Rocky's Road

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Rocky Bridges never became the baseball player his father wanted him to be. But now, at age 37, he seems poised to hit a different sort of home run with the bases loaded. Rocky's phenomenal journey has taken him from his Tarpon Springs hillside home to an early friendship with an internationally acclaimed artist, an art degree from New York's Cooper Union and a museum retrospective at age 31. And this summer, the national exhibition that may be his defining moment.

His journey is marked as much by curve balls and detours as by triumphs. What all this means for his future is unclear.

At the end of a perfect Saturday May afternoon in Tarpon Springs, Rocky and his wife Kathleen are preparing for their annual art “Garage Sale” — one of those word-of-mouth, last-minute affairs mixing family, friends, colleagues and collectors. This is his childhood home, a small frame house where guests usually enter through the back door, directly into the kitchen. The rooms are charmingly illogical, the front of the house on a much lower level than the back. Standing by the retro kitchen table in the partially remodeled kitchen, the artist points to drawings he made as a child, still preserved on the raw wallboard.

Kathleen has been working in the kitchen for hours; her burritos and enchiladas are wrapped and ready to warm on the grill. Guests sprawl around the deck, beer in one hand, guacamole and chips in the other.

Conversation focuses on the Florida fella they’re all rooting for. In four days, Rocky will load a rented truck with 36 pieces of his mixed-media art and drive straight through to Washington, D.C.’s, prestigious Corcoran Gallery of Art.

At 37, the hometown boy who looks 10 years younger has a shot at the big time. His solo exhibition will open there on June 25.

Founded in 1869, the Corcoran, just a block from the White House, is the capital’s first museum of art. It’s also one of the oldest in the country.

If you’re wondering how an authentic Florida Cracker gets an exhibition at such a venerable institution, the short answer is that Rocky, an established Bay area artist, won a National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts (NFAA) visual arts fellowship in 1999. Of 183 visual arts applicants that year, he was one of three winners. The exhibition is his grand prize.

The Miami-based NFAA was established in 1981 with broad national support from corporations, foundations and philanthropic institutions, plus a board of distinguished individuals.

In 1989, NFAA initiated Fellowships in the Visual Arts (FIVA), aimed at identifying and boosting emerging or mid-career artists. In 1997, David Levy, Corcoran Director and longtime NFAA board member, linked the two institutions by adding curatorial assistance and the promise of national exposure for the fellows. This fellowship was tailor-made for artists like Rocky, who juggled artmaking with supporting his young family. He has taught art at two schools: Lakeland’s Lois Cowles Harrison Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, a formidable daily commute; and St. Petersburg College, Seminole campus. He will soon add the college’s Tarpon Springs campus to his load.

Sweetening the win was a three-year contract detailing yearly renewable stipends for living expenses and art materials, plus four months of free studio space in Miami and a South Beach apartment. The proposed Corcoran exhibition was set for June 2003, after which, according to what NFAA told their fellows, the museum would close for several years for renovations.

Corcoran curator Eric Denker, who selected Rocky’s exhibition pieces from collectors in three Bay area counties, was chief juror when the artist was chosen. In a telephone interview, Denker explained that the sole criterion for selecting artists was the visual impact of their work. No names or other identifying information was attached to the art.

He described Rocky’s art as compelling. “His work and the other two, just jumped out at us.”

The fellowship did take a toll on Rocky’s family. Rocky and Kathleen, now married for six years, have been together since becoming sweethearts during their junior year at Tarpon Springs High School. A major supporter of Rocky for 20 years, the unflappable Kathleen remembers how difficult it was, especially for their two girls. “I knew that he had to do this when he applied,” she says. “He asked what I thought. It didn’t matter how I felt. For me it was just another step.” Indeed, the proposed residency, stretched over three summers, would have added up to an entire year away from home.

Once in Miami, Rocky was hit by what he saw as a plastic world. “I didn’t know what was real or not,” he says. “Such a perfect society of plastic people made me question what people are about.” He was also confronted by a complete sense of freedom, an unanticipated spin-off of a fellowship with few restrictions. On the downside, this meant working in isolation with little or no social or professional interaction. Guidelines addressed only the security of the studio space, a situation he describes as, “here are the keys. Please lock up when you leave.”

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