By Donald Rodrigue
For Hometown News
ST. LUCIE COUNTY -- Almost any morning of the week, motorists driving west on Port St. Lucie Boulevard near Morningside Drive glancing to the north might see an unusual sight: a woman painting on an easel in her driveway, just steps from the busy street.
One might wonder how she can concentrate with all the traffic going by, but Heather Pettersen says she finds the city tranquil compared to living in New Orleans where she used to paint and sell her works in Jackson Square.
"Port St. Lucie is a great place to live, especially if you're tired of all the hustle and bustle of city life," Ms. Pettersen said. "I sure don't feel the need to keep a can of mace in my pocket when I leave my house like I did in New Orleans."
The road she traveled to get here, though, had its ups and downs and was not an easy one. Born in Mobile, Ala,. and adopted by Southern Baptist missionaries when she was only 18 days old, Ms. Pettersen grew up on the mission field surrounded by culture. After living in India, Spain and South America, she returned to the United States at age 18 to study art with a scholarship at Mississippi College. Her parents fully supported her passion for painting since they were professional musicians themselves.
"They always encouraged me and provided plenty of art supplies for me to explore and develop my abilities," she said.
Quickly disillusioned with the structure of art school and feeling her creativity stifled, Ms. Pettersen decided to strike out on her own and support herself doing odd jobs in order to paint. She ultimately ended up in the corporate world and got married, but soon found herself in an abusive relationship that lasted seven years. It had taken a toll on her by the time she got out of it, and she ended up strung out on drugs on the streets of Dallas. She credits God with giving her the grace to look up at that point in her life and quit drugs completely.
"This was not the life I wanted to live for it was nothing but misery," Ms. Pettersen said.
She subsequently got employment painting back drops for photographers and before long began to exhibit her own work in galleries shows across the country. She felt so blessed that she decided to return to her native state of Alabama in 2006 and open up a nonprofit art center for abused women and children called Alabama Art with Heart. She and another artist worked hand-in-hand helping raise funds for the local children's hospital, hospice and other organizations until Ms. Pettersen decided to resign and move to New Orleans in 2009.
She found so much success selling her artworks in New Orleans that she had to work seven days a week to keep up with demand. She discovered Tai Chi at this time and began practicing it to help ease the stress of her success.
Everything seemed to be falling into place for her when, out of the blue, detectives found her in Louisiana and arrested her for a drug purchase she had made six years before while in Dallas. Instead of trying to fight the charges, Ms. Pettersen pled guilty and served nine months in a federal prison in north Florida.
"Life isn't always fair," the artist said. "No one seemed to care that I had been drug-free for over five years and had started a nonprofit organization to benefit my hometown community."
Ms. Pettersen says she saw the hand of God in the experience, and the time flew by as she taught her fellow inmates art and continued practicing the little Tai Chi she knew. By the time she was released, she had determined to learn Tai Chi from a master rather than just dabble in it. That search led her first to the Treasure Coast in 2012, then to Fort Lauderdale, without finding the instructor she was looking for. She had almost decided to return to New Orleans when someone told her about Master Chen's Wellness Center in Stuart.
She subsequently returned to Port St. Lucie in January 2014 and has been steadily painting in her garage studio and studying with Master Chen ever since. Most of her artwork, frequently inspired by nature, is heavily textured and three dimensional, utilizing heavy-bodied acrylic and mixed medium.
Now 42, she says the long road it took her to end up in Port St. Lucie has made her who she is today.
"They say it is not about reaching the finish line, but rather it's about the journey," Ms. Pettersen said. "This one has been an adventure to say the least."
For more information on Ms. Pettersen and her artwork, visit www.heatherpettersen.com.