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Portrait of a future

Published December 1, 2006

As Danielle Surbaugh works at a Starbucks in Valrico,, a portrait of her by artist Kerry Vosler looks down from the wall behind her.
[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]

The girl was young, slim, pretty in a strange way, and shy. She spent most of her time alone in her bedroom listening to 97X and Tool. She didn't know what she wanted from life, which is to say, she was directionless. College didn't seem right for her, so after high school she went to work where dreamers do, at Starbucks, serving one-pump sugar-free venti vanilla cappuccinos to the Subaru-driving mothers of suburbia.

That's where they met, the girl and the woman.

Kerry Vosler was a portrait artist, a 49-year-old mother who moved to Valrico a few years ago and got her coffee each morning from Starbucks.

To Danielle Surbaugh, 20, Mrs. Vosler was just another name in black marker on a coffee cup. To Mrs. Vosler, though, Danielle was something more.

One day, during one of many friendly exchanges, Mrs. Vosler asked Danielle if she would be interested in posing for her. "She has sort of an aesthetic quality that I can't quite put my finger on," Mrs. Vosler said over coffee the other day. "It's a very distinct beauty."

The request made Danielle a little uncomfortable. "It was kind of weird," she said. "I was like, 'I don't know you.' " But she was flattered, so she agreed.

A few days later, she slipped inside Mrs. Vosler's home and took a seat in a comfortable chair by a glass door that opened to the swimming pool. Mrs. Vosler put on classical music and, before long, went to work, first with charcoal, then oils. The session lasted about an hour, during which Mrs. Vosler studied the girl intensely. Danielle had never been looked at like that before. The woman understood her apprehension.

"To have someone look at you is a little unnerving," Mrs. Vosler said. "Once she understood what I was looking at - the line of her nose, the line of her chin, the length of her forehead, how her eyes are set, her skin tones ... she was able to relax."

Weeks turned to months and Danielle came back again and again. When Mrs. Vosler worked on Danielle's face, she was picky about position. When she worked on Danielle's body, she let the girl sleep. Danielle was often tired. Sometimes when Mrs. Vosler finished, she covered Danielle with a blanket and prepared juice and salad for their lunch.

During the sessions, they chatted about lots of things, especially art. Mrs. Vosler told Danielle about Degas and Picasso and John Singer Sargent. She positioned a mirror so Danielle could see the canvas and watch Mrs. Vosler paint.

They met once a week for many months and into a year, and something surprising began to happen.

As the portrait changed, so did the girl. She grew hungry for things she had never experienced.

"I was sheltered growing up," Danielle said. "I wasn't really cultured."

She began to write poetry on her laptop. She started reading the New York Times and listening to different kinds of music. Mrs. Vosler got her started on a painting of her own.

A few weeks ago, she and a friend took a trip to Manhattan. They stayed at Broadway and 101st Street. They saw Rent at the Nederlander Theater and jumped a subway turnstile and visited art museums and bought Louis Vuitton bags in Chinatown. Danielle had a great time.

While she was away, Mrs. Vosler finished the portrait. She hung it at Starbucks alongside a few others - a sunflower field and several sunsets -and invited friends to a showing. The portrait of Danielle drew many comments.

"We've become great friends," Mrs. Vosler said of Danielle. "I'd love for her to always model for me, but at the same time, I want her to go out and find herself."

Danielle is more confident now, and eager to learn about new things. With Mrs. Vosler's encouragement, she enrolled in classes at Hillsborough Community College. She wants to be a writer.

For now, though, she serves coffee at the Starbucks in a quiet corner of these suburbs. Sometimes customers look at the big portrait on the wall above the straws and lids and sugar packets, and then they look at the girl behind the counter, and they wonder what the story is.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at or (813) 661-2443.

[Last modified December 1, 2006, 06:18:23]

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