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THE ARTIST COVE – The revival of Mary Ola Miller’s Space and Spirit

By Laura Roesch, Photography by Bonnie Brant

More than 400 people attended the grand opening of
Downtown Panama City’s newest art gallery with its
impressive 3,500 square feet of work and exhibition space.

The building on Beach Drive, well known to Panama City residents as the former Gallery of Art, was owned and operated for four decades by cherished artist Mary Ola Miller, an inspirational figure in Panama City’s art community, until her passing in 2011 at the age of 95. The space has languished silent and empty since then, leaving Maxwell Miller, Mary Ola’s son, pondering how to best use the gallery without losing sight of her artistic vision, and the life she devoted to supporting local artists–until an emerging artist, Karen Williams, shared her ideas with him. In an interview before the event, Karen explains that she discovered art in recent years and it changed her life. After three spine surgeries, she had to retire after working more than 35 years in the medical field. “It has become a passion, where I can completely relax, it is peaceful, therapeutic. I became consumed with painting while I struggled to recover. Painting was the only activity acceptable to my doctor. All I did was paint, and study painting. There are endless challenges to painting. It is personal and creative. And there really wasn’t any place for me, or other students I knew, to display work.”

Karen decided to systematically plan a gallery space that would offer artists like her the opportunity to exhibit their creations and provide studio space where they could work towards “being gallery-worthy.” Finding the right space was a challenge, however. She remembers looking at every empty building in Panama City. “And then I met Maxwell Miller. We spoke a few times; he invited me to look at Ms. Mary Ola’s space. Oh, my goodness! The space was still filled with Ms. Miller’s things, and had been, for eight years, almost untouched.” After a couple of hours of discussing her plans, she was thrilled to hear him say, “I really like your vision. I’ve had lots of people approach me to reopen this place, but no one has had the vision that you have. My mother would like that vision.” Then he asked if she had a business plan. “I did, 24 pages! I think that surprised him a little! Maxwell completely renovated the space. And here we are up and running with 12 studio artists in place!” Karen points out, “Without Max, this dream would never have become reality. And it is such an honor to be doing this in Ms. Mary Ola’s space! Even now it still feels like a dream but, in hindsight, it seems as if this was just meant to be.” For Karen, a dream has come true. She describes The Artist Cove as a safe nonjudgmental environment of like-minded people who enjoy getting together to paint for hours and hours–a place of positive energy and happy people.

Visit The Artist Cove located at 36 W. Beach Drive, Panama City or online at theartistcovestudio.com

Laura Roesch

Laura Roesch, born and raised on Florida’s east coast, earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Radford University and a law degree from Indiana University School of Law. A retired judge, she is a voracious reader with a lifelong passion for books. She and her husband collect vintage cars and motorcycles. You may see her driving around town in “Maybelline,” a purple 1956 Chevy Belair–her favorite in their collection.

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