magazine Dateline NBC aired a report on northeast Alabama snake handlers in 2005. Recalls Rivers: “Steve Lotz [then chair of the UCF Art Department] saw it and said, ‘Well, Robert, that explains a lot of things about you.’”

The panels in The Promised Land — each more than 5 feet wide and nearly 3 feet tall — are rendered in graphite, red pencil, oil paint and washes made of tea and rust-colored acrylics that give the impression of dried blood.

Rivers records his ideas and travel adventures in sketchbooks (left), some of which have been bound by UCF’s Flying Horse Press into a series called The Handmade Books. A versatile multimedia artist, Rivers keeps the tools of his trade (right) in a spacious studio above his garage.

Viewed individually or en masse, the symbolism in these panels can be interpreted many ways. But Rivers says that sometimes messages are discerned in his work that he doesn’t intend to convey.

Sometimes, though, he does. He certainly doesn’t dispute Robert Croker, one of his former professors at the University of Georgia, who says: 

“[The Promised Land] is both a tribute to Thomas and a rumination of death in general, by violence in particular; the fragility and persistence of life; the uncertainty of an afterlife; the innocence of youth and the intensity with which our lives are bound to one another, regardless of the circumstance.”

Rivers does, however, dispute the notion that he harbors overarching political opinions about the 20-year war, which ended last August when President Joe Biden withdrew troops. About 2,500 American service members had died and about $2 trillion (mostly borrowed) dollars had been spent only to result in a rapid Taliban takeover.

“I definitely didn’t want to send a political message,” says Rivers — at least not about that specific war. “I just wonder why we keep sending our kids over into situations like that.” If gently pressed, he’ll go this far: “I think that once we got bin Laden, we should have gotten out of there.”

The Florida Prize in Contemporary Art, which comes with $20,000 in prize money, is awarded following an exhibition of works by the state’s 10 most progressive artists as determined by the museum’s jurors.

Last year, jurors included Aldeide Delgado, a Miami-based independent curator and founder/director of Women Photographers International Archive, and Aaron Levi Garvey, director and curator of Long Road Projects in Jacksonville and chief curator and program director of Jonah Bokaer Arts Foundation in Brooklyn, New York.

Rivers earned the nod from the judges, but the $2,500 People’s Choice Award, voted on during the Florida Prize Exhibition Preview Party, was won by Orlando painter Matthew Cornell.

After he began teaching at the University of Central Florida, Rivers began sculpting thickly glazed and textured ceramic heads such as Laughing Woman. None of his sculpted works could be described as celebrations of physical beauty.

“Winning the Florida Prize was one of the best nights of my life,” says Rivers. “A beautiful museum with beautiful people. It was a fantastic honor, and I was overwhelmed.” 

Rivers was also overwhelmed by an unexpected appearance at the ceremonies by his brother, Thomas, whose son is memorialized in The Promised Land. “I didn’t know he was that good,” commented Thomas after viewing his brother’s display.

Rivers’s art has been displayed all over the world, and selected collections are housed in the National Gallery of Art and the Corcoran Gallery, both located in Washington, D.C. His work can also be found in the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Montgomery, Alabama, and the Gallery of Art in Edinburgh, Scotland.

These days, Rivers continues to teach — he was relieved to have mastered the technology required to teach remotely, which is hardly ideal for art instruction — and continues to turn out Promised Land panels from his spacious second-floor garage studio attached to his home in Maitland. 

Rivers, who rekindled a lifelong love for horses, began riding jumpers in 1997. Through his interest in horses, he met Peggy Stevens and the pair married in 2008. Together, they operate Brookmore Farms, a horse boarding and training facility in the Lake Howell area of unincorporated Winter Park.

In fact, at press time he was recovering from a near-disastrous accident in which the horse he was riding fell on him and broke his collarbone, then trampled his hand with its hoof. Luckily, none of the small bones were broken.

Just as important to Rivers, though, the horse was uninjured. “As for me,” he says, “I just forced myself to paint with my left hand for a while.” 


Twain wrote the The War Prayer in 1905, but it wasn’t published until 1916.

‘BLAST THEIR HOPES, BLIGHT THEIR LIVES’

The War Prayer series was inspired by a controversial Mark Twain story.

