Anna Maria Island residents remember Rhea Chiles for contributions to arts scene on island

Rhea Chiles
Rhea Chiles

ANNA MARIA ISLAND -- Residents of Anna Maria Island remembered Rhea Chiles on Monday for her contributions to the seven-mile barrier island.

Chiles, the wife of former Gov. Lawton Chiles, died at 3:15 p.m. Sunday at her home on Anna Maria Island. She was 84.

Not only was the former First Lady of Florida credited for being an influential force in her husband's policy initiatives as governor and U.S. senator, but she was also a woman who, locals say, deeply cared about the arts.

"She was a Florida lady and she was a real dynamic individual in the arts," recalled Sissy Quinn, a resident of Anna Maria.

Quinn credited Chiles for starting Cultural Connections of Anna Maria Island, a nonprofit organization established in 2008 that promotes, supports and acts as advocate for art and culture on the island and provides guidance and counsel to cultural related businesses and organizations.

Cultural Connections' ninth annual November event artsHOP is set to kick off this Friday through Sunday across the island's three cities -- Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach.

Quinn said she got to know Chiles when the former First Lady of Florida opened The Studio at Gulf and Pine, 10101 Gulf Drive, Anna Maria.

"She opened that studio when she came back to retire here and she said it was in progress. She didn't know what it was going to become," Quinn said. "Cultural Connections was something that she started in that building with a handful of people. That was the birthplace of artsHOP, which is starting this weekend. That was sort of the beginning of the arts people getting together and starting to brand Cultural Connections and become more a part of the community, and in a more important way. That's a really important thing for the community. I loved her for that."

Chiles' son, Lawton "Bud" Chiles, issued a statement Sunday on behalf of the Chiles family.

"While she has faced health challenges over the last several years, up until the past three to four months she continued to do the things she loved best -- enjoying family and friends, painting and encouraging others," Chiles said in the statement. "She embraced life fully, right up until the end. Now, she will join our dad in God's protective embrace and for that, we are grateful and joyous."

Manatee County Commissioner John Chappie, who met Chiles several times, described her as a wonderful First Lady, and a giving person for her art-centered contributions to Anna Maria Island.

"It's evident by The Studio at Gulf and Pine," Chappie said. "What a wonderful legacy that is to her."

Joan Voyles, facilitator for Cultural Connections and a retired art teacher, recalled Cultural Connections' early days when Chiles hosted meetings at her art gallery.

"She was very generous in offering us a very distinctive, classy place to meet," the 76-year-old Anna Maria resident said. "I think the setting just helped to raise our thinking because we were in such a beautiful space. It was always fun when she was part of the dialogue... she was a very wise person and she had her own creative thoughts."

In Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore's eyes, Chiles' art studio on the island was a passion, but Chiles' greatest contribution was caring for the children of Florida.

"She was totally the epitome of a leader where she could make a difference for the less fortunate, and that's where she and I had our great connection," Whitmore said. "It's a sad day. It's a loss to Manatee County for sure."

Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter@AmarisCastillo.

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