Merging Man and Machine

Researchers explore artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and more at the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition.

By Chris Gerbasi | Photos courtesy IHMC

For most people over a certain age, the phrase “artificial intelligence” always had an otherworldly, futuristic connotation to it, along with a sinister implication that computers and robots would one day take over the world.

With the volume of smartphones, automation and seemingly unlimited surveillance, many people today likely feel that this vision has already come true. Artificial intelligence (AI) is utilized to help devices and systems perform tasks, such as visual perception, speech recognition and problem-solving, that normally would require human intelligence.

“Technology developed in AI research is found in every router, in all modern automobiles, smartphones, search engines and elsewhere,” said Ken Ford, co-founder and CEO of the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition, which has headquarters in Pensacola and a branch research facility in downtown Ocala. 

“In the near future, automobiles, buses and trucks will operate with increasing automation, often in a mode akin to an autopilot in an aircraft,” he added. “Medical diagnostic systems will increasingly rely on AI as well as much else. Most applications of AI are not standalone intelligence systems, but rather AI is increasingly embedded in nearly everything.”

These days, Ford is focused on an app more serious than a selfie. He serves on the 15-member National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, an independent federal panel that makes recommendations to integrate AI into national security programs. The commission is broadly looking at how global AI developments might affect national security aspects, including competitiveness, the military and ethical considerations of the applications of AI, he said. 

Ken Ford, courtesy IHMC

“Just as AI is all around us in everyday life, we anticipate the same widespread application of AI in military affairs,” he said. “The countries that ‘win’ the AI competition will be strongly advantaged in both war and peace.”

The commission expects to release a final report in spring 2021. In October, commissioners released a 268-page interim report to the president and Congress that urged the immediate implementation of 66 recommendations in three areas, briefly summarized here:

Competition: Create a Technology Competitiveness Council to develop and implement a national technology leadership strategy and integrate relevant technological, economic and security policies; enhance collaboration with industry partners on AI research and development and enable faster transition of successful technologies; and develop holistic strategies across a variety of sectors to sustain U.S. competitiveness.

Innovation and talent: Provide AI researchers with resources and space to pursue innovative ideas that will push the frontiers of technology; expand the national pool of AI and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) talent to improve both the economy and national security by creating new career paths for military and civilian government employees; improve STEM and AI education; and develop an AI-proficient workforce.

International cooperation: Expedite the responsible development of AI by NATO and member states and shape defense cooperation agreements with allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific; build a multilateral effort to advance the use of AI and ensure new emerging technology standards are based on technical considerations and best practices, not political manipulation, and address national security needs; and form a tech alliance between the U.S. and India, and a strategic dialogue between the U.S. and the European Union, to address the challenges and opportunities presented by AI.

In short, the commission states that the United States must build on the strength of its allies and partners to win the global technology competition and preserve free and open societies.

It’s no surprise that Ford was named to the commission. He’s considered one of the world’s leading AI researchers, and his impressive résumé includes several other national board appointments along with the directorship of NASA’s Center of Excellence in Information Technology.

Ford, Alberto Cañas and Bruce Dunn co-founded IHMC in 1990 when they were colleagues at the University of West Florida, and the 501(3)(c) not-for-profit organization is part of the State University System. The Ocala facility, in the former public library building, opened in 2010.

The bulk of IHMC research is done for the U.S. government, which funds projects through contracts. The institute works with NASA, the departments of Defense and Energy, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Agency (IARPA), private foundations as well as commercial partners. IHMC also receives funding from grants, donors and the state, said Laurie Zink, development and community outreach director.

Research of artificial intelligence, along with robotics, cybersecurity, language processing, health and many more fields, supports IHMC’s mission to optimize the physical and mental capabilities of humans. The work has resulted in stunning achievements with humanoid robots, exoskeletons to improve mobility for paraplegics and exercise machines for NASA astronauts in space, to name a few.

“For those of us working at IHMC, AI is less about ‘artificial’ intelligence and more about ‘amplified’ or ‘augmented’ intelligence,” Ford said. “We are interested in cognitive orthotics, that is, technological systems that leverage and extend human cognition.”


IHMC research in the areas of security and information assurance also includes the protection of the nation’s critical infrastructure and cyberinfrastructures. Teams are not contracted to protect specific data but rather to create frameworks and research paradigms and theories about how data should be protected, research scientist Adam Dalton said. Dalton and colleagues Bonnie Dorr and Larry Bunch form a team working on several cybersecurity projects at the Ocala branch.

