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  • Tara Crutchfield

Hart Art

The Hart Art story is one of international love, civil rights hard fought and won, shared creativity turned livelihood, and zany catchphrases come to life. Caroline and Laurie Hart, the artists behind Hart Art have carved out a niche of rustic wood paintings with inspirational themes. And it all started with a tiki bar.


Caroline hails from a small West Sussex village. She had a career in the radio industry, including the U.K.’s number-one commercial radio station, London’s Capital Radio. Creativity has been central to Caroline all her life. She loves to write and has trained as an artist, graphic designer, and photographer.


Bostonian Laurie toured New England as a professional hula dancer from the age of 15. She went on to spend 17 years working in the medical field.


The two met online in 2005. Caroline and Laurie sparked a connection over their appreciation of photography, theatre, and music. That spark would be kindled a month later when Caroline flew across the Atlantic to meet Laurie in person. “And that’s where we first met, at an airport in Boston,” Caroline said, smiling.


This meeting nourished their desire to be together. Both women had families to consider – Caroline has two sons, and Laurie has one. They worked out the logistics and flew back and forth internationally every two weeks for 18 months.


In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, and the Harts said ‘I do’ there two years later. The federal government, which oversees international airports, would drag its feet on marriage equality for another 11 years. The binational couple continued to fly between countries to maintain their families until turbulence shook them from the cloud nine of newlywed bliss.   


“Every time Caroline came into the country, there was a problem,” Laurie said. Airport authorities would question Caroline as if she were a suspect in some dubious crime. They required her to jump through hoop after hoop as though their marriage wasn’t a valid reason for her trips to the United States. Six years into their marriage, Caroline was told she was spending too much time in the country and that it would be the last time she was allowed entry.


Faced with the options of staying in the U.S. illegally or drumming up support for the injustice attempting to defy their union – the Harts decided on the latter. Laurie was determined to get the word out. “We’re telling our story,” she said.


The Harts explained their plight to anyone who would listen, and their account was featured in everything from the Advocate to Huffington Post and Curve Magazine. They garnered the support of GLAAD, U.S. representatives, and celebrities like Sharon Stone and Debra Messing. The Harts chronicled their experience in the short film “Status Unknown,” shot at Boston Logan International Airport.


The national recognition landed them before the judiciary committee in Washington, D.C. On June 26, 2013, in a landmark case for the LGBTQ community, United States v. Windsor, Section 3 of DOMA (Defence of Marriage Act), was found unconstitutional. The ruling allowed Laurie to sponsor Caroline for her green card the following year. Love won again in 2015 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges to strike down state bans on same-sex marriage. Marriage equality was further enshrined when the Respect for Marriage Act was signed into law on December 13, 2022, affirming federal recognition for same-sex marriages.


This year, the Harts will celebrate their 17th anniversary.


On their website, “theLexperience,” Caroline writes, “Love definitely gave me more to feel inspired about, and my creativity has flourished.” And flourished it has. The Harts co-owned a photography business for 15 years in Massachusetts before moving to Winter Haven in 2019, looking to escape the frigid New England winters. They bought their home that August and registered theLexperience LLC as a business the next month as a joint creative venture and outlet. “We knew how important it was to tell our story. Everyone has a story,” Laurie said.


They accrued advertisers for the site until the pandemic hit in 2020. “We thought, ‘Now what are we going to do?’” Laurie said.


The couple had honeymooned in Hawaii and celebrated their 10th anniversary on its crystalline beaches. Unable to travel with their 15th anniversary on the horizon, the Harts decided to bring Hawaii to them. “We thought we’d build our own Hawaiian oasis in our back [yard],” Caroline said. “We built this tiki bar, the two of us. It was crazy, and it was very funny because we’d never done anything like it before.”



Upon constructing their backyard paradise, Caroline and Laurie embellished it with a painting. “That was always my love, doing art. Every kind of thing you could imagine – detailed pen and ink to oil painting,” Caroline said. Their neighbors loved the image, which inspired the pair to embark on more wood-based painting projects. They sold them to neighbors and friends, who in turn requested commission pieces. Fueled by creativity and encouragement, they ventured to local markets to sell their artwork. Caroline remembers thinking, ‘We could really make something of this.’ She added, “We are incredibly grateful for all the local support for our artwork and even have regulars who frequent the markets searching us out.”


When creating a new piece, the pair conceive the initial idea together. “Being creative was something we’ve always had between us,” Laurie said. She prepares the wood to be painted, including the hand-carved bottom edge. Caroline sketches the image, and the two decide on a color palette. Laurie paints the background, and Caroline goes in for detail. Their rustic pieces depict their surroundings and subjects that inspire them – Circle B, the Sunken Gardens, Florida beaches, mermaids, birds, food, and more.


In 2022, the Harts met “Lord Honey” Chef Jason Smith through a mutual friend. The Kentucky native won season three of “Holiday Baking Championship,” “Holiday Baking Championship: Kids vs. Adults,” and “Next Food Network Star.” The celebrity chef is a judge on “Best Baker in America” and has made appearances on the “Rachael Ray Show,” “Pickler & Ben,” and “Home & Family.” During the pandemic, they’d watched him on the Food Network and giggled over his ‘Jasonisms’ like “Butter my butt and call me a biscuit!”


Laurie and Caroline created a painting based around one such ‘Jasonism’ – “Happier than a rooster in socks.” The Hart Art pair presented it to the Food Network darling. “He was absolutely blown away,” Caroline said.


Inspired, the couple made more pieces centered around these whacky Southern sayings. “Because we’re both really creative, when he says something funny, in our heads, we can see it and then make it,” Caroline said.


They talked about their idea to paint his sayings with Smith over lunch – and he loved it! The chef was “happier than two skunks kissing in a corn patch” to work with Hart Art.


“Well, lord honey children, Hart Art artwork is some of the most awesome artwork I’ve seen in years, from the way that they bring the paintings to life, and how they take a one phrase sentence and turn it into a real-life object is just amazing,” Chef Smith said. “With every brush stroke to the ending product, the stories just appear. [...] They just care and take such painstaking time to make all my dreams come true.”

From the first painting the Harts gifted Chef Smith, he said, “I knew right then it was higher powers that had brought us together. For that reason, I knew it was going to be a perfect fit. I had always dreamed of a Lord Honey art line, and it just was a sign it was time to do that, and I had found the right people to bring it to life.”


Hart Art now has a two-year contract for collaboration with Chef Jason Smith. They’ve created a Jasonism-inspired series of one-of-a-kind paintings in their signature style on wood. Each piece comes with a certificate of authenticity. They’ve also added distinctive limited-edition prints.


This month Hart Art will join Chef Jason for the Visit Lauderdale Food & Wine Festival, where he will be doing cooking demonstrations, and they will bring their artwork. Laurie and Caroline Hart have become family to the chef, “I just love them,” he said.


Though their roots spread far and wide from the U.K. to New England, the Harts love Winter Haven. Laurie said, “We know how important it is to get local support. […] The people of Winter Haven and all the surrounding [areas], they’ve been so supportive of us.” The two artists love to take pictures of patrons with their work and hear the stories behind why a piece might speak to someone.


They aim to show the same support for local businesses, especially women-owned, like Stacy’s Printing, where they get all their printing done. Hart Art is open to any local shops, galleries, or businesses that would like to display their artwork. To shop Hart Art, inquire about commissions, or learn more about Caroline and Laurie’s story, visit their website, thelexperience.com.


Photography by Amy Sexson

 

Hart Art
IG @hartart2021
 
Chef Jason Smith

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