Picture two guys sitting at Starbucks, hot cups of joe in hand. Dressed in jeans and T-shirts, they could pass for hunky-but-sensitive members of an up-and-coming rock band. One of the guys, Mike, is a painter; the other, Bobby, prefers the guitar. Mike says to Bobby: Wouldn't it be great if there were some place where emerging artists could show their work for free and have a good time?
Soon they're building booths inside a warehouse, enlisting bands to play, finding a dozen artists who've never shown before to fill the space. They even find a sponsor to provide free coffee and come up with a snappy name for the whole shebang.
On a January night, they cross their fingers and hope for 300 people. A thousand show up. Amid the fun and revelry, a happy 90 percent of the artists sell a piece of work.
You'll find guys like them in any small to medium-sized city — St. Louis, Milwaukee, Jacksonville — but Bobby Triplett and Mike DeSerio happen to live, work and now run a small-but-growing one-night arts fest in Tampa Bay. (Right about where the city turns into Brandon; it's a bit of a no-man's-land but easy to zip over to on the Crosstown.) What might come as a surprise is the home base of their edgy arts extravaganza, and the nature of their day jobs: it's held on the grounds of an interdenominational mega-church where Triplett, 26, serves as a minister for young adults and DeSerio, 30, works as his right-hand man. On Friday night, they'll host their second Canvas event with hopes that this one will be even bigger and better than the first.
If there's some cognitive dissonance in the juxtaposition of churchgoing and artists, it's not lost on Triplett and DeSerio. During an interview in the young minister's second-floor church office, the two are quick to outline in upbeat tones their take on religion for the MySpace generation. Distinctly down to earth, it's an approach that includes frank discussion of the problems and puzzles of young adulthood — the word "debt" passes Triplett's lips before he gets to sex and drinking — through experimental communication channels, like online videos and, well, art.
The membership of The Crossing Church — where his young-adult ministry, called Revolution, is held on Monday nights — skews young in general, Triplett explains. Most of the 3,000-3,500 people who attend services each week in the main building's auditorium, where stadium seating and video simulcast offer a good view of the stage from every seat, fall into the Boomer, Gen X and Gen Y demographics.
"We have some blue-hairs, but they rock just as hard," Triplett adds with a laugh.
About 130 young adults attend Triplett's Monday-night Revolution, geared toward 18-to-29-year-olds and held in a warehouse — dubbed "The Rock" — behind the church's main building. It's as informal as worship services come, with Triplett leading open-mic teachings based on his own experiences and feedback from the audience, videos and paintings (often whipped up by DeSerio), acoustic music and coffee breaks.
Canvas has its roots in the Gen Y verve of Revolution, but takes a pass on the overtly religious content. Simply put, the event is meant as a no-strings-attached gift to artists and the community, Triplett says. To that end, exhibiting in Canvas is absolutely free — as is attending. Artists even receive a gift bag as a thank-you and can join in a family-style dinner beforehand. The majority of Friday's two dozen exhibiting artists (check out the full roster of artists at canvas813.com) aren't members of The Crossing or even regular churchgoers; only about 10 percent of attendees at the first Canvas were church members, Triplett estimates. The only requirements for content are that artworks not be blatantly offensive (to any group's values) and not include full-frontal nudity. (Gala Corina, an event five times the size of Canvas with no religious affiliation, imposes similar restrictions on its exhibitors.)
So what does The Crossing, as silent sponsor, stand to gain from Canvas? Just to "love on some artists," Triplett says with a smile — and perhaps a chance to portray Christianity as a bit more relevant to young folks.
Photographer Adam Daniels has plenty of praise for the event. Not a regular churchgoer, he heard about Canvas through a friend who attends The Crossing. Daniels, 29, an International Academy of Design and Technology grad, had never done an art show before the first event in January, though he runs a growing commercial photography business in Tampa. Framing his photographs for the January Canvas made applying to other art exhibits afterward much easier; he's also landed at least one commercial job from exposure at the event.
This time he'll be back to show his dramatic black-and-white portraits of people encountered on the street and in public places. As part of his booth, Daniels will create a simple camera-and-lighting set-up and invite visitors to have their picture taken. (Later, he'll post the low-resolution images to his website, adamdaniels.com, for people who wish to have a copy.) Daniels says he's just glad to get a break in the difficult business of art — who cares if a church is behind it?
"Having an extremely open mind, I have no problem," he said. "Some people are church-o-phobes. I'm not actively involved in The Crossing, but I would definitely keep doing the event."
For illustrator Richard Barrett, another artist from the January Canvas, the event led to an unusual opportunity. Seeing potential for collaboration in the artist's comic-book-style images, Triplett suggested that Barrett illustrate biblical stories for a series of services at The Crossing. The project, called "Hero City," led to a five-part series loosely based on the Frank Miller comics-turned-film Sin City. Instead of Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke, this version stars biblical characters overcoming spiritual and earthly challenges in a contemporary inner-city environment.
Animated videos of Barrett's comic-strip illustrations play on giant screens during services; this weekend will feature episode three. (The videos can also be viewed at crossingonline.org.) At the end of the series, churchgoers will take away a comic book.
As Triplett says with an impish grin, this isn't your grandparents' church. Amen to that.