One of Robert Rivers’s most powerful series of prints was inspired by The War Prayer, a short story (or prose poem) written by Mark Twain in 1905 but not published until 1916, six years after the iconic and irascible writer’s death.

Twain, who usually thought nothing about speaking his mind regardless of who might take offense, knew that this scathing indictment of blind patriotic and religious fervor would stir up a career-damaging frenzy. So he chose not to publish it in his lifetime.

“I have told the whole truth in [The War Prayer],” Twain told a friend. “Only dead men can tell the truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead.”

The story’s premise: An unnamed country goes to war — perhaps, it has been speculated, the Spanish-American War — and dutiful citizens attend a church service to call upon God to grant them victory and protect their troops. 

Suddenly, an “aged stranger” appears and announces that he is God’s messenger. He tells the congregation that he has been sent to speak aloud the second (but unspoken) part of their prayer — the part that wishes suffering and destruction on the enemy. 

What follows is a gruesome description of the horrors of war, spoken in the pious language of a preacher beseeching the Almighty. Writes Twain, upon the prayer’s conclusion: “It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”

Rivers first heard The War Prayer on PBS in 1981, when it was dramatized in The Private History of a Campaign That Failed, a fictionalized account of Twain’s brief stint as a Confederate soldier. The prayer was spoken by actor Edward Herrmann.

“I was just blown away by the language,” says Rivers. “I went to the library to find a copy. I used some of the lines from the poem as titles for my prints. The sentiments really spoke to me.”

One of Robert Rivers’s most powerful series of prints was inspired by The War Prayer, an essay written by Mark Twain in 1905. Although the writer typically cared little about offending readers, he chose not to publish The War Prayer in his lifetime because he knew that it would cause a furor. Rivers first heard the work on PBS in 1981. “I was just blown away by the language,” says Rivers. “The sentiments really spoke to me.” Monsoon (above left), Hercules at Rest (above right) and Bouncing Betty (below) are part of the artist’s War Prayer series.


The War Prayer was first published in Harper’s Magazine — as World War I raged — and remains in print today, as relevant as ever. It is considered to be one of the most powerful antiwar commentaries ever written and presages Rivers’s Promised Land series.

THE WAR PRAYER

Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle — be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it. For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

While many omakase restaurants stick to Japanese specialties, Soseki has no such rule. Several courses, however, are single-sushi creations. Beverage pairings are available, as are wines and sakes by the glass or bottle.

CLASS WITH SOME SASS

Photography By Julia Fletcher and 86 Media Company

Michael Collantes is chef and co-owner (with his wife, Jahaziel) of Soseki, a tiny restaurant that serves seriously creative cuisine with a heaping helping of good humor.

The snobby yet respectable Michelin Guide will rate Orlando-area restaurants soon. The prestigious, red-covered book reviews the food and the ambiance, of course. But its notoriously persnickety judges also take note of everything that enhances the dining experience — including the tiniest service details. 

They’ll find a plethora of special touches at Soseki, a subdued Winter Park restaurant with a bold reputation. You might arrive in your night-out finest expecting a hushed multicourse gourmet experience. You’ll get that, of course, but with a dash of humor to lighten the serious culinary hijinks. This place is worth a splurge.

Upon being seated at one of Soseki’s 10 seats, which face the open kitchen where chefs artfully plate the food as you watch, you’ll feel as though you’re in a very formal place. At least I did — so much so that I was judgy about one couple’s ratty casual apparel. 

Yet by the second of 16 courses, when a heavily tattooed Asian chef with spiky orange hair bellowed food descriptions — with jokes — it became clear to me that Soseki is fun, not frou-frou.

“Her name is Rio,” the chef thundered, naming the cleverly titled dish that he said was developed around foie gras along with Brazilian flavors and textures. 

And there was this: “Microphone Czech One Two,” the punny moniker for a stunning course with Eastern European influences that features the world’s creamiest egg yolk and a bitter bite of sauerkraut along with a marvelous mushroom soup. 

I think, in truth, I only caught about a third of what this culinarian, who calls himself Chef de Cuisine CJ, said; his Japanese accent is thick. I later reviewed my written notes and listened to an audio file (on slow playback), and still couldn’t understand very much. (I fact-checked with other team members later.) 