Dalton, who also specializes in natural language processing, said his current research is focused on how to use human language technology to improve cybersecurity and information security, especially in large online communities. This type of work strives to thwart cyberattacks that may try to create remote network connections, delete all files in a system or access sensitive data like government personnel records, medical office health records or company salaries. Or, the defense technology might track the source of bogus emails asking an office worker to buy gift cards for the boss.

For example, in the Moving Target Command and Control project, Dalton and other researchers designed moving target defenses designed to fight off an adversary. He explained that an adversary spends a lot of time and effort to compromise a secure network: discovering the vulnerabilities in the network, developing the exploitive tactics that could compromise those vulnerabilities, weaponizing them and gaining a “posture” inside the network that allows the adversary to send commands back and forth.

The moving target defenses were designed to make sure that the network posture was constantly changing, so that all the time, energy and resources the adversary invested into compromising one configuration of the network would then be wiped out when that posture changed. The approach was designed to prevent the attack and then, by making that change, the adversary would need to respond, making them “noisier” and easier to detect. The work allowed mission-critical elements of the system to be retained while getting the adversary out of the system, Dalton said.

Another project, Active Social Engineering Defenses, involved actively engaging an adversary in a “game” of cat and mouse. Researchers developed a chat bot that monitored the inboxes of personnel within an organization and detected any “social engineering” attacks or queries of personnel to perform tasks with social or language cues. 

In their attempts to run scams, cybercriminals look at company or university websites to find out who’s in charge – CEOs, deans, chairmen – and who reports to them, Dalton said.

“From there, it’s super-easy,” he said. “You just put that person’s name in (an email), and say, ‘Hey, can you do something real quick for me? I need you to buy gift cards,’ for whatever reason, ‘and send me those gift cards.’ And it’s a simple attack, a simple premise and it is easy to tailor from one organization to the next, and because of that, the criminal can scale it up to a huge amount. Then, even if they get an extremely low success rate, they can still make a lot of money from it. But the counter of that is it’s also very easy for computers to detect.”

The defense requires understanding the social network of an individual’s computer: who do they usually talk to, what do they usually talk about, what kind of tasks are they asked to do? Then it’s easier to see when they receive an attack email.

The vulnerability in this case was at the social level, not the technical level, Dalton said, and that’s where language processing research came in handy. The researchers developed new natural language technology that focused on the “ask” and the “framing” of the emails: what are they asking you to do, and why would you do what they’re asking?

The chat bot also could extract information that might lead to identifying the source of the attacks and whether national defense officials or law enforcement needed to be alerted. 

“By studying the attacker’s tools and techniques, we can then turn those against them, which made it a lot of fun,” Dalton said.

Social engineering defenses are useful for companies like Microsoft, Google and others that manage large email platforms, he said. Those companies would be interested in knowing how attacks are being carried out and whether their own technology is being used to conduct the attacks.

In cybersecurity, it’s helpful to understand the human elements as well as the technical elements, Dalton said.

“You need to have that social science, that linguistic and the technical acumen to do this research,” he said. “So, having the people who have both the knowledge to perform the individual area of (expertise) and also the willingness to branch out beyond what they’re expert in and work with other people who have different expertise, I think that’s one of the things that has been so great and allowed us to be successful.”

Seeing the practical applications of his research is what drew Dalton to cybersecurity.

“Cybersecurity’s a funny discipline because in an ideal world, you wouldn’t need it. The best way to succeed in cybersecurity is for nobody to know that you’re doing anything,” he said. “By being successful in cybersecurity, you allow other people to be successful in other ways, and I think that’s the rewarding part.”


Humans interact with machines all day long, but that connection means a little more to the researchers at the institute. 

“IHMC really does focus on that space where humans and computers and robots intersect,” Dalton said. 

The staff consists of professors, scientists, doctors, astronauts, engineers, philosophers and guest researchers from around the world. Up to 150 people work at the Pensacola site, while about 15 staff members work in Ocala, a location chosen for its proximity to universities and sites such as the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne.

IHMC’s approach to attracting talent is not typical for a research organization, Ford said.

“Our primary recruiting method is that we talk amongst ourselves and identify someone who we think would be a wonderful colleague and then we pursue that person,” he said. “We look for passionate, intellectual risk-takers who have an entrepreneurial bent and need little management or supervision.”

