Made in Sarasota

By staff February 1, 2007

In the hands of Elle Terry Leonard, a lump of gray clay can transform into an expressive work of art.

Leonard, who creates site-specific ceramic wall murals, mirrors, fountains, swimming pool tiles, and fireplace and front door surrounds for homeowners and corporate clients across Florida, is one of 100 ceramicists from around the world included in the new book, Ceramics in the Environment: An International Review, by New Zealand potter and author Jane Mansfield. The coffee-table-size book features a two-page photo of Leonard’s three Baltimore Harbor wall murals that grace the cafeteria at the Johns Hopkins University Bayview campus. The murals depict a water’s-edge view of the bustling Baltimore Harbor.

Being in the book, she says with a laugh, “has given me tons of credibility and a great case of ‘big head.’” In it, she tells the author, “It is important to me that my work fits as a lasting personal complement to the architecture or environment for which it was created. I want the touch of my hand to show.”

Considering that ceramics have decorated buildings for more than 2,000 years, it’s not surprising that Leonard told the author that her first ambition was to be an archaeologist. “The timeline of ceramics fascinates me—to think that someone thousands of years from now could pick up a piece of fired earth and take the time and interest to research its age and origins.”

Leonard works in a small, light-filled studio in her pecky cypress cottage near Southside Village; for her larger-scale work, she rents space at Carla’s Clay in the Northgate Industrial Center.

“I love the actual working with the clay, rolling out the little pieces and stamping out the designs,” she says. “I start with an overall theme and sometimes the clay dictates what’s going to happen. I like to see where the piece takes me.”

Two recent undertakings led her downtown, where she contributed to a couple of high-profile condominium projects. For the lobby at 100 Central, near Whole Foods, she created two three-by-seven-foot ceramic wall murals comprised of dozens of small, geometric tiles in warm gold, blue and green overlaid with copper luster. “I wanted it to have a lot of visual interest, because it’s the first thing you see when you open the [lobby] doors,” she says. For the pool deck gazebo at The Plaza at Five Points, she created a four-by-five-foot mural with modern geometric shapes that incorporate seashells and palms.

The 35-foot-long mosaic mural of underwater sea creatures over the fish tank at Tampa International Airport’s blue baggage claim area is also her handiwork. Entitled Movimiento del Mar, it has a dimensional quality that adds a sense of motion, as if being tugged by the tide. “It’s fun to watch people watching it,” she says.

Several years ago, she also created four lobby murals for Fairway Bay on Longboat Key. Done in muted grays and beiges, the murals depict the mangroves and wading birds that residents see from their back terraces.

For the staircase of a Casey Key home, Leonard created a fluid, curving mosaic incorporating brightly colored peaches, berries and other fruit. Every few feet, she created sprays of three-dimensional berries. The inspiration was a set of drapes in the den at the top of those stairs.

One of her favorite projects, done many years ago, is a front door surround for a well-traveled St. Armands couple. “The woman brought out a silver charm bracelet she’d bought in Mexico in the 1940s and asked me to replicate the shapes—Mexican art forms like the sun, flowers, birds, crabs and baskets. She said she loved the bracelet so much she wanted to be able to see it every day. It was very romantic.”

Perhaps her most ambitious recent project was the 30-foot loggia of a meticulously restored 1920s Mediterranean Revival home on Tampa’s grand Bayshore Boulevard. Basing her design on a historical Moroccan pattern, Leonard covered the walls in shimmering blue and green stoneware tiles, “high-fired” for durability—the top half in a diamond pattern and the lower half in graceful scallops. She then applied an ornate, handmade terra-cotta baseboard around the entire loggia and terra-cotta “fringe” in the corners where tile meets stucco walls. Against the loggia’s pecky cypress ceiling and cool white stone floors, the effect is dazzling.

Currently, Leonard is overseeing the installation of ceramic panels she designed in an Art Nouveau iris pattern for the bathroom of a 1920s bungalow in Coral Gables, and is at work on a mural of Prague’s historic Charles Bridge for a Czech couple who recently bought a big home on a lake in one of Orlando’s priciest neighborhoods. They had contacted her after seeing photos of the Tampa loggia.

Leonard has also started throwing small “personal things—the total opposite of the big work. I haven’t put them on the market, if I will at all.”

Because her commissions are site-specific and vary considerably in complexity, it’s hard to pin a price to her work, Leonard says. For fireplace surrounds, for example, she charges anywhere from $50 to $500 per square foot. To contact Leonard, visit

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