I did manage to pick out the words, “cracker, potato, garlic, onions, caraway seeds and mushrooms” — or maybe it was “Madonna,” but I doubt it — and “finishing with a sour cream.” 

It didn’t matter. Not a tad. Chef CJ was hilarious, and his food was daring and delicious. I mean, how many times do you murmur to your dining companion, “Did you taste that egg? I mean, did you taste that egg?”

A savory dish dubbed Thufferin’ Thuccotash consists of duck meat flavored with baharat, a Middle Eastern spice blend, along with succotash and corn espuma — a chef-made foam.

The creativity, the presentation, even the patter — they’re all part of the plan at Soseki, a year-old restaurant owned by Chef Michael Collantes and his wife, Jahaziel, who handles the books, decor and other non-food elements of the operation.

Collantes started out in New Jersey, visiting Florida every summer until relocating to Winter Park at age 13 and graduating from Winter Park High School. Both Collanteses are second-generation Filipino Americans and parents to a pair of young children. 

The couple also owns the way-more-casual counter-serve concept Taglish, which earlier this year opened its second Orlando-area outlet. And they have plans to keep expanding their empire — and Orlando’s culinary offerings. 

If that weren’t enough, these super-busy millennials also run 86 Media and On the Site Media, providers of videos and such for construction and real estate companies.

Hidden in an enclave behind Fairbanks Avenue with an entrance tucked into a parking lot between Wine Barn and Austin’s Coffee, Soseki is a destination for fine dining — but with spunk.

“These are our real personalities,” Collantes says. “Yes, we polish up the scripts of what we’re saying about each dish because, of course, this is a little bit of a performance. We want to be high-end, to present luxury without pretentiousness. We want guests to feel taken care of, as they would at a dinner party.”

Those scripts aren’t the only polished pieces of the Soseki puzzle. There are drawers at each seat filled with an assortment of attractive forks, spoons and chopsticks so visitors can choose their own utensils. 

“Down to the last detail, we want this to be an immersive experience,” adds Collantes. “We want there to be something to talk about on the way home, such as, ‘Oh, did you see the little birthday card they snuck into the drawer?’” 

A fun, funky mix of carefully curated music adds to the atmosphere. You’ll hear lively jazz followed by an “of-the-moment mingling of deep classics and dish-specific surprises,” says General Manager and Beverage Director Benjamin Coutts. Hey, details matter. Soseki is what’s known as an omakase restaurant, kind of like Kadence in the Audubon Park Garden District. A Japanese word, omakase is translated as “entrust,” and in this context means “chef’s choice.”

The intermezzo dish (above), meant to shake things up halfway through the repast, included a transforming “parsnip milkshake” in the bowl with toffee, orange, a ring of dried parsnip and an oblong cookie called langue de chat. “Microphone Czech One Two” (below) is the moniker for a stunning course with Eastern European influences that features the world’s creamiest egg yolk and a bitter bite of sauerkraut along with a marvelous mushroom soup.

Meals are prepared in view of the two handfuls of diners that the space can accommodate, all of whom are seated on the opposite side of a long counter. Everyone eats the same fancy-schmancy dishes. Beverage pairings are available, as are wines and sakes by the glass or bottle.

While many omakase restaurants stick to Japanese specialties, Soseki has no such rule. Several courses, however, are single-sushi creations. And very interesting ones at that.

Among those sampled during our recent visit included a slice of toro with soy, buri and sansyo, which is ground dried leaves of the prickly ash tree. That’s the same tree that produces Szechwan peppercorns. 

Another sushi offering was a lean and delicate shima aji — also known as horse mackerel — with a garlic ponzu dressing. Beyond that, you’ll be taken on a culinary expedition crossing borders, even continents, in the most exotic and intriguing of ways.

The final savory dish, dubbed Thufferin’ Thuccotash! (yep, another pun), involved duck meat flavored with baharat, a Middle Eastern spice blend, along with succotash and corn espuma — a chef-made foam. 

The intermezzo dish, meant to shake things up halfway through the repast, included a transforming “parsnip milkshake” in the bowl with toffee, orange, a ring of dried parsnip and an oblong cookie called langue de chat.

My takeaway: Don’t try to understand the food at Soseki — just eat and enjoy.

