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Sanibel artist’s work featured at benefit

By Staff | Feb 18, 2015

Islander Sophia Black (left) and artist Ellen Sheppard. PHOTO PROVIDED

The artwork of a Sanibel girl in cancer remission will be featured at a charity benefit.

Flowers, football players, teddy bears and race cars have all had their days as the stars of the official posters for the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest. Now a cat specifically a brave warrior cat stars on the poster for the annual fundraiser sponsored by SWFL Children’s Charities Inc.

The 2015 Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest takes place Feb. 27 and 28, and 11-year-old Sophia Black from Sanibel is the 2015 featured artist. She created artwork for this year’s poster with encouragement and guidance of well-known local artist Ellen Sheppard, who spent a morning with Sophia in her garage studio to draw the youngster’s creation.

Sophia had a very clear vision of what she would draw before she stepped into the artist’s Fort Myers studio. She came armed with a notebook full of sketches of her version of the solar system, which consists of planets primarily populated with cats that stand upright like people.

Sheppard was impressed with Sophia’s passion and the amount of artwork she’d already created. She volunteers at the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, helping youngsters express themselves artistically while they are treated for their illnesses.

“I’ve always liked working with children of all ages,” Sheppard said. “The money it has raised is tremendous, but it’s also about them. It’s their day.”

Sophia has been undergoing treatment at Golisano for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood cancer. Her artwork, done in colored pencils, features a female warrior cat with blue-shadowed eyes, pink ears and long brown hair, just like Sophia used to have. She’s standing serenely in a lush green lawn surrounded by flowers, a blue sky and butterflies.

“I like to draw because I can really express my imagination,” Sophia said. “The cat in my drawings represents calm freedom.”

Sophia is the daughter of island restaurateur AJ Black and artist Jolie Black. AJ is a chef and owner of Il Tesoro Ristorante in New York City and Il Tesoro Sanibel. Jolie manages the Sanibel restaurant, has opened Among the Flowers Caf with her daughter Chelsea Navy-Schmidt and is an artist, focusing on portraits and stylized caricatures.

Jolie Black said Sophia has shown incredible character over the course of her illness, which is in remission.

“She grew up faster than I had hoped,” Jolie Black said of her daughter, “but she has always been super strong.

As part of this year’s Auction Lot No. 4, an eight-day Italian resort vacation for four, AJ Black is providing a bon voyage dinner at Il Tesoro to prepare the winning bidders’ palettes for their five-star experience in Italy.

Sophia says being selected as the wine festival featured artist was a surprise but a good one, “It’s really cool. I’ve never had an honor like this before.”

Her drawing will be put up for bid during the live auction, which will take place Saturday, Feb. 28. The 2014 artwork, a drawing of a race car by 9-year-old Jay Aponte, generated $180,000 in bids of $5,000 or more from individuals at the event.

Each of the original works by the young artists have been donated to the hospital and is displayed on a wall named in memory of Jerry Schmoyer, a longtime Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest supporter, who lost his battle with cancer three years ago. All of the winning bidders’ names are listed next to the artwork. Since 2010, the children’s art has raised $525,000.

“Having one of the children we are working so hard to help participate in the event is so meaningful,” said Elaine Hawkins, who co-chairs the event for the second year with Dorothy Fitzgerald. “It has a powerful impact on donors, who respond with an abundance of generosity.”

Asked how she feels about the hospital, Sophia said, “Everyone is always so nice there. They always try to do the best for you. I want to say thank you for everything. And to other kids going there, I would tell them ‘everything is going to be OK.'”

Jolie Black said the hospital has been a godsend for the whole family.

“As a parent, it’s been so comforting to have a team of pediatric experts like those at Golisano caring for Sophia,” she said. “An added bonus is that we don’t have to travel away from home to receive this kind of high-quality care.”

The Southwest Florida Wine & Food Fest is a two-day signature event of SWFL Children’s Charities Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides funding to local charities serving local children. Exceptional Chef Vintner Dinners held Friday evening in host homes from Naples to Captiva are followed by a Grand Tasting and Auction the next afternoon at Miromar Lakes Beach Clubhouse. Funds raised during the auction directly benefit the charities; more than $11.6 million has been raised during the past six years. The primary charity is the Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida. Also benefiting are Florida SouthWestern State College’s pediatric nursing program and Florida Gulf Coast University’s music therapy program.

This year’s event will feature chef vintner dinners Friday, Feb. 27, and the Grand Tasting and Auction Saturday, Feb. 28. For details, contact SWFL Children’s Charities Inc. at (239) 513-7990, or visit www.swflwinefest.org.