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Brooksville Art in the Park to feature 140 artist, craftsmen

By Beth N. Gray, Times Correspondent

BROOKSVILLE — Nationally recognized wildlife painter Peter Gerbert has packed his trailer with 20 art renderings of Florida wildlife, from spoonbill wading birds to frolicking black bears. The lifelong illustrator is one of an expected 140 artists and fine crafts-makers — the greatest number in two decades — exhibiting their works at the 33rd annual Art in the Park March 10 and 11 at the city’s Tom Varn Park.

The Ridge Manor acrylic colorist will feel as if he’s never left his woodsy studio enclave, much to his pleasure and the delight of other artists, as well as visiting oglers and shoppers looking for original artwork.

According to surveys of past exhibitors and visitors, the park’s sweeping grassy expanses and shade-heavy oaks are their No. 1 reason for returning annually to the event sponsored by the Hernando County Fine Arts Council.

About 40 percent of the exhibits will be fine art, typically two-dimensional pieces, plus sculptures, stained glass and wood works, according to co-chair Paul Shaskan, a landscape painter.

Among two-dimensional wall-art crafters, multi-media works are trending. And the number of vendors offering digitally-enhanced photographs prove it is increasingly accepted as original art. Original paintings and sketches are selling well, even in the presence of less costly prints, Gerbert said.

"A lot of jewelry is fine art," Shaskan said. Precious metals and gemstones define it as "fine" as opposed to lesser materials usually signifying costume jewelry.

The arts council tries to provide a broad mix of exhibits, Shaskan said, but jewelry accounts for about 20 percent of the vendors, here and throughout the arts festival realm.

"Women are always out there buying jewelry," he said.

Crafters make up a large part of the event.

"People make some crazy things that are still interesting crafts," Shaskan said. Crafts must be original and handmade, not manufactured or assembled from kits. They must reach the designation of "quality" as determined by samples or photos submitted to a jury of artists and their fanciers.

Among this year’s crafts will be starfish and shark teeth jewelry, goat milk lotions, recycled string instruments, cowhide light pulls, Appalachian bow saws and more.

With the exhibitor number exceeding last year’s 101, organizers hope to attract more than the 5,000 visitors of 2017.

An enhanced advertising budget is publicizing the event beyond Hernando County’s borders, Shaskan said. About 18 percent of visitors last year traveled from outside the county.

Providing another boost, the Southeastern Tourism Society is promoting Art in the Park as one of the Top 20 March attractions across 12 southeastern states.

Some artisans are attracted by cash prizes and the eminence they deliver. Best in Show garners a $1,000 prize; Best in Crafts, $400. Additional awards bring the purse total to $4,000. Exhibitors this year hail from as far away as Sugartuck, Minn., Pueblo, Colo., and Painted Post, N.Y.

While the festival-style exhibition is art-centric, musical entertainment and gastronomic treats will be served up as well.

The full Hernando Symphony Orchestra will perform Pops in the Park at 1 p.m. March 10, and the Hernando Youth Orchestra will headline at 1:30 p.m. March 11. Also scheduled over the weekend are Suzuki Strings, Sun Whiskey River Band and Suncoast Harmony, as well as performers of classic and Southern rock, rhythm and pops.

The food court will feature Cuban and Greek specialties, steak sandwiches and seafood, salsa, coffees and teas, plus the presses of two wineries.

Artist Gerbert, 55, acknowledges Art in the Park has advanced in stature from its earliest years in Masaryktown, when he was a young painter. His artistry and luster have grown, too, said Knowles, making him one of the most popular exhibitors.

Gerbert is the first recipient of Artist of the Year award accorded by Audubon Florida magazine, his paintings described as "faultless realism with fine detail." Gerbert’s work will occupy two booths at the festival.

Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]