Made in Sarasota

By staff January 1, 2004

About five years ago, new Casey Key resident Jenni Messina began to dabble in clay. She took classes, practiced and perfected techniques and created a line of nature-inspired planters she thought friends might like. That turned out to be a modest goal for someone whose first collection sold out at its Selby Garden show debut.

Shaped like large, graceful leaves with a mouth for inserting plants and small holes for airing the soil, Messina's planters are eye-catching when hung flat on a wall, their surfaces webbed with the delicate tracery formed by the veins of the tropical leaves she uses as stencils. Messina works in porcelain, stoneware and red clay, and scours her Casey Key beachfront garden for pretty seagrape leaves and vines to press. Lately, she has begun to experiment with a new line of torso planters, whimsical clay sculptures of women's bodies with orchid "heads" flowering out from the necks.

For Messina, her work is a perfect marriage of art and nature, two loves she cultivated during a life that has spanned four continents. An Englishwoman, Messina grew up with parents who puttered around their garden, growing roses and avidly attending garden shows and visiting garden centers. Messina was born in India, like her mother and grandmother before her. Her father was a British architect invited to India by the Maharajah of Jodhpur to build his lavish palace, the Ummaid Bhavan. Messina was educated in England and later took up modeling, traveling all over Europe and living in Australia for a while, where she operated a modeling agency. Back in London she met and married her husband, Mario, a geologist and businessman, and moved with him to Texas.

It was too hot in Texas to garden and she was through with modeling, so the irrepressible Messina-to whom it would never occur to take up a profession she did not enjoy-turned to another love: cooking. She opened up the chic, soon-successful English wine bar, JennyVine, in 1978, and a second restaurant and catering business in 1986, where she taught cooking, held afternoon teas and sold her own herbs and chutneys.

But after more than 20 years, the restaurant business became an all-consuming one, and the pair (her husband owns a successful global oilfield supply and service company) was ready to lease it all out. On a Christmas visit to friends who lived on Casey Key, the pair became entranced with this area and signed a contract on a charming, airy beachfront house two days before going back home. They moved here five years ago, and Messina's third incarnation as artist began, as did her blossoming love affair with clay. She also paints and works on mosaics, but the new medium struck just the chord.

"I was just going crazy for it," Messina says. "I just set painting aside. Clay was more of a challenge. I'm still fascinated by what it can do-the process of it. I feel as an artist, the more things you can involve yourself with, the better it is for you because they all help each other. My painting helps with my glazing."

As for her planters, they were a natural evolution of interests: "If you love something like gardening," Messina says, "you want beautiful things to put your plants in. It just follows, doesn't it?"

Messina's planters come in three sizes and prices: $55, $95 and $125. She also creates custom orders.Messina can be reached at (941) 918-8977 or [email protected]

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