Best of shows
Mainsail, St. Petersburg's waterfront art festival, invites winners from the past 30 years to this weekend's show.
By LENNIE BENNETT
Published April 14, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - Mainsail Arts Festival celebrates its 30th anniversary this weekend. The outdoor art show that began with fewer than 100 local artists and a small crowd now attracts about 280 exhibitors from 33 states (and is about maxed out on that front) and draws thousands from throughout Florida and beyond who shop for art and fine crafts.
In the beginning, it was so small and underfunded that there were no cash awards for artists and no Best of Show, probably because there was no money to give to a judge, either.
Originally called the St. Petersburg Sidewalk Art Festival and renamed Mainsail in 1977, it gave its first "Best" award in 1976, along with a cash prize of $500. Today, the artist receiving that accolade takes home $10,000. An additional $40,000 is divided among 57 other artists.
For many years, Mainsail has offered entertainment from local performers; this year, organizers are bringing in the Atlanta Rhythm Section to headline the free event. Also onstage Saturday and Sunday will be top-notch Tampa Bay area talent, including Fred Johnson and Belinda Womack. (Please see schedule for performance times.)
Mainsail's Young at Art program, begun several years ago, has grown, too, with students from 60 public and private schools exhibiting in a special area. New are three $1,500 scholarships that will be awarded to high school seniors.
But the heart of Mainsail, and the reason it has flourished, has always been the professional artists who set up their booths, endure the vagaries of weather and the buying public, and often return year after year hoping to score the big prize. A spot at the show has never been guaranteed unless you are the immediate past winner; all artists go through a vetting process by a committee that looks at thousands of slides from hundreds of applicants vying for booth space.
But to commemorate the 30th year, Mainsail leaders invited all past Best of Show winners to exhibit, and most will be there even though some haven't participated in an outdoor art festival in decades. We visit with five past winners to see what they're up to.
Michele Tuegel of St. Petersburg, a mixed media artist known for her handmade paper collages, won the first Best of Show in 1976 when she was a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of South Florida. The prize was only $500, "but it was like winning the lottery," she says. Back then she was Cheley Beckman, a single woman trying to make ends meet, and the money helped pay some bills. She splurged and spent $100 on a cloisonne necklace by Howard and Gail Silverblatt, who later would win the top prize. "That was so outrageous for me to spend," Tuegel recalled.
She won again in 1978, the same year she married Robert Tuegel. She continued to do outdoor shows for several more years and says, "They were how I was able to get into prestigious national exhibitions and get gallery representation." But her life as a working artist took second place to a job in 1988 as director of Florida Craftsmen and its successful gallery in downtown St. Petersburg. She led the statewide not-for-profit organization for 16 years, resigning in 2004 to spend more time with her husband and son, a high school senior.
She now works part time for the Pinellas County Arts Council as special projects coordinator. Her boss is Judith Powers, who was a Best of Show winner in 1986, but, like Tuegel, hasn't exhibited in more than a decade.
Neverne Covington of St. Petersburg won Best of Show in 1979 at the smallest Mainsail in its 30-year history, when only 83 artists participated. That didn't bother her, because the judge that year was the esteemed painter William Pachner, "and it was such an honor to be chosen by him," she says.
"I've only done three or four art shows ever," the 54-year-old says. "I'd rather have a root canal. The wear and tear on your work and your psyche is just too much."
That, and the fact that her prints, drawings and paintings, laden with mysterious images, never sold well at the shows. She has continued to work as a fine artist and has taught at Eckerd College and Ringling School of Design but derives her income these days from commercial work.
"I'm probably in your refrigerator," she says. "I've designed labels for Fresh Express, Edie's Sherbets, Knott's Berry Farms, Smithfield Ham and a line of natural sodas."
Illustrations for medical publications have also been lucrative, though she does fewer of them now.
"I can make a procedure look not too scary," she says. "For the Emergency Medical Magazine, I was the trauma person."
She also has illustrated books, including four for children and two cookbooks. One of her more intriguing commissions, she says, was The Illustrated Guide to the Joys of Black Sex, Love and Romance.
"It's a guy book, and pretty graphic," she says. "There's nothing in there for the ladies."
Covington had an exhibition at the Art Center in St. Petersburg several months ago and is preparing for a one-person show at Studio@620 also in St. Petersburg, in May.
"But I could never make a living doing art," she says.
Unlike Tuegel and Covington, Lake Worth artists Gael and Howard Silverblatt live by art shows. The couple, who began collaborating in 1974, the same year they were married, sell their finely wrought cloisonne at six to eight festivals each year. They have been affiliated with almost all of them - from Mainsail and Gasparilla in Tampa to farther-flung places such as Denver and Ann Arbor, Mich. - for decades, building followings with each repeat visit.
