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When art meets butterfly

Published September 19, 2003

At 63, Joe Blais has come to believe that a neighborhood should feel like home.

And that one guy - just one regular guy - can make a difference.

Blais, who is semi-retired and genuinely effusive about everything he tackles, makes his own home in a neighborhood called Cumberland Manors.

The 1980s-era subdivision in northwest Hillsborough County nestles on a stretch of Rocky Creek.

Its location sometimes stymies those trying to give directions.

"Some say we're in Carrollwood but we're more on the edge of Citrus Park," Blais explains.

Blais says it is a middle-class neighborhood, culturally diverse, bustling with professionals. The average three-bedroom, two-bath house sells for about $200,000.

Back in 1992, Blais and his wife, Sandra, bought their one-story brick-front house with a lanai and pretty yard.

The setting was perfect for Sandra's love of horticulture.

"She's so good with plants. I've always said that in another life that would have been her career," Blais says.

Not content to simply improve his own yard, Blais started searching the neighborhood for other targets to spruce up. What caught his eye was 19 acres of wetland owned by the homeowners association.

Over the past decade, Joe and his neighbors have worked hard to put in benches, arbors and stepping stones in a 2-acre park carved from the green space. They cleaned up the ponds. They saved a stand of vine-choked live oaks and fought the activation of power lines, a battle ultimately lost.

Now Blais and a handful of his Cumberland Manors neighbors have created something small but spectacular in vision: a community butterfly garden.

Salvia, cosmos, milkweed, cone flowers, pentas, lantana and tropical sage sprout from a berm overlooking the creek.

In June, the group planted about 60 butterfly friendly plants they bought at Hollie's Farm and Garden in Lutz. The garden grew from a $1,500 grant that Blais elicited from the Hillsborough County Office of Neighborhood Relations.

His extraordinary effort caught the eye of Jan Stein, coordinator for the Hillsborough County Public Art Program, who included the garden in her presentation at the Florida Neighborhood Conference in Sarasota last week.

Her talk was called: "Creating Groovy Public, Community and Neighborhood Art."

Stein was so impressed with the Cumberland Manors' butterfly garden, she decided it could stand a splash of public art. So she enlisted the help of artist Eileen Goldenberg. Working from the garage of her Davis Islands home, Goldenberg painted a 600-pound planter with an exquisite image of a gown-draped butterfly woman and a line of a Robert Frost poem about butterflies: "flowers that fly and all but sing."

The behemoth planter was donated and delivered by a company called Terra Form in Lake Hamilton.

Goldenberg is known for many visual art projects over the years, including posters for the Art for Life auctions and hand-painted furniture.

She describes the planter as "organic with bright colors mixed in."

In short, it has a dream-like quality.

Perfect for Blais' little corner of heaven.

Just the other day a couple of middle-school-age girls paused at the edge of the butterfly garden. Blais was there. And he had a message:

"I told them this was my dream," he recalls. "Their eyes got as big as 50-cent pieces. Then I told them the story about a boy in Mexico who saved some land where monarch butterflies go. It just takes one person, I told them. One person who will get involved."

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