Evander Preston is an artist, recluse, rabble-rouser, beer drinker, Asian food fanatic and shoe whore. At 80, he’s still churning out outlandish projects and turning heads in Pass-a-Grille, where he’s a resident and gallery owner.
A native of St. Pete, the 6-foot-3 enigma has spent his entire life making headlines for his nonconformist art (he’s currently painting a coffin with a pay phone inside); his famous clients (Lauren Bacall and Jimmy Buffett); his handcrafted jewelry (an editor at W Magazine wore one of his necklaces to an event in Switzerland); and his antics (in 2007, he handed out 100 bottles of bourbon to homeless folks hanging around Williams Park).
For three decades Preston ran a music store in downtown St. Pete, where he taught lessons and sold some of the country’s first stock of Yamaha pianos and organs, which explains his collection of antique organs, synthesizers and keyboards.
Preston, who describes himself as “agoraphobic,” admits he’d rather hang out in his treasure trove of a gallery than move among Tampa Bay’s “herd.” He works out of a cluttered cottage studio behind his two-story gallery on 8th Avenue in Pass-a-Grille.
Some folks go to Pass-a-Grille for the sunsets. Other folks go to tour Preston’s gallery, which is home to a Chinese rickshaw, a 1950s motorcycle (with sidecar), a 14-karat-gold mousetrap, countless organs, candelabras, neon signs, Chinese lanterns, masks, jewelry, the artist’s personal shoe collection and a functioning kitchen, complete with a gas wok, Tandoor oven and duck press.
“For years we had parties here every week, big parties for high-paying [jewelry] customers,” Evander says. “I lead a much quieter life now. I drink my beer. I make my art. I have no great aspirations and I don’t care if I sell anything or not. That’s what all rebel artists do.”
Where he goes for a good time: Zack Gross at Z Grille. “Zack is one of my best friends. He custom makes things for me. He’s a real wild man. I don’t hang out with regular people. They bore me to tears. Zack is exotic. His food is exotic and his restaurant is exotic.”
Where he goes to buy beer: The Racetrac at 28th St. N and 22nd Ave. N. “There’s a helluva fun bunch of people there. I go there every day to get my beer. I like watching the cattle drive of people that come in and out. Nobody bothers me. In all the years I’ve been going there nobody has asked me what I do for a living.”
Where he goes to drink beer: The Tasting Room at Cigar City Brewing. “Joey [Redner] is a real gentleman. He’s very congenial and the atmosphere is real congenial. He’s invented a beer for me — the Evander. I designed the label.”
Where he goes for groceries: Cho Lon Oriental Market in St. Pete or Oceanic Supermarket in Tampa. “I’ve been going to Cho Lon for 30 years. I go for the Vietnamese food. I lost 40 pounds on it. Oceanic is unbelievable. They’ve got everything in there!”
Where he goes for soup: Tasty Pho in Pinellas Park. “Most of the time I’m the only American in the restaurant.”
Where he goes to people-watch: The cafeteria at St. Anthony's Hospital. “They’ve got the greatest salad bar in town. The place is huge and the atmosphere is interesting, the people in scrubs coming in and out. I go there a lot.”
What he does to stay fit: Walk. “I don’t do it anymore, but for 30 years I walked 10 miles a day. I’d leave my studio at 5 a.m. and go to the Palms of Pasadena [Hospital] and back. My knees are shot, so I’m not walking that anymore.”
What he loves to hear play in St. Pete: The pipe organ at the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter. “It’s 32 feet high. It’s a beautiful thing when you get the right person to play it.”
Where he buys his size 13 shoes: Cole Haan at International Plaza. “I’ve got 25 different pairs of Cole Haan shoes. I like to wear my ragged old clothes with fancy shoes. They know me at the store. You can’t forget someone who looks the way I look.”
Where he’s caught the best mullet: Near a sewer pipe. “No one wants to hear it, but it’s the truth. Mullet hang out near sewer pipes. You go in the middle of the night, walk through the swampy bay until you hit a sewer [pipe] and it’s a feeding frenzy.”
Where he goes treasure hunting: The back alleys of Pass-a-Grille. “I found Spanish bamboo chairs in the alley that we recovered with leather. I found a candelabrum. Can you imagine finding such a beautiful thing in the alley? I used to think I had to pay big money for antiques until I realized I could find real treasures in the alley.”
Where he goes to get away from the beach: Ybor City. “I love the architecture. The people of Ybor don’t build anything. They restore. Going there is almost like going to Cuba.”