I could go on, describing all 16 dishes served during our sitting, but never mind. Your menu will be different. The Soseki chefs change it up every month and use locally raised ingredients and fish caught in Florida. 

“We found someone who’s absolutely passionate about sourcing and dispatching local fish in the proper way, so we’re getting some of the freshest fish ever,” says Collantes.

Calling the entire process “collaborative,” he adds that the small team’s different backgrounds make for joyous culinary surprises. “I would never have thought to pair red wine with the last fish courses, for example.” 

That was Coutts’s idea, he says, as was using custom ceramic plateware and weighty spoons: “You don’t know why it feels better, but just something about the weight of the spoon makes it feel like, ‘Wow!’”

Upon being seated at one of Soseki’s 10 seats, which face the open kitchen where chefs artfully plate the food as you watch, you’ll feel as though you’re in a very formal place. Soon, though, you’ll realize that the restaurant is more fun than frou-frou.

There are more small but impressive extras. For example, each guest receives a logoed plastic pouch in which to store face masks during the meal. And the florist who operates the area’s Pick Me Up Flower Truck has offered to provide flower arrangements with a Japanese aesthetic. 

“We’re just building these connections with local partners who can cast a vision for us,” says Collantes. “For a little restaurant, it’s really exciting.” 

Collantes studied culinary arts at Valencia College and traveled around the country during four years with the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group. He has worked in kitchens led by Joël Robuchon and Eric Ripert, among others. He was also culinary director for The Bento Group, which operates more than 20 Bento Asian Kitchen + Sushi
restaurants throughout Florida.

Chef CJ, whose real name is Tadateru Tokudaiji, has a longer culinary CV, with stops at more than 210 restaurants, several of which boast Michelin stars, in 35 countries. (“I’m Japanese, but I don’t cook Japanese,” he points out.)

The two men had crossed paths over the years, and Collantes was thrilled to snag the “quiet legend in the fine-dining scene” for Soseki. The well-traveled chef was attracted to the idea of creating a small restaurant where inventive dishes are prepared from scratch. Others on staff are happy to handle the raw fish.

Business has been good. Good enough, in fact, that the Collanteses have upgraded their floor — originally slathered with garage paint — to a sleek natural stone that complements the light woods. 

The clientele consists of people who don’t mind paying $225 per person plus tax and tip, and another $75 for the optional beverage pairing. There are even regulars for whom special-occasion pricing is applicable any random night of the week. 

But don’t try to call for reservations. You can’t, because there’s no public phone number. Reservations must be made online at sosekifl.com.

While many omakase restaurants stick to Japanese specialties, Soseki has no such rule. Several courses, however, are single-sushi creations. Beverage pairings are available, as are wines and sakes by the glass or bottle.

While Collantes is clearly proud of his Winter Park roots, he delights in hearing guests exclaim that when they’re at Soseki, they feel as though they’re no longer in Central Florida.

“When people couldn’t travel during the pandemic, they were missing these types of experiences. The best compliment to me is, ‘This place feels like I’m in San Francisco, or New York.’”

Yet, it’s just minutes from home. 


Soseki
955 West Fairbanks Avenue, Winter Park
sosekifl.com

Sanderson says his paintings reflect how he sees the world. If that’s the case, then his world is a vibrant place indeed. Notes the artist, who lives in Lake County but finds inspiration in Winter Park: “I just paint whatever brings me happiness.”

BOLD AND UNBRIDLED BRUSHWORK

Sanderson says his paintings reflect how he sees the world. If that’s the case, then his world is a vibrant place indeed. Notes the artist, who lives in Lake County but finds inspiration in Winter Park: “I just paint whatever brings me happiness.”

Edward Sanderson Jr. sold plenty of paintings during the Winter Park Autumn Art Festival, held last October. Buyers were drawn to his buoyantly colorful cityscapes, many of which depicted downtown Winter Park.

Among the many attendees drawn to Sanderson’s display was Theresa Swanson, group publisher and director of sales for Winter Park Magazine, who purchased a print and asked the artist about his career.

Sanderson, a 54-year-old resident of Clermont, said his paintings had been adopted as the official posters for art festivals in Casselberry, Celebration, Heathrow and West Palm Beach. 

