Art Beat: Artist, mother paints a portrait in tribute to her late friend and colleague

Sylvia Liszka Durell and her daughter Marisa Johnson

Known internationally as a premiere button artist, Sylvia Liszka Durell of Spring Hill created a piece called “Pink Button Fish” that is currently part of The City of Tarpon Springs Illuminated Art Boxes Project along the Sponge Docks’ Dodecanese Boulevard. In addition, Durell created seven button craft tutorials for the National Button Society Creativity YouTube channel. Yet this renowned member of the Nature Coast Art League and various button collecting groups also excels at acrylics, watercolor pencils, oils and markers. She also recently created a very special work of art in service of an even more special person, her daughter Marisa Johnson.

When a friend and co-worker of Marisa passed away suddenly, she called upon her mother to paint a likeness of her friend, one set to be presented to her family this month. Sylvia stated, “Marisa is a very busy person. As a school psychologist, she works for 3 or 4 schools. She has three children ages 8, 11, and 15. The kids are in sports and activities and are always going here and there. I am amazed with how she continues to get involved in the lives of others and how she adds special extras to all that she does. It doesn’t surprise me that she is so involved in creating a wonderful tribute to her friend.”

In drawing inspiration for the requested portrait, Sylvia worked with a single photo of the departed Teacher’s Assistant Patty Amorine and the knowledge that she loved the color yellow and was a fan of Michigan State University (whose official school colors are blue and gold).

Durell shared, “Marisa sent me a text message in the middle of March asking me ‘Would you be willing to do a small portrait of a woman who died suddenly at one of my schools? We are having a memorial event for her because she worked here forever and I thought it would be nice to give to the family from the school. What do you think?’ I didn’t immediately react positively because painting a portrait is a bit scary for me and I had never done a tribute painting before. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make the portrait actually look like Patty. And that would be awful for the family. I answered Marisa with an alternative, ‘Not a painting but, I can use a computer program to make it look like a watercolor or oil painting.’ The committee didn’t like that idea as much, so I agreed to do a painting.”

Durel was determined to do the project proud as she set to work on the project. She stated, “When Marisa sent me Patty’s photo, she asked whether I would work on the painting while I was visiting Ohio in April? She offered to buy me whatever supplies I needed. When I asked for more info about Patty (her hobbies or things she liked to do), Marisa forwarded my question to Patty’s teaching partner and I learned that some of Patty’s favorites include giraffes, the color yellow, Michigan (as in the team up north), her family, and food art.”

Sylvia had a surprise in store for Marisa. “I didn’t tell Marisa that I decided to start on the portrait right away. I wanted to surprise her and had it nearly done before I got to Ohio. I used acrylic paints and canvas board. I already had all the supplies I needed,” she revealed. “When I planned the 9″ x 12″ layout, I chose to not center Patty in the middle of the board, like formal portraits often are. From her ‘favorites’ I got the feeling that she was lighthearted and playful. I decided to surround her with yellow daisies and make her shirt dark blue to reflect the University of Michigan’s colors, maize and, blue. I painted on and off for a couple of weeks.”

And then came the big reveal. Durell stated, “When I arrived in Ohio the first week of April, I had the almost finished portrait with me. When I showed it to Marisa, she liked it right away (especially Patty’s smile). She also had a couple of good suggestions/edits for me to make. I finished it and put it in a frame.”

And in the wake of an intensive creative process, the artist won rave reviews from her audience. She stated, “I was still quite worried that I hadn’t captured Patty well. That was the most important thing to me. I felt so much better about it after Marisa shared a photo of the painting with Patty’s coworkers. Their comments touched me and made me feel good about it.”

Anita Gerberry, Patty’s team teacher at Salem Elementary School, and Marisa Johnson, shared a biography of Patty Amorine, who had the title of teaching assistant at Salem Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, for 17 years. Known as Salem’s cheerleader, she is described as welcoming, enthusiastic, efficient, friendly, caring, hardworking, thoughtful, and dedicated. She is credited with always welcoming students, families, and visitors with a smile and a cheerful greeting. Patty was also a mom and a grandma of two little girls, with a new grandson arriving this summer.

Marisa Johnson stated, “Sadly, at the age of 48, Patty passed away unexpectedly on November 15, 2020. Because of the suddenness of her death, no one was able to say goodbye which added to everyone’s grief. When I saw the finished portrait, it made my heart happy, because it captured Patty’s welcoming and friendly smile that she shared everyday at school. I was hoping that the portrait would be something that would remind Patty’s family that she was valued, cherished, and appreciated as a friend and co-worker. I was also hoping that Patty’s daughter could pass down the portrait to her girls in the future.”

Marisa shares that on May 23 the staff, students, and families at Salem will be sharing memories of Patty during an outdoor celebration of her life. This is where staff will unveil an engraved bench in Patty’s memory and will present Patty’s daughter and grandchildren with Patty’s beautiful portrait.

Portrait of Patty Amorine by Sylvia Liszka Durell

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Megan Hussey is a features journalist and author who is the winner of Florida Press Association honors and a certificate of appreciation from LINCS (Family Support Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention Task Force) and Sunrise Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center for her newspaper coverage of these issues. She graduated cum laude from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., with a journalism major and English/sociology minor, and previously wrote for publications that include the Pasco editions of The Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Times. A native of Indiana, she lives in Florida.