Gasparilla Arts Month: Art is all around

Visual artists and their fans flock to the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts.

click to enlarge An aerial view of the festival in Curtis Hixon Park. - Gasparilla Festival of the Arts
Gasparilla Festival of the Arts
An aerial view of the festival in Curtis Hixon Park.

Gasparilla Festival of the Arts
Sat., March 5, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., and Sun. March 6, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 
Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, 600 N. Ashley Dr., and neighboring Kiley Garden, 400 N. Ashley Dr., Tampa.

Travel light. Wear that bag with the cross-body strap. You’re going to want to keep your hands free for this one. You might wind up painting on a bus or noshing on fair food, and you’re almost certain to walk away carrying new art.
Now in its 46th year, the Raymond James Gasparilla Festival of the Arts (GFA to save breath) offers a kind of artistic pilgrimage, an annual Tampa tradition anticipated with the fervor of kids on Christmas.

For two days, 235 artists will overrun Curtis Hixon Park with glass art and photography, drawings and wood sculpture, prints, jewelry, and every kind of painting imaginable.

The Art Collectors in Training program features a kids-only shopping zone, with art under $10. In neighboring Kiley Garden, 15 emerging artists share space with vibrant Carmada art cars, and the NOMAD bus offers get-your-hands-messy creative fun. (Full disclosure: As a former GFA voting board member, I worked on the Kiley Garden committee and founded and continue to curate Carmada.)

Seriously, if you’re planning to experience even half of this, wear comfortable shoes and prepare for sensory overload. The outdoor festival squeezes more visual art into one weekend than some folks absorb all year. Held in a picturesque waterfront location and sweetened by $75,000 in prize money, the fest has obvious appeal for artists; some local artists have consistently sold at GFA since the 1970s.

This year, three jurors (painter Bruce Marsh, Henry B. Plant museum coordinator Jose Gelats and Christine Renc-Carter, independent curator, artist, and adult education director at Dunedin Fine Art Center) selected 235 artists from 792 eager applicants. About 30 artists in the final cut hail from parts of Florida; notables include glass artist Susan Gott, mixed media sculptor Rocky Bridges and stoneware magicians Wellman and Welsch Pottery.

In 2002, selection jurors rejected Carolina Cleere as an emerging artist, but last year she won overall Best of Show — with the same body of work. This is a symptom of the festival’s shifting jurors, which prevents repetition of opinion in choosing artists and awarding prizes. Selection jurors change each year, as does the lone festival juror who selects prize winners. This year, Brian Lang, curator of the corporate art collection at BNY Mellon, will serve in that role.

click to enlarge Carolina Cleere’s mixed media portrait “Honey Child” won Best of Show at the 2015 Festival. - Gasparilla Festival of the Arts
Gasparilla Festival of the Arts
Carolina Cleere’s mixed media portrait “Honey Child” won Best of Show at the 2015 Festival.

Cleere returns for her ninth GFA, showing meticulously crafted, surreal portraits that blend four mediums in a secret recipe that fuses elements of painting and photography. Her distinctive compositions are rich with allusions, symbols of lost innocence, and themes of nature and introspection.

“The majority of my income is from galleries, but I like doing outdoor festivals because it allows me to connect directly with viewers,” Cleere said. “The Gasparilla audiences are among the most candid. I’ve had people in my booth laughing, crying and being offended — all at the same time.”

The Emerging Artists section grows this year from 10 to 15, all but one from Florida. GFA boosts each of these fledgling artists with a small stipend and comped festival booth. Since 2011, festival board member Ann-Eliza Taylor has supported and coordinated Emerging Artists. Selection juror Noelle Mason, an associate professor of art at University of South Florida, helped narrow this year’s pool from 120 applicants.

“I really enjoy working with new artists who have never participated in a festival like this,” Taylor said. “They’re young and excited — it’s full of opportunity. We work a lot behind the scenes to make the show happen, and every year I have an artist who reminds me why it’s worth the work.”

Like Lissa Hatcher, a former portrait photographer who was ready to give up art-making entirely until she sold every piece in her Emerging Artist booth three years ago.

“It catapulted her,” said Taylor. “We’re helping launch careers.”

“If it hadn’t been for that program, and that support from Gasparilla, I don’t think I would have jumped into the arena that I’m in now,” agreed Hatcher, who just moved to a larger studio and will show in the Curtis Hixon side of GFA.

Other standout work from the Emerging Artists roster includes unearthly animal art by Nina Rivera, Sharon Norwood’s delicate drawings, and the porcelain pottery and lace sculptures of Carly Gibran.

“To be honest I was surprised to be chosen,” said Gibran, a former high school art teacher who will travel from her Deland studio for her first-ever GFA experience. “I’ve heard it’s one of Florida’s best shows. I’m really excited to hear how people react to my work. Making in the studio, it’s like being in a vacuum.”

Meanwhile, the festival footprint keeps expanding. Since 2014, with support from Arts Council of Hillsborough County grant funds, GFA has steadily spread from Curtis Hixon into adjacent Kiley Garden, forging new proving grounds for art on wheels, design competitions, and POD pop-up galleries.

“We’re continuing to make it a little more robust,” said GFA board president Ashly Anderson. “We operate the traditional art show pretty eloquently, but every year it grows and changes.”

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