Those risk-takers have paid off with big rewards. Robotics work led by senior research scientist Jerry Pratt became the focus of a Time magazine story in June 2015. IHMC was provided with a robot chassis made by Boston Dynamics and Carnegie Robotics. The IHMC team developed a control system for the robot, nicknamed Atlas, which was designed to aid rescue operations in disaster zones. Atlas won a competition for humanoid robots sponsored by DARPA, a government agency that funds tech projects. In the contest, the robots were programmed to drive a vehicle, climb a ladder, turn off valves and perform other tasks.

IHMC also developed a powered exoskeleton device that provides paraplegics with increased mobility and independence. In 2019, a team led by senior research scientist Peter Neuhaus received a $500,000 grant as part of a $4 million program sponsored by the Toyota Mobility Foundation, allowing the team to further develop the prototype, according to an IHMC newsletter.

Another team formed by Neuhaus worked with NASA on an exercise machine for astronauts during long-term flights and stays at the International Space Station. 

“In developing this piece of equipment for them, it became very obvious that this would work very well with older populations,” said Zink, explaining that the machine is now moving from the research stage to development and marketing for use in everyday life.

Zink said there are about 100 projects going on at IHMC at any given time. The larger Pensacola site houses the robotics lab, as well as a giant blue sphere that rotates people inside to evaluate how movement affects vision and balance, she said. Cybersecurity and natural language processing (NLP) are the central research fields studied at the Ocala facility.

For example, research scientist Archna Bhatia explores NLP in the medical domain. She has been working on developing noninvasive techniques for detection and monitoring of physiological, psychological and neurological conditions. She developed a noninvasive, speech-based method for detection and monitoring of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) based on divergence from the asymptomatic speech, the IHMC website states.

Bonnie Door is an associate director and senior research scientist at the Ocala facility. Together with colleagues, Dorr established the new field of Cyber-NLP, bringing together expertise at the intersection of cyber, social computing, AI and NLP. She focuses on cyber-event extraction and natural language understanding for detecting attacks, discerning intentions of attackers and thwarting social engineering attacks.

While the institute is part of the university system, it is not a university itself, so researchers feel more autonomy in their work and are able to collaborate more, Zink said. The areas of study often intertwine. The institute promotes a collegial atmosphere and a “cross-pollination” of expertise in which researchers of one project may lend a hand to another project.

“A lot of people here really enjoy the outreach aspects of research and education, and other people really like being able to spend all day, head down, working on advanced technology projects,” Dalton said. “I think that’s one of the things that draws academics to IHMC … if you have a good idea and you’re able to convince somebody it’s a good idea worth funding, then you’ll probably be able to find a home for it here and find some of the most incredibly well-educated people around to work on that with you.”

Ford said he is particularly proud of the culture that team members have built together. Dalton, who joined IHMC in 2012, caught a glimpse of that culture several years earlier when he toured the Pensacola facility. He walked right up to people who were building robots and recognized how the researchers combined elements of man and machine to excel. 

“That was obvious to me early on, and it was just one of those things that you see it, you talk to the people, you see how excited they are and you see how knowledgeable they are, and it just became a place that I wanted to work,” he said.  

    Food as Art – Sometimes, it really does look too good to eat!

    Food as art 2020


















    The culinary arts and presentation of food has long been considered a legitimate art form. It is a creative process that requires knowledge, patience, skill and talent. Toiling in the kitchen feeds the soul and provides one with creative, artistic satisfaction the same way it does for any artist creating in a studio. It also serves as an expression of love to family and friends, with the added bonus of  providing nourishment for our bodies. 

    Food As Art 2020

















    Gretchen Röehrs

    Gretchen Röehrs is a San Francisco based painter and illustrator who has been profiled and featured in The New York Times, Vogue, Cherry Bomb Magazine, The Guardian and many others. Many of her delightfully, whimsical fashion illustrations incorporate the use of food and flowers. In 2018 Rizzoli published her first book titled “Edible Ensembles.”


















    These food-themed mood boards are created with random objects that may have no other connection to each other except for the color palette. Some inspiration comes from a particular recipe and it’s ingredients. There is a talented community of food artists out there to discover and we have put together a sample of these amazing creatives. Their work is original, whimsical, and exploding with beautiful color. Open up your mind to exploring this unique art form. Just be sure to bring your appetite along with you on the journey. 

















