Artwork from one of Robin Borland’s art classes at a local Veterans Affairs hospital, where she works with veterans suffering from PTSD and addiction issues.
PINELLAS PARK – Artist and teacher Robin Borland has always been a creative person.
Growing up in Clearwater, and especially as a teenager attending Pinellas Park High School, she was always encouraged to write, whether it was for the newspaper or yearbook.
“I don’t think they knew that I knew how to draw,” she said.
Even after she graduated from PPHS in 1985, she went directly to St. Petersburg Junior College, today St. Petersburg College, to study journalism. But she struggled with math classes and left the program.
That’s when she began to dabble in art on her own, and realized she had a knack for drawing. So in 1986 she entered into a two-year graphic design program at Pinellas Technical Education Center.
While there, Borland and another student entered an advertising contest, where they had to create a campaign from start to finish, and include storyboards for all types of media – TV, news, radio. This earned her a plumb internship at Bonito Advertising in Tampa, one of the biggest advertising firms in the Southeast at the time.
But finding a job in graphic design after earning her certificate in 1987 was downright impossible for one reason: there were no companies in the area that used computers. The PTEC program she attended was a few years ahead of its time.
“At the time it was the ’80s and nobody had computers,” she said. “HSN didn’t have computers.
The St. Pete Times didn’t have computers. I could go down the list of companies and they didn’t have computers. I was like what did I do this for?”
Her goal was to head to a bigger city, possibly Atlanta. But to do that, she needed to save money for the move. Eventually, she met her future husband, got married and had a son. She was rooted to Pinellas County.
In the decade that followed her receiving her PTEC certificate, she held a variety of jobs: pre-school teacher, layout designer for the Clearwater Sun, and she even worked at Nielsen Media Research.
Borland decided to go back to school to earn her bachelor’s degree in the late 1990s, and graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in fine art in 1999. That same year she began a full-time career painting in Dunedin. She helped create and manage Trailside Artist Colony, an artists’ co-op dedicated to helping professional artists show, market and sell their work.
Then in 2000, she moved her studio into her Safety Harbor home and began to get involved in local politics.
She joined Safety Harbor’s Public Art Committee, and also ran her homeowners’ association.
“I started to get sucked into everything else going on in the city,” she said. “So I entered the whole political arena.”
When a seat on the City Commission was vacated, she was encouraged to run to fill it, and won in a special election. She ran for a four-year term after that first year was up, and easily won again.
Often, she spoke in favor of smart, responsible development Safety Harbor, rather than the overdevelopment of the quaint, artistic city, she said.
But her family moved to Palm Harbor with a year left in her term, and she had to vacate her seat.
“If I stayed, I probably would have run for mayor,” Borland said.
From 2004 to 2005, she worked for Gus Bilirakis on constituent issues when he was still part of the Florida House of Representatives. When he ran for Congress in 2006, she decided to take a stab at winning his seat.
She ran a grassroots campaign with little funding compared to her opponents. It was a difficult race for her, because her mother’s longtime illness got worse. Her mother passed away that same year, and when she lost the race to fill Bilirakis’ seat, Borland decided to get out of politics and focus again on her art.
“It was a year of change,” she said. “So I really needed to regroup.”
She started a small art business called Art Rob Studios, teaching classes and offering home Paint Your Glass Off painting parties. Eventually, she began teaching drawing and painting at the Beach Art Center in Indian Rocks Beach.
“That’s when I noticed that it seemed like whenever I had a student, there was something physically or mentally going on with them,” she said.
So she did the research to learn how to better assist them with their artwork. Then in 2007, she joined a pilot program organized by the National Center for Creative Aging that focused on the arts effect on the aging process. And she began to volunteer with the Neighborly Care Network’s adult daycare program, teaching art classes and projects.
Then one day last year, while online, she saw an advertisement for the University of Florida’s online arts in medicine certificate program.
“It just popped off the page at me,” Borland said. “I don’t think I even thought twice. I just thought I have to do this. I’m going to do this.”
She’s nearly done earning her certificate, but the program has since been approved as a full master’s program. So she’ll continue with the program for one more year to earn a master’s degree.
As she came toward the end of the certificate program, she was required to complete 130 hours in the field.
So she teamed up with the Police Athletic League to teach art after-school to at-risk kids in Lealman, and at Operation PAR’s adolescent residential center, working with recovering teen addicts.
“They were absolutely freaking phenomenal. I love those kids,” she said. “Teaching them basic drawing skills takes 10 minutes and once they see that they can do it, it empowers them.”
She became fascinated by the effects art could have on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and three months ago began a pilot program of her own at a local Veterans Affairs hospital, working with veterans in the outpatient rehabilitation program. She calls the program Veterans Creating for Community, and heads to the VA for two hours every Tuesday.
“We’re just trying to get them a little more acclimated into the community,” she said.
In a lot of ways, working with veterans is a lot more difficult than working with children, because they’re set in their ways, she said.
“They love it,” she said. “But they are a little bit harder. But I had a veteran, a woman, come and tell me, ‘The only reason I got out of bed today was because I knew you were going to be there.’”
She added, “For a lot of them, it’s kind of their down time. It takes their stress away. It makes them feel better.”
Now she hopes to expand the program, which already has issues finding the funding to keep it going. She wants to bring in another teacher so her students can work with clay, and eventually she’d like to bring in teachers of other art forms, like music and writing.
In March, her project was a finalist for a Creative Pinellas’ Beach FEAST, a county-sponsored micro-funding program.
“But we need the money to keep going,” she said. “If there’s any way possible, I’d like to keep this veterans program going.”