When I travel somewhere, even if it’s just a town over, I head for a place where I can get a true sense of the local flavor.

Many times, those stops have involved food, which is why I have been on a ridiculous and infuriating diet for the past couple of months. But I’ve found that most of the time, I can get a good feel for what an area is really like by visiting a place where local arts and crafts people hang out.

I found such a place in Matlacha called the Wild Child Art Gallery. Owned by artist/metal sculptor Peggy McTeague, the gallery is an artists’ co-op, both displaying and selling all kinds of different mediums and genres of art, from jewelry to pottery to paintings and beyond. Most of the pieces have a tropical theme, and the building and grounds are painted in vibrant tropical colors.

When Peggy first founded the Gallery in 2000, her vision was to have a place where people could come enjoy a unique experience of art in all its forms and be able to learn about and purchase art created by award-winning artists residing primarily in southwest Florida. Ellen explained that Peggy felt that there was often a gap between the artist and the art buyer, and her goal was to bring the two together.

As I first walked into the Gallery, I met Ellen Alford, a retired nurse and good friend of Peggy, who now helps her out in the business. She explained that the building used to be a feed store, and that Peggy had completely renovated the property, including the large, canal-front garden out back.

The complete gallery consists of three rooms, and most of the metal work is outside in the garden. Ellen said that the co-op consists of 80 artists and four fill-ins, in case someone in the core group doesn’t the space.

This is also a special showplace because many of the artists, 85 to 90 percent of who are local to the area, also teach classes there. You can learn how to create fish out of clay, as well as learn how to work in wood or paper maché, painting, jewelry making or designing baskets from pine needles. All of these classes and workshops are taught by the experts themselves.

One of the most interesting sections in the gallery is one that features the work of sculptor Lenea Howe, who creates the most unusual and cool creatures I’ve ever seen—each one with a human-like face. She even teaches classes on how to do what she does.

Looks like the next time I’m down Matlacha way (pronounced MAT-la-shay and a Calusa word meaning “knee-deep water”), I will have to take one of Ms. Howe’s classes. After all, you can never have enough fish with old man faces in your home.

Debbie Flessner writes the Live Like a Tourist column for the Sun newspapers. You may contact her at dj@flessner.net.

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