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Haven for artists burned

Hundreds of artworks are lost. Officials say it's arson.

By JOSE CARDENAS & DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD, Times Staff Writers
Published December 10, 2007


The Imago Art Gallery building at 464 Douglas Ave., in Dunedin burns early Sunday. Authorities found evidence of accelerants.
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[Eamonn W. Kneeshaw]
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[Douglas R. Clifford | Times]
Detective Mike Douglas lets Misty sniff out a fire accelerant Sunday at the Imago Art Gallery building. A man inside the building said he heard an explosion and tried to fight the fire, but had to run for his life.

DUNEDIN - The Imago Art Gallery in this town known for its embrace of the arts was home to 15 working artists.

But early Sunday an arsonist set fire to artists' studios and hundreds of their paintings, sculptures, jewelry and other works, investigators say.

As news of the 3 a.m. fire spread, some of the artists gathered at the charred and gutted building on Douglas Avenue south of Main Street.

"What is there to gain from burning our work and a building like that?" said Denis Gaston, a contemporary mixed media artist who lost 80 paintings and drawings. "These people lost everything."

Harry Williams, a glass blower who turned the building into studios for fellow artists seven years ago, said that fire officials put the loss around $1-million.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office estimated the loss to the structure at $500,000.

Putting a value on the actual art, Williams said, would be difficult.

"I'm numb. I'm confused," said Williams, 56, who now lives in Odessa with wife Louies, an acrylic painter. "It was our retirement. It's my life savings."

The 5,200-square-foot, bright yellow building was a fixture in the local art scene. Painters, sculptors, stone carvers and other artists included John Lowe, Sultana Volaitis and Dorothy Briccetti.

Pinellas County Property Appraiser Jim Smith, a sculptor, once rented space there.

Some of the artists taught at the Dunedin Fine Arts Center. The artists welcomed the community during an open house the first Friday of every month.

This month's open house was Friday.

The studios were also one stop in the yearly "Studio Waltz" in which people visit various arts venues to watch artists work.

"We felt like we were one big family trying to get out there and get our work shown," said Williams.

Early Sunday, Robert Sutherland, an acrylic and oil painter and musician, was in the building.

Sutherland heard an initial explosion at the back of the building and ran to investigate, Williams said.

As the fire was discovered, a male voice was heard outside, said Sgt. Jim Bordner, a spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Sutherland tried to stop the fire with an extinguisher but he had to flee shoeless through the front of the building wearing only jeans.

Sutherland lost artwork, musical equipment and his car. Someone had to lend him a pair of shoes.

Another artist who came to the fire scene Sunday was painter Sioux Hart.She lost 60 pieces. She also lost a book full of art and poetry that she was making for her daughter.

"It's just that one little thing that bothers me the most," said Hart, who lives in Clearwater.

Investigators used a dog during the investigation. They determined the fire was arson based on witness statements, burn patterns and "the presence of accelerants," said state Fire Marshal Detective Curt Clendenney.

By midday Sunday, investigators had posted signs at the crime scene offering a reward for information leading to an arrest.

Bordner said the building was deemed a public hazard.

Williams said he told investigators about "certain things that came up" and "things that were said among some individuals" as potential leads for suspects.

"We had no idea that anybody would be so upset to burn the building down," Williams said.

Jose Cardenas can be reached at jcardenas@sptimes.com or 727 445-4224. Anyone with information about the fire was asked to call sheriff's Detective Jack White at (727) 582-6200 or Crime Stoppers at (800) 873-TIPS.

[Last modified December 9, 2007, 22:35:52]


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