    David Allen Burns and Austin Young

    David Allen Burns and Austin Young of “Fallen Fruit” fame began in Los Angeles by creating city maps of fruit trees growing on public property.  It has grown into art installations, photographic portraits and documentary videos. As their website explains,  “We believe everyone is a collaborator in making something special – even the stranger or passerby. We believe that artwork has a resonant effect. Fruit is a universal gift to humanity and fruit is always political.” 

      Ocala’s Art Castle – Amidst these uncertain and turbulent times, up pops an artist collaborative

      Amidst these uncertain and turbulent times, up pops an artist collaborative


      Art Castle pop up at NOMA
















      The scene may well be at The Brewery in Los Angeles or somewhere in the Rovinj Art Colony of Croatia: virgin canvas scattered in the middle of the room, a barefoot artisan delicately applying bright oil-based hues to his newest creation while an inspired colleague peers over his shoulder. One artist drops a box carrying the tools of her trade onto the broad drop cloth protecting the floor while another is too busy priming canvas to notice.

      From the sgraffito and glazing, mixing and dry brushing, the collaboration on this drop cloth island yields the artwork that currently adorns the surrounding walls of this historic venue.

      This is not some art commune at Yaddo or in Amsterdam, but a collaborative artists workplace in Ocala’s north Magnolia district.

      Taking up residence in the former Coca-Cola bottling plant building located on the corner of N.E. 10th Street and Magnolia Avenue is ArtCastle, a “pop up” art gallery that is more than just a place for displays of paintings and sculptures, but an exhibition that allows artists to create together and share ideas all in public view. Comprised solely of local artists, this temporary gallery boasts no single theme of art but creations ranging from abstract to realism, photography to clay and even performance and health.

      With ArtCastle, the public can enjoy completed works but also spectate these pieces in medias res.

      Local entrepreneur and art lover Lisa Midgett, along with her husband David, made possible ArtCastle and the rebirth of the iconic structure they have re-named NOMA (North Magnolia). What takes place inside ArtCastle is about more than just producing art for the public to admire – it’s as much about the process.

      Mel Fiorentino

      Mel Fiorentino, painting

      “What’s cool is that we’ll be able to be inspired by each other,” said Mel Fiorentino, among the featured artists who helped organize ArtCastle with Midgett and fellow artist Diane Cahal. “The goal is for us to all work in the same area and that way we can talk, we can laugh, we can make jokes, we can help each other out with our artwork.

      “It’s like a working gallery. You can walk around and see all the pieces that are hanging and as you’re walking around, you’ll be able to see all these artists going to town on their new pieces.”

      ArtCastle (the name given by Fiorentino’s 6-year-old daughter who said the building looked like a castle) runs through Sept. 26 and is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursdays through Saturday. All the while, artists will come and go, making the gallery floor their own personal studio – no partitions, just an open safe space for the free exchange of ideas, constructive criticism, assistance and, of course, the typical jocularity that comes from putting a bunch of artists together into a single space.

      The notion of the solitary artist playing hermit in some studio loft only to emerge with the latest masterpiece for a clamoring public may be cliché, but also carries a grain of truth. At ArtCastle, art transforms from an individual to a team sport. Oil painters are not just able to knock around ideas and techniques with other oil painters, they gain knowledge and inspiration from watercolor artists, photographers and even welders.







      “I get to benefit and learn,” said Cahal, whose artistry spans several genres including miniatures and abstract paintings. “When everyone started bringing their artwork in, there were a couple of days I thought, ‘I don’t belong here.’ I intend to make the most kick-ass painting you’ve ever seen by the time I’m done here because I want to be able to rise up to the level of everyone else around me.”

      “Everybody here paints so differently and that’s what’s so great about it, all these different ideas coming from different people,” Fiorentino said. “I feel it can really help push people in a different direction with their art because sometimes you get stuck in an area.”

      While the collaborative nature of ArtCastle may have been a strong motivator for the project’s genesis, another factor played a strong hand – the dreaded pandemic scare.

      Jessica Carter

      Jessica Carter, working on her multi-media piece

      With art shows being cancelled and many galleries shutting their doors, the financial well-being of many artists, like most businesses, was under serious threat.

      “COVID was a motivator to get this project up,” Lisa Midgett said. “I cried a lot just trying to figure out how we can help. We just decided to push through with this project and try to help artists recoup some dollars and really to help lift their spirits.”

