When Florida Craftsmen executive director Maria Emilia surveys a Bay area skyline dotted with construction cranes, she sees opportunity for the artists who exhibit their handmade works in her gallery. For every condo that goes up, a Florida potter, painter or furniture-maker gains a potential customer.
Realtor Ann Rogers, owner of several Keller Williams offices in Pinellas County, heartily agrees. In her tours of homes and offices, Rogers has seen some sad excuses for art—ubiquitous Pier 1 prints or "a copy of a copy of a copy" of a Chihuly—and she believes the reason why we choose them is simple.
"We're not making people comfortable around art," she says. "We put it in museums, but most of us don't have real art in our homes."
Both women see a market just waiting to be tapped, if only Bay area artists and their burgeoning consumer base could come together in a place where both were comfortable.
Whither such a place, you ask?
A new exhibit at Florida Craftsmen aims to take you there.
Eschewing the traditional gallery format—you know, the white walls, the glass cases — At Home With Crafts takes the form of a model home showroom furnished almost entirely with objects handmade by Floridians. And we're not talking about diminutive tchotchkes either. A ceramic fireplace with a Key West vibe anchors the dining room; durable, water-resistant painted canvases masquerade as rugs in the nursery and on the lanai; bamboo plywood cabinetry lightens up the living room and adds a touch of "green"—as in, the environmentally conscious kind—to the décor. There's literally something for every taste in this setting, where connecting the dots between a sleek handmade chair or a funky painting and your own living space is made easier by the simulation of home.
The exhibit marks an unusual collaboration between Florida Craftsmen and members of the arts and business communities. Curator Grace-Anne Alfiero, executive director of St. Pete nonprofit Creative Clay, conceived the initial idea and led the group of five artist-curators who selected work by more than 30 artists to furnish the exhibit. An advisory panel stocked with both artists and businesspeople included Rogers and developer Grady Pridgen; local architects designed the build-out; and retailer Robb & Stucky provided an interior designer to help with continuity.
Look beyond the copper birdhouses, the hand-sewn baby toys and the hand-forged flatware for a moment—if you can pry your eyes away—and you'll see a labor of love that speaks more to arts marketing and consumer (and artist) education than showing a particular group of objects. The exhibit itself, Emilia says, is just the tip of the iceberg. A symposium, to be held in May, will bring speakers Bill Bischoff of FSU's Master Craftsmen Program and American Style publisher Wendy Rosen to advise artists on business practices. The videotaped symposium, in combination with an edited-down version of six months' worth of board meetings, will be packaged as a DVD how-to for other communities. "[It's] all aimed at improving the relationship between the artists and their natural consumer base," Emilia says. "There is no magic to this thing. There is no reason why these two groups should not be fully acquainted with each other."
The objects—ah yes, back to those gorgeous things—speak for themselves. They serve as a reminder that the best of craft combines the visual and tactile pleasures of art with the pragmatism of design. More than lovely, artist Mary Klein's cloisonné enamel paintings won't bat an eyelash at the humidity of your patio or bathroom. (Just watch a favorite print grow mildew under the same conditions.) Rhonda Winfield's painted canvas "rug" looks — by god! — as if it could actually stand up to the abuses of a toddler. And stained glass doors by Lenn Neff are solid examples of craftsmanship, whether he uses the tried-and-true method of leaded glass or creates an ultramodern version by adhering squares of colored glass with a UV-activated glue.
Interspersed among the crafts are works of fine art with crafty roots (as if you weren't already convinced these distinctions are fluid): kitschy assemblages of found toys painted snow-white by Betsy Orbe Lester or canvases stained with tea and rust by Babs Reingold.
An integral but less visible presence in each piece provides the secondary reason you might want, in the context of a global, disposable consumer culture, to buy something handmade locally. Take Dale Lappe's stunning cabinetry; made with golden bamboo plywood processed with fewer chemicals than conventional plywood and renewable within several years, it's an eminently sustainable choice. (And since it costs $22,500, we assume you won't be replacing it anytime soon.) Teens from Family Resources Youth Arts Corps, a nonprofit that keeps at-risk kids off the streets and in high-level arts classes after school, made one of my favorite pieces in the show: a tote bag constructed from empty Capri Sun containers. In June, they'll open their own gallery-store in Pinellas Park.
For Rogers, the real estate executive who served on the exhibit's advisory board, it's a step toward better communication between artists and the people who might buy their art.
"It's a two-way thing. It's both how the artists look at business, and it's also how businesses look at art," she says. "If we can make that happen in a safe and comfortable environment and let people realize that art is not just something you hang on the wall, it's almost a way of thinking, it would be nice. People tend to think way too in the box."