His goals, he added, included creating the official poster for the spring Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival and having his art featured on the cover of Winter Park Magazine.

“Well,” said Swanson, who had not yet identified herself. “I can’t help you with the first goal, but I’m pretty sure I can help you with the second one.” One thing led to another, and soon Sanderson’s painting entitled Wish You Were Here, a depiction of sidewalk diners on Park Avenue, was selected for the magazine’s fall issue.

Although he lives on acreage in Lake County, Sanderson says “I never fail to be inspired when I come to Winter Park.” Something about the city’s ambiance, Sanderson says, lends itself to his dynamic compositions and fearless use of color.

A native of Philadelphia, Sanderson moved to Altamonte Springs with his family at age 5, the youngest of four siblings. He was inspired to pursue art by his father, a BellSouth executive who was also a master model builder. He went on to earn an A.A. degree from Valencia College and to enroll in UCF with the intention of studying painting.

But formal art education quickly went by the wayside when Sanderson was hired to sketch pastel portraits for tourists at Walt Disney World, where an artist who was fast and could churn out a good likeness might haul in hundreds of dollars per day. 

However, when Sanderson’s mother died of cancer in 2001, he turned his focus to fine art and entered the festival circuit. By 2007, he was selected as the poster artist for the Celebration Art Festival. 

Sanderson would go on to complete nine more hot-selling official posters for local festivals, and to attract a national and international following of serious collectors as well as people who just felt better when they saw his ebullient contemporary impressionistic images adorning the walls of their homes and offices. 

“It’s the color,” he says. “I’m not afraid to use it. If my work was photo realistic, I’d feel like a human copy machine. My paintings are interpretations of how I see the world, where I prefer to use bold and unbridled brushwork without regard to reality. I just paint whatever brings me happiness.”

Many local artists know Sanderson already. Since 2010, he has been the senior framing manager at Sam Flax in Orlando, the building on East Colonial Drive that looks as though it was assembled from Legos. It’s a major purveyor of art supplies and an unofficial gathering place for artists of all genres.

“We’re all artists here in one form or another,” says Sanderson. “I’m surrounded by creative people and surrounded by beautiful art every day. “I love to mentor and encourage young artists who come in.” 

In addition to daily immersion in an arts-oriented environment, Sanderson says his work is energized by his wife, Christi, “who inspires me to be a better artist and a better person.” The couple has two children: Emily, 13, and Edward Jr., 15.

“I invite the viewer to look at life on a daily basis as a gift filled with fleeting moments,” Sanderson says. “In this sometimes-tumultuous world of uncertainty and darkness, I encourage the world to seek out the beauty that we’re blessed with each day, often found in ordinary places.”

Art, Sanderson notes, is “cheaper than therapy” for both creators and consumers. To see if you agree, visit originalsbyhenderson.com.

With roots in ancient Chinese medicine, qigong is practiced by adherents — Artt among them — for exercise, relaxation and overall health. Some studies have shown that qigong does appear to lessen chronic fatigue and improve mood disorders such as depression. Artt believes that qigong, which is introduced in The Guardians of Peace, can be especially effective for overstressed children.

A VIDEO GAME FOR THE SOUL

Artt, a technologically challenged grandmother, became alarmed at the rise in violence among young people. So she decided to do something about it by creating The Guardians of Peace, a science fiction adventure game with all the high-tech bells and whistles but rooted in traditional meditation and healing techniques. Photo by Blakesberg Photography

This is the unlikely story of a video game creator who readily admits to being technologically challenged and whose only video game acquaintance is with Pac-Man, that hungry yellow orb who did nothing more than chomp his way through a maze with multihued ghosts in hot pursuit. 

Could Pac-Man now really be 30 years old?

Even when Nintendo’s mustachioed Mario burst onto the scene several years later, Debbie Petry Artt says, “We wanted our kids outside doing stuff” rather than sitting inside, playing video games. “We kind of saw, even back then, that it wasn’t a good idea to have them get addicted to that.” 

Fast forward a few decades. As the value of the global gaming market approached $200 billion, Artt, a 63-year-old grandmother, came to realize that video games could be used for good. 

Horrified by increasing gun violence, and especially shaken by school shootings, she wanted to share a story that taught children about love and kindness and how to be the very best version of themselves. 