      The pandemic has taken its toll not just in financial terms, but mentally as well. Fiorentino admitted that she lost her motivation to paint, her tools gathering dust for a month. 

      “Once we started buckling down and getting ready for this project, I told Lisa I feel like it breathed life back in me,” Fiorentino said. “I didn’t even want to paint with what’s been going on – I felt not inspired. Since we’re doing this now, I feel like this is exciting.”


      From Art House to ArtCastle

      ArtCastle is the highly organized and structured legacy of some spontaneous movements that took off under Midgett’s lead.

      It all started with what is now referred to as Art House I, something artist Jessica Carter refers to as a “free-for-all” at the Midgetts’ latest purchase of the time, a Victorian home in Ocala’s historic district. 

      It was the summer of 2019 and Midgett owned an empty building awaiting renovation which likely would not start until December. That’s when local artist E.J. Nieves walked into the offices of the Marion Cultural Alliance asking for a place to take poignant photographs to promote an upcoming show. Midgett, who is Chair-Elect at MCA, informed Nieves of the vacant house.

      “I said, ‘oh god, you could just paint on the walls in there if you want; I don’t care,’” Midgett explained. “I gave them absolute free reign.”

      What started as a simple promotional photo-shoot turned into an artists’ collaboration hosted by Nieves and fellow artist Teddy Sykes. A barnstorming of artists ensued as every wall, ceiling and even fixture became fair game for the brush.

      The creative juices flowed freely – no commissions, no rules, no inhibitions; just naked artistic expression manifesting itself in large, vibrant murals destined to be short-lived once the reno crews took over.

      “They had no specific client in mind, no specific end result they needed; they weren’t entering a show so they weren’t tailoring the work to please a juror,” Midgett said. “They did what they wanted and they helped each other. It was that experience of being able to collaborate together and have this sort of fun freedom to do what they want.”

      Artists of many stripes soon flocked to the Victorian house to be a part what seemed a mini version of “THE HAUS” in 2017 Berlin. A canvas of seemingly limitless drywall and opportunity awaited as well as the prospect of unfettered interaction with highly respected peers.

      Then came the shocker: Midgett’s contractor was ready to work a lot sooner than anticipated, meaning it was time to pull up stakes – the fun was over.

      But Art House I proved to be a spark that would conflagrate in the spirit of the artists and Midgett herself. Although a sad day when forced to leave, the moment begged the question: Can we continue this elsewhere?

      “We thought to ourselves, ‘when are we going to have this opportunity again to have vacant buildings that we can do anything we want to?’ That doesn’t happen.” Midgett said.

      Enter phase two of Art House, another recent purchase of the Midgetts: the former Ocala Lincoln-Mercury dealership on south Magnolia. The vacant building with its large expanses looked to be the perfect canvas for artists hoping to re-gain the momentum of Art House I.

      Midgett let some of her friends in the artist community know there was potential for Art House II at the old car lot. The Midgetts had ideas of what they wanted to do with the property, but for the time being it would stand vacant just as the Victorian house stood while awaiting renovation.

      Again, the artists flocked to this newest free-form canvas.

      Great expectations awaited artists who hoped to create monuments of their work. Fiorentino salivated over the chance to create something on a scale of grander proportion than she’d ever experienced. Her obsession with the late David Bowie could come to glorious fruition.

      “When it came to Lincoln-Mercury, I was like ‘if I have a chance to paint Bowie on a massive scale, this is my chance,’” said Fiorentino, who can fill multiple galleries with her stunning portraits of musicians and other celebrities. “I just wanted to do something that was on a way bigger scale than I usually do.”

      But the artists had jumped the gun. Permitting and coding issues meant they would have to wait before entering to bring their visions to life.

      “There was some breakdown in communication,” Midgett said. “We were still working with the city, then the next thing you know the building had artists in it and we had to shut the project down.

      “I was heartbroken because I know materials are expensive. It wasn’t a money-maker; it was just fun. I just felt bad that we couldn’t let them finish the project.”

      Midgett said the slight possibility of Art House II being revived exists, but all attention is now on ArtCastle, the next phase which seemed unlikely at the time.

      Already owners of the old Coca-Cola bottling building, the Midgetts turned their attention toward that property. Originally, David and Lisa had in mind a whiskey distillery and have pondered many other ideas that include fine arts, and that is where the natural progression to ArtCastle seeded.