The Silverblatts have the distinction of winning three Mainsail Best of Shows - a record - in 1991, 1997 and 1998. It's a remarkable achievement because the judge every year is new.
Gael Silverblatt says the first win "wasn't that much money; it was the prestige."
Howard Silverblatt is the metalsmith, crafting wearable receptacles to hold his wife's finely detailed enamel narratives, built with 10 layers of color and 15 firings. Their rings, bracelets, pendants and decorative objects fetch between $750 and $9,000, high for an outdoor art show. And Gael Silverblatt says they rarely sell the upper-end or lower-priced pieces; the middle ground seems the most popular.
"There's usually one show a year where we sell nothing," she says. "A good show is three pieces. You just hope those three or four people who want to buy your work will show up."
They rarely sell through galleries, she says, because they would have to charge a lot more to cover the commission.
Besides, she says, "I like art shows and getting the feedback. I usually get some negative remarks because the work is so small or they don't believe it's really cloisonne. Sometimes I like to stand behind the booth. Then they really let go."
Joseph DiGangi's, Best of Show award in 1994 caused a big gasp from a number of artists. DiGangi, who lives in New Mexico, makes knives, and some purists thought his work was too commercial. But his knife sets, made of high-carbon steel, fine wood and brass, have a sleek, sculptural design that is the hallmark of fine craft.
"I was a dairy farmer," says DiGangi, 58. "I got tired and sold the farm in 1987 and had to make a living. I like to cook, and what I decided to do was make a functional art tool. I'd worked with metal a lot, bought a book on how to make knives and gave myself three months to learn. I was accepted that year into the American Craft Council Show. I went from zero to there."
Since then, he has won 27 national awards, including awards for design excellence from the Smithsonian and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
He participates in seven to nine art shows a year, beginning in January and ending by April, "because by that time I'm sold out. I take orders; everything is made to order, and I can only make 200 sets a year."
He has shown at Mainsail almost since the beginning and says it's one of his best outings.
But if you want a set of DiGangi knives, consider lining up now.
"I'm doing this one more year; 2006 will be my last. I'm retiring. I want to be like my customers, going sailing, playing golf."
Ummarid "Tony" Eitharong, a mixed media artist, won Best of Show in 1999. Like many other artists, Eitharong, 52, follows a yearly circuit, traveling to about 20 art shows around the country every year in St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia and some Western states, but, he says, the Florida shows are his favorites.
He doesn't make huge amounts from sales but has done very well in collecting prize money, including two Bests from Gasparilla, which each brought in $15,000. His work could be considered too conceptual for outdoor art show audiences, and expensive, since his large ones begin at $8,500 and continue to $10,000 and more. He says he has never sold a larger piece at an outdoor show. He calls smaller works "my bread and butter. Or maybe rice and soy, since I'm from Thailand."
All artists at outdoor shows take their share of knocks from casual viewers, and Eitharong's complex, sophisticated works, which are technically mixed media but often seem more like paintings, are easy targets.
"I've heard it all," he says, laughing. "Usually I don't pay attention. But there was this one show. An older couple looked for a while at my work, then walked two booths down. That artist told me they said to him, "That guy over there, his work is so depressing. You just tell him to get over it.'
"You could say I haven't gotten over it."
- Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or email@example.com
Mainsail Arts Festival is at the waterfront Vinoy Park, off Fifth Avenue NE, St. Petersburg, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The show and sale features about 280 artists and craftsmen; free children's activities in the Junior League of St. Petersburg Art Tent; Young at Art, a show by students from area public and private schools; food and beverage vendors; and live entertainment. This year's judge is Irvin Lippman, president and executive director of the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. For information, call 727 892-5885 or go to www.mainsailartsfestival.org
Note that Mainsail winners will not be announced until Sunday morning, rather than the customary Saturday night, so they will not appear in the St. Petersburg Times until Monday. Names will be posted at the Mainsail information tent.PERFORMING ARTS SCHEDULE
Noon-1:15 p.m.: Belinda Womack and Gospel Praise
1:30-2:45 p.m.: Fred Johnson
4-5:30 p.m.: Atlanta Rhythm Section
noon-1:15: Gumbo Boogie Band
1:30-2:30 p.m.: Ocean Road Band
2:45-3:45 p.m.: Gumbi Ortiz and the Latino Projekt
4-5 p.m.: Dan McMillion Jazz Orchestra