So she created The Guardians of Peace, a science fiction adventure game that she describes as a response to violence and an alternative to games that “provide a blueprint for teaching children how to take a gun and blow heads off.”

The story underpinning the game, which gradually took shape on the pages of a composition notebook, describes the positive energies of strength, passion, life, love, mind, sight and spirit battling the opposing forces of laziness, fear, hate, poison, ignorance, lies and cruelty.

Not sure how to proceed but believing that what she had could be impactful, Artt tucked the story away for safekeeping. Until one evening about two years ago, over Mexican food and a sangria at a local restaurant, when she described the concept to her friend Holly Camorata, a real estate salesperson and a former public-school teacher.

As it turned out, Camorata had contact information for someone in the gaming industry: Bret Wright, a Full Sail University graduate who in 2013 had earned a master’s degree in game design. In 2019, Wright started Toolshed LLC, a small (15 employees) company based in Cut Bank, Montana, that produces apps and video games. 

The tech whiz — who had worked as a designer and content director for several game developers prior to starting his own company — spoke on the phone with Artt. He was intrigued with what he heard. 

Three days later, they met in person at Artt’s home. “I showed him my little composition notebook,” Artt recalls. “He read the story and said, ‘I love this. Let me take it back to my video game world and show everybody.’” 

Wright, from his studio in Cut Bank, says his involvement with The Guardians of Peace has offered a welcome change of pace. “Most of my career has been working on, maybe not ultra-violent, but violent stuff,” he says. 

Adds Wright: “We definitely feel the need every day to get this out. I truly believe it will help kids cope with things like division, hate, racism and bullying — among other issues we all face daily.”

The Guardians of Peace story revolves around nine key words — purpose, gratitude, love, meditate, soul, energy, qigong, blessing, kind — and a young squire’s quest to become a Guardian of Peace. The game’s mentors — including one modeled on Artt — are inspired by her family members.

TAKE CARE OF YOUR QI

Artt subsequently contracted with Tool Shed to develop the game, which she hopes will change the world in part by exposing young players to qigong (pronounced chee-gong), a system of coordinated body-posture and movement, breathing and meditation. 

With roots in ancient Chinese medicine, qigong is practiced by adherents — Artt among them — for exercise, relaxation and overall health. Integrative medicine specialist Dr. Yufang Lin of the Cleveland Clinic says that qigong does appear to lessen chronic fatigue and improve mood disorders such as depression.

“According to traditional Chinese medicine principles, a person’s qi (energy) must flow throughout the body in order for people to feel their best,” Lin adds. “If qi becomes stagnant in a certain area, health problems can occur.”

The Guardians of Peace, designed for kids ages 6 through 12, launched its first episode as a free app available through the Apple App Store for iOS, Google Play for Android and Steam for PC. More than 100,000 games were downloaded and positive player reviews piled up.

Two other episodes followed, including a Spanish version. Soon The Guardians of Peace will be available for purchase through Playstation and Xbox. Artt says a game with Chinese subtitles is also in the works, as well as revised iterations aimed at older players.

CONQUER WITH KINDNESS

The story revolves around nine key words — purpose, gratitude, love, meditate, soul, energy, qigong, blessing, kind — and a young squire’s quest to become a Guardian of Peace. The game’s mentors — including one modeled on Artt — are inspired by her family members.  

The squire — players may choose “Diego” or “Sienna” — must pass the Seven Sacred Trials, waging epic battles to save the kingdom of Hastina-Poora and vanquish Commander Selfish and his menacing darklings once and for all.  

Special enhancements to the squire’s abilities can be added along the way by pausing to join the monks in meditation. That’s how qigong is introduced. “I think it will help with our drug epidemic,” says Artt. “If you find your purpose, you don’t have to numb your feelings.”

Though the accent is likely to provide a clue, Artt grew up on Long Island, New York, one of three children of Bill and Faith Petry, whom she remembers as “the golden ticket when it comes to parents.”

Tech whiz Bret Wright, a Full Sail University graduate with a master’s degree in game design, had worked as a designer and content director for several game developers prior to starting Tool Shed LLC, based in Cut Bank, Montana. Wright was intrigued with Artt’s idea and sympathetic to her mission. “We definitely feel the need every day to get this out,” he says. “I truly believe it will help kids cope with things like division, hate, racism and bullying — among other issues we all face daily.”