      Hannah Matos

      Hannah Matos, playing and singing as part of the live music at ArtCastle

      For Midgett and the artists, for the third phase to be successful the “free-for-all” approach would have to be scrapped. Perhaps anathema to most artists, rules and guidelines plus a lot of waiting would be necessary to bring ArtCastle to reality.

      Before leaking word of the idea to artists, Midgett made sure all her ducks were in a row regarding building and fire codes.

      “This time I was definitely heading it myself because we had enjoyed a good partnership with the city,” Midgett said. “Before I even said a word to anybody, I asked (City building inspector) Tyrone (Mahnken) and Brian (Cribbs) our fire marshal to come up and talk to me and tell me what we could do here. They basically held my hand through the permitting process which was very complicated for this building.”

      With the building on schedule to pass muster, Midgett brought in Fiorentino and Cahal to join as a team of organizers.

      “Lisa’s like the queen – none of this would be possible without her,” Cahal said. “It was her vision and then she collected the people she knew could probably see and share that vision.”

      As artists, Cahal and Fiorentino brought to the table a strong idea of what schematics would work for both the talent and the public. Drawing upon their experiences with Art House I and Art House II, a floor layout was developed as well as rules and protocols for artists and public alike.

      On August 13, ArtCastle opened with a soft opening for certain invitees and continues for public viewing and sales.

      “The cool thing is that it’s happening at all,” Fiorentino said. “Everybody is bringing their best work.

      “I feel like it’s definitely more important than just a show because this is an opportunity that brings all us artists together and really gives us a chance to not only get to know each other but work with each other and help each other.”

      What separates ArtCastle from the two earlier projects is not only its tight organization and adherence to guidelines and protocols, but also the opportunity for artists to earn some financial rewards for their efforts, something slow to happen in the age of pandemic shutdowns. Artists will be able to give lessons and sell their work at ArtCastle.

      “Art House was absolutely for the fun of it,” Midgett said. “It was a party; it wasn’t a money-maker at all for anyone. For those guys, it was the cost of their materials and their time.”

      “It’s literally like  a dream when I come in here,” Fiorentino said of ArtCastle. “I’m excited to come here; it’s beautiful here.”


      An art community emerged

      A collaboration of artists in a single spot with the public allowed to witness the creative process in real time may be a concept unthinkable not long ago in Ocala. Thirty years ago, the terms “burgeoning art scene” and “artistic haven” would have never been used in talking about Ocala.

      But here we are in 2020 with numerous galleries, a bit of avant guard quality to the local art scene and art-loving entrepreneurs willing to take risks on the local talent with their hearts and their wallets.

      Cahal noted that spontaneous art projects tend to “pop up” in major cities quite often but would not happen in a place where art plays little role in the local culture.

      “It’s unique to Ocala, but it’s not unique to national or international types of places,” Cahal said of the collaborative process taking place at ArtCastle. “A lot of times you’ll see what happens in cities in the industrial edge of town, artists will take it over because you’ll have welders that are sculpture-making and people that are making big pieces out of marble – they need huge warehouses. Then a painter will get inspired and take over a corner and then it turns into a collaborative, organic type of thing.”

      ArtCastle represents not a starting point for Ocala’s emergence as a thriving art community, but rather a sign that it has already arrived.

      The difference between now and then is palpable, according to Cahal, who remembers attending the Fine Arts For Ocala festival in years past when artists attended “just for the prize money” and didn’t expect to sell anything. That has changed as many artists sell out their entire exhibits during FAFO.

      “What (ArtCastle) does is it puts the stamp of validation,” Cahal said. “All these people keep saying we have a thriving arts community and this is an example. This would not be possible if we didn’t have the (community) support.

      “For the longest time I looked at other cities that had great, thriving art communities so maybe I should move there at my retirement. Then, I realized ‘why can’t we just do it here?’ I get to live out my days in a thriving art community and not in some other artsy town.”

      New art galleries sprouting up every year, veteran and rising talent relocating to Marion County in scores and FAFO artists cashing in as never before have made Ocala an actual player in the realm of art communities. 

      Still not convinced? Head to ArtCastle.  

