Local Folks: Elaine Wheeler

Local Folks: Elaine Wheeler
Elaine Wheeler

“All you need is love…and a carrot dog.” Paul McCartney may have written the first part of that line, but Elaine Wheeler created the now famous carrot dog at her vegetarian café and art gallery, Heartworks, which until 2007 was the heart and soul of 5 Points and one of the only vegetarian cafes in town.  McCartney became a carrot dog fan when he was in Jacksonville for his Super Bowl appearance in 2005. Wheeler, an artist, chef, translator, mother, grandmother, and caretaker of all who cross her path, has shared her love and compassion for her fellow humans by encouraging them artistically, nurturing their spirits and feeding them, (and many stray cats). She has been described as having a “strong maternal instinct” which spills over into all that she does including hiring employees for her former business which she described as “being a home for wayward boys.”

Closing the café did not stop Elaine’s devoted friends from following her home to Riverside Avenue and establishing a Supper Club. She remarked, “I’ve been feeding some of the same people for over 20 years. Patrons Michael and Julie McKenny started inviting random people to their table at Heartworks on Friday nights years ago. These people became friends, and this gathering has continued. Ophelia Ferrell is a 3rd generation fan! When I make food, I make it with love and the best ingredients- good, fresh, healthy. One of my favorite things to cook – and that people love to eat – is “Not your Mama’s Manicotti” and, of course, the Orloff.”

Over the forty plus years Wheeler has lived in Riverside she has cooked for numerous restaurants and long-time residents will remember Café Carmon where she was pastry chef, cooking in the evening after her gallery closed at 5 pm. She said, “It’s hard to make a living selling art, so we added the café in 1992.” Her hard work and determination paid off. After clearing, scrubbing, and remodeling the back room of the gallery on Lomax Street (no air conditioning) and getting rid of fifty years and 4,000 pounds of old televisions and radios, she moved into phase two of her vision. Her former husband Bob Wheeler helped her open the gallery and ironically, while she was smashing a mirror on the concrete in front of the gallery on Lomax Street for an art project, she met her now partner of 23 years, Buddy Trewett, who had come over to work on the café. Trewett is a construction foreman for Smith Brothers Plastering Company but good naturedly gets called the “Art Cowboy” for his teen-aged years when he worked for Winn Dixie Farms and is what Wheeler describes as a mechanical genius.

Wheeler grew up in Panama. She said, “I had a wonderful childhood and I’m still friends with people that I went to school with from Kindergarten to Canal Zone College (a satellite of FSU).” She and Buddy travel to Panama once a year for the Panama Canal Society meeting and to visit with classmates who come from all over the world. Wheeler obtained a BS Degree in supervision management and was pursuing a degree in library science when there was an opening in the interpreting department at Baptist Hospital where she has been a full-time employee for nine and a half years. She explained, “I do medical interpretation. It is difficult because a person must have a vast knowledge of medical information. It’s not conversational Spanish. The translation is not just verbal; the interpreter must understand the cultural and social nuances and the colloquialisms of the varying languages. Many people speak a patois – many languages mixed together. Sometimes medical personnel think that someone who smiles and shakes their head yes or says yes or okay can understand or speak the language when it’s actually a cultural response. There are relationships to be established to gain understanding.”

Between her translating job, cooking for the Supper Club, visiting with her daughters Lucielle  (Lu) and Danielle and their families, somehow, she manages to squeeze a Pilates and stretch class into her schedule and continues to create art. Over the years she was in the well- respected but now defunct art group Crown Craftsmen, the Jacksonville Weaver’s Guild, taught weaving, spinning, dyeing and basketry classes and workshops at MOSH and MOCA, helped with the formation of RAM, established a program at Hubbard House to teach women baking skills to enter the work force and hopes to produce her food for marketing.

Her eclectic house is chock full of interesting, unusual, and impressive items – a gallery/ museum of art, artifacts and curiosities like her collection of intellectual and diverse friends. Mary Saltmarsh stated in a tribute book created to honor the celebrated chef,  “Elaine’s is where one can be themselves and always find camaraderie and connection among lifelong friends.”

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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