Sheila Cook was born and raised in small-town Missouri, and her family and community ties were drawn tight at an early age. She and two sisters, raised by their mother, learned to make a commitment to family their number-one priority.
"Momma taught us hard work, independence, loyalty, devotion and above all else love — love for all," Cook said of her simple roots.
Her creative desires led her to pursue higher education, taking degrees in theater and art. She has an equally strong spiritual devotion that underpins her creative strengths.
Cook and her husband Steve, her "favorite human," retired to the Florida Keys, selecting Marathon for its family atmosphere. They created a home to share with three children and grandchildren.
"We didn't know anyone here — it was just the two of us for about a year," Cook said. "It was so cool, a real blessing; we really got to know each other in such a special way."
Despite this closeness and visits from family and friends, Cook reported, she was restless. She missed a place to explore art, teach and share in different mediums. She wanted to create a place where guests could learn in a safe and supportive atmosphere.
When she reached the milestone age of 50, The Art Studio started to take shape.
Open now for two years at mile marker 53.6 oceanside, The Art Studio is an emporium where people can learn to paint in oil, watercolors and acrylic, and sculpt and paint pottery. Public workshops and classes teach throwing clay, fusing glass, creating jewelry and painting and glazing self-selected ceramics.
Families of all types enjoy the togetherness of creating. Non-artisans can chill out upstairs in the coffee loft, relaxing in a comfortable chair, leaving others to create their masterpieces.
Cook said she relies on her son Sam's master's degree in business administration for expertise in daily operations.
"I am not a business-minded individual; I'm an artist," she explained. "I can do most anything I put my mind to, but I know my limitations."
The Art Studio is to incorporate a consignment opportunity for more local artists to showcase their artwork for the public to browse and buy. Plans also call for adding plein-air events around Marathon, including Cook's home — lovingly named The Bait Shack — a former botanical nursery that spans 5 acres with plentiful tropical gardens, natural light and oceanfront scenery.
"Bait Shack is my favorite place to be in the whole world," said Cook. "It's comfort, it's beauty, peace, a hideout, a safe haven for those who are weary — but it's also home, a warm robe with a cup of coffee, surrounded by God's beauty. You can't beat it."
She and her husband share their expansive home with her mother Joy, younger sister Viviane, five dogs and an umbrella cockatoo. Cook also hosts house and garden tours with the local garden club, community fundraising events, weddings and birthday gatherings.
"I can't think of a better way to show God's love than by inviting your community into your home," Cook said. "Community is family, especially here in Marathon."
It is via art that Cook believes families can explore together, and she tries to cultivate that experience through The Art Studio's creative endeavors.
Alongside four other in-house artists from The Art Studio, she is completing an art-meets-community mural project for Fishermen's Hospital in Marathon, painting the facility's donor wall with underwater reef scenes adorned with sculpture and glass to showcase each donor's contribution.
Cook thrives on artfully simple projects, the next taking form in her imagination even as she works in the present. Exploring art and sharing it with fellow artists, Marathon and the Keys community is her passion.
"If somebody wants a wall painted, I'm going to paint a wall," she said with a smile.
Cook and "her favorite human," husband Steve.
Cook calls her home, Bait Shack, her sanctuary.
Cook is completing a mural inside Marathon's hospital, alongside four other area artists.