      ARTCASTLE – 933 North Magnolia Avenue – 11 a.m.- 6 p.m. – Thursday-Saturday through Sept. 26 – Public welcome, free of charge

      ArtCastle at NOMA group of artists

      Standing: Jessica Carter, Jessi Miller, Jordan Shapot, Maggie Weakley, Justin Alsedek, Greg Gwilt, David Kellner and Leslie J. Wengler. Seated: Mel Fiorentino, Ralph Demilio and Diane Cahal. Splayed: Olivia Ortiz





















      ArtCastle Artists:

      Justin Alsedek – Oil paintings, murals

      Mitchell Brown – Industrial sculptures

      Diane Cahla – Watercolors, miniatures, dioramas

      Jessica Carter – Mixed media

      David D’Allessandris – Mixed media, paintings, tableaux

      Ralph Demillo – Photography

      Mel Fiorentino – Oil paintings

      Greg Gwilt – Clay

      Leslie J. Wengler – Photography

      David Kellner – Modern sculpture

      Jessi Miller – Acrylic paintings, mixed media

      Leighton Okus – Dance

      Olivia Ortiz – Music

      Jordan Shapot – Oil paintings, drawings

      Teddy Sykes – Watercolors

      A’Aron Thomas – Mixed media, acrylic paintings

      Maggie Weakley – Paintings, wood art, ceramics



        Second Chances and A Hopeful Future

        By Louisa Barton 

        Much of the Thoroughbred industry is made up of horse owners who have modest incomes, and even with the best of intentions, only some can afford to support and care for a Thoroughbred once it has completed a career at the racetrack.

        The Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF) had its first retired racehorse two years after its founding in 1983. The TRF’s mission is clear and simply stated: To save Thoroughbred horses no longer able to compete on the racetrack from possible neglect, abuse and slaughter. That first horse was Promised Road, a 9-year-old who ended his career in a claiming race. Today, the TRF is the oldest and largest equine sanctuary like this in the world.

        One of the ways TRF has helped save retired racehorses has also helped people in need. Founder and Eclipse Award winner Monique S. Koehler negotiated an agreement with the Department of Corrections in New York to staff and maintain a vocational training program in equine care and management for the inmates at the Walkill Facility. Upon the completion of their sentences, many former inmates who had worked with the horses credited the TRF program for their life successes after their release. There are certainly emotional benefits derived from programs like this and equine therapeutic programs seem to always be physically, emotionally and psychologically beneficial to children and adults from all walks of life. There is just something about caring for and loving a horse and it loving you back! The TRF program has been replicated at correctional facilities in eight states since its inception.

        Most horses under TRF care suffered injuries on the track making them ideal candidates for pasture retirement.  However, many TRF horses have successfully been retrained and adopted out to homes where they have begun new lives as competition horses, members of mounted units, therapy programs or as well-loved pasture pets.

        In 2001, TRF opened at the Lowell Correctional Institution here in the “Horse Capital of the World” and is home to more than 50 horses and is the only women’s program in the country. This program is great for character building for the inmates and offers a haven for ex- racehorses. Caring for these horses changes the mindset of many inmates, often teaching them great life skills to use after release while also improving their self-esteem. 

        For those of us who own horses, we know the hard work, dedication and intense work ethic required to do all that is necessary to care for them, but we also know that the reward of the relationship, trust and love of a horse is priceless. 

        The TRF is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax-exempt organization entirely dependent on public contributions.  One hundred percent of its budget comes from generous individuals, businesses, and foundations which support its network of farms across the country. The local Lowell program is funded by Florida Thoroughbred Charities’ local fundraisers via the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association. How great it is that Ocala, Marion County is home to wonderful organizations like this doing double duty, helping the horses and the inmates by providing a second chance and a hopeful future.

          A Literal Hand Up

          Marion County Literacy Council tackles the problem of adult literacy in our community


          Marion County Literacy Council. Photo by Joshua Jacobs.

          The abundance of breathable oxygen, the taste of food on the tongue or reliable shelter in a storm: All simple and commonplace matters of our existence we take for granted, rarely giving more than a thought during the course of a day. Remove any of these and their importance suddenly dwarfs any other hardship faced.

          The ability to read for most of us falls in line with many activities relegated to mere afterthoughts, but approximately 20 percent of fellow Marion County citizens would disagree. Those are the 20 percent of adults here who are classified as functionally illiterate.

