“Rocky and Friends" at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art is a deeply nostalgic exhibition that's warm and fuzzy around the edges but possessed of a solid core.
Its organizing principle is an homage to the Palm Harbor Fine Arts and Crafts Festival, which celebrated its 35th year in early December. It began as all of our bay area festivals have with a small group of volunteers who wanted a venue to showcase art. The Palm Harbor festival has not grown to the size of some others in these parts, continuing to hew to its small-town charm and low-key atmosphere.
In 1978, the festival was still young as was Rocky Bridges, a 14-year-old Tarpon Springs native who exhibited for the first time in the student category. As we know, he grew up and into a career that now has national stature. But along the way, he befriended many other artists and became part of the community of exhibitors who travel from show to show.
Nine of those artists join Bridges in this exhibition. Some, like Bridges, continue to participate in outdoor shows; others have long since retired from them. But here they are, together again, this time their work clustered as a group on the museum's gallery walls instead of individually in small tents.
They're all well known: Catherine Bergmann, David Bewley, John Costin, Tony Eitharong, Susan Livingston, Duncan McClellan, Carol Napoli, Josette Urso and Judi Wood. And in revisiting their art, you'll wonder why some of them continue to exhibit since some of their work doesn't fall into the typical comfort zone of fine crafts and representational paintings and photography. Bergmann's intellectual installations, for example, seem more suited to an urban gallery. Eitharong is a distinguished artist who currently has a one-man show at the Museum of Florida Art in Deland. The partial reason is the potential for awards money. Eitharong may not sell many of his provocative mixed media works and drawings at outdoor shows but he has won plenty of accolades from judges, including an award of distinction at the Palm Harbor show, as did Bridges and Napoli.
Museum director Lynn Whitelaw and curator Rebecca Sexton Larson combine early and recent works from each artist. McClellan's aesthetic journey is the most startling. A vessel from his first year experimenting with glass-blowing in 1987 is simple, slightly amateurish, and far different from the expertly fashioned vessels using his now-signature elaborate multiple techniques.
A close second in the "who knew?" category is Costin, who has become a successful wildlife artist with a loyal following for his realistic depictions of native animals in their natural settings. In 1986, he was doing conceptual art, evidenced by little assemblages of found objects mounted on etchings such as The Radio Entertained Us, an electrical outlet mounted on a print resembling wallpaper.
Livingston's ceramics have evolved from cerebral "landscapes" made from different kinds of coiled clay to sculptures that combine clay — no longer looking like clay but aged wood or fossils — with real fossils.
The transition from then to now is smoother with the other artists who started with a visual premise and have refined it over time. Urso's 1981 watercolor Night Waltz looks as freshly abstract as her 2008 Snow Day panels. Bewley is still exuberantly over the top in his constructions that reference gilded ages and belief systems long gone. The difference is perhaps that he has a larger inventory of cool artifacts for them now than he did 25 years ago.
Today, Napoli and Wood seem most attuned to market tastes of outdoor art festivals though their work is certainly serious. Napoli's paintings reside in that place between abstraction and realism, with wonderful colors and a spiritual element. Wood takes the craft of bead weaving to a very high level (and charges commensurately; most of her jewelry and "paintings" are in the five figures).
Bridges is the sun around which the other stars revolve and, of course, his famous muse, a metal folding chair most famously painted red, makes a prominent appearance in his collages of found objects. The roots of his art run as true and deep as his friendships. This show demonstrates that loyalty can be both noble and smart.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com.