After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Bill Petry returned home and took a job working alongside United Parcel Service founder Jim Casey. Petry, capitalizing on a ground-floor opportunity, was instrumental in helping open new UPS hubs around the country before he retired at age 55. 

Artt’s parents celebrated 69 years of marriage before her father died in 2014. Her mother followed in 2019. The opening screen on The Guardians of Peace is dedicated to the couple, “who taught me that love can conquer all obstacles.”

Clearly, being a video game entrepreneur is not for the weak of knee or the shallow of pocket. Wright, while not revealing Artt’s investment in Guardians of Peace, says that comparable games — with polished graphics, a large cast of characters and a multilayered story — could easily cost seven figures to develop.

Artt, though, will only say that it’s the message, not the money, that really matters. Her successful career in real estate — and “the empire built on love and kindness” by her parents — has allowed her to pursue projects that capture her passion. And her three daughters, who live in three different states, have all pitched in.

Daughter Sydney Artt helps make business decisions, while daughter Jenna Zell, a qigong instructor, wrote the game’s meditations. Daughter Amanda Pate, whose Almost Naked Swimwear was featured on the cover of last August’s Sports Illustrated, is designing a “Faith Collection” of clothing and jewelry inspired by the game.

Jenna, Artt says, started the family on a spiritual journey about a decade ago when she battled anxiety and depression. Seeking answers, she discovered books and videos by inspirational author Panache Desai and qigong master Robert Peng. 

“Jenna started coming back to us with information about energy healing and meditation,” says Artt, who believes that her video game venture is divinely inspired. “It took us years to really jump on board with her.”

Judging by the celebrity endorsements on Artt’s Facebook page — sandwiched as they are between proud mama and doting grandma moments — the message is resonating. 

If there’s any doubt, just listen to the video testimonials from, among others, Jon Bon Jovi, Priscilla Presley, Deepak Chopra, Drew Pinsky (“Dr. Drew”) and Artt’s good friend and gym buddy singer Dion DiMucci. 

“Give me something of substance and you’ll entertain me all day long,” says DiMucci, who is perhaps best remembered for “Abraham, Martin and John,” a plaintive megahit in 1968. “This app instills real good stuff in your soul, if you know what I mean.”

For someone who thought she was entering retirement, Artt finds that her world has become very busy over the past couple of years. But if anyone can keep all the plates spinning it’s Artt, who splits her time between homes in Winter Park, Boca Raton and Costa Rica.

With roots in ancient Chinese medicine, qigong is practiced by adherents — Artt among them — for exercise, relaxation and overall health. Some studies have shown that qigong does appear to lessen chronic fatigue and improve mood disorders such as depression. Artt believes that qigong, which is introduced in The Guardians of Peace, can be especially effective for overstressed children.

“When you find your purpose, you know,” she says. “It just feels so good what I’m doing.” She does, however, believe that it’s important to take care of herself first. 

She begins each morning by checking in with her kids. Then she settles in for her spirituality and meditation practices, followed by celery juice and a cup of herbal tea. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, it’s off to the gym. 

Other mornings, she indulges a previously unrealized fondness for tennis, a game she began playing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Very much in character for Artt, her love of the game led her to open a tennis camp for underprivileged children in Costa Rica. 

What lies ahead for The Guardians of Peace? “I won’t stop until it’s a ride at Disney,” says Artt, who also has long-range visions of creating meditation centers for children and seeing the concepts that underpin the game taught in schools. 

After all, anything’s possible. One can almost hear Artt’s voice in the game as mentor Faith tells young squire Diego: “Meditate on it. Dream it. Will it. And it will manifest.” 

One thing is certain: Artt’s grandchildren will grow up knowing that their grandmother did everything within her power to make the world a better place for them to live. 

“We all have to do our part,” Artt says. “If you just have a positive thought once a day, that negates a thousand negative thoughts, creating a shift in the world.”

Spoken like a true Guardian of Peace. 


connect with us

Winter Park Publishing
Company, LLC.
201 West Canton Ave., Ste. 125B
Winter Park, FL 32789

ph: 407-647-0225
fx: 407-647-0145

Copyright 2022