          Unable to understand a restaurant menu or instruction manual, the functionally illiterate among us face not only an embarrassing stigma, but also the greatest obstacle toward financial success. Most are adept at hiding this reading deficiency but will likely never be able to parlay their otherwise hard-work ethic into significant career advancement.

          The Marion County Literacy Council is stepping in to help reverse this trend and provide a “hand up” as opposed to a “hand out” to these adults in need.

          “I don’t know that people fully appreciate how serious a problem it is,” said MCLC Executive Director R.J. Jenkins. “It’s not just a human problem, but a real economic problem for our city and for Marion County. It’s difficult to have a growing and prosperous economy when 20 percent of your population is functionally illiterate. 

          “We have a big job ahead of us.”

          The MCLC, with over 75 volunteer tutors, helps around 500 Marion County adults each year and the success stories are overwhelming and heartwarming. Some fell through the cracks in the educational system while many are learning English as a second language. All have one thing in common: Improve their own lives and the lives of their families.

          The MCLC utilizes a three-pronged attack in combatting illiteracy: 1. Adult Basic Education program which helps adults learn to read or improve reading skills; 2. GED program which helps adults earn their high school equivalency diploma; 3. ESOL program which is to help non-English speaking adults become more capable and competent speakers of the language.

          “One of the things that’s important for people to understand about the work we do, it takes tremendous courage for people to seek our services,” Jenkins said. “There is a kind of filter on the front door of our building and that filter is for courage. People don’t walk into our building unless they’ve made a decision to do something to better their lives and the lives of their children.

          “It takes a lot for a grown woman or grown man to admit they have trouble reading – there is still, unfortunately, a bit of a stigma around some of this kind of help. That’s a challenge for us. It’s difficult for us to get to the people who need us most because they’re intimidated or frightened.”

          The numbers for the past year have been quite encouraging for the MCLC:

          • 15,000 hours of volunteer tutoring equal to over $370,000 worth of services
          • 100 hours of adult tutoring and instruction leading to an average $10,000 increase in annual incomes
          • 20 adults sent through the Equal Opportunity Program at the College of Central Florida to help pay for GED and further their education
          • 223 adults increased their English skills by one grade level per semester
          • 30 adults received their GED
          • 40 adults increased their reading by more than two levels in the ABE program

          The numbers are nice, but the human stories paint a better picture. Even during the pandemic as the MCLC’s doors were closed, one student stuck to his guns with online tutoring and passed his GED exam. Another lacking computer literacy was kept from professional advancement, but after three weeks of one-on-one tutoring had mastered the skills that would secure him a promotion.

          The MCLC’s annual report notes one man from Cuba who spoke virtually no English before enrolling in ESOL classes. Now, he is a student at the College of Central Florida with plans to transfer to the University of Florida and major in engineering.

          The council relies heavily on the work of program coordinator Yamila Acosta, who oversees the volunteers.

          “She is the face of our organization as far as our students are concerned,” Jenkins said. “There is not a person in Marion County who receives services from us and doesn’t know who Yamila is. She is an astonishing person and is really the heart of the organization. She works tirelessly to make sure folks get access to these life-changing services.”

          RJ Jenkins at the Marion County Literacy Council. Photo by Joshua Jacobs.

          Jenkins is quick to point out that although the MCLC operates with volunteer tutors and relies heavily on the support of donors, the program is not free for the students. There is a $40 registration fee that covers unlimited support for an entire semester.

          “That does two things: It obviously provides a very small amount of support for our organization, but it also means that the people who seek our services have some skin in the game,” Jenkins said. “They have made an investment in their own education. It resonates with our donors that our students our also invested in their education, that this in not a hand-out but rather a hand-up organization.”

          The MCLC, in addition to reading services which include group and one-on-one instruction, also offers help in the realm of math, financial and computer literacy. Even adults seeking treatment for drug and alcohol abuse at Phoenix House in Citra can take GED classes there and elsewhere such as in Marion Oaks and at College Park Elementary School.

          The physical facility had been closed during the pandemic and is now enjoying a soft opening. During this time, students have been tutored online and the MCLC seems to have navigated the crisis thanks to its minimal bureaucracy and generosity of its donors.

          “We have tremendous support from our community and we are a really lean organization,” Jenkins said. “We have not experienced the kind of financial hardships that some non-profits have.”  

          For more information 

          The Marion County Literacy Council is located at 120 SW 5th Street in Ocala. Anyone who would like to donate money or services may phone 352-690-7323 or visit for more information.


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