Judi Dazzio stands before her class, emoting. She couples the timing and shtick of a standup comedian with the discipline and conviction of a drill sergeant. She could probably teach anything. But because she is an award-winning painter, she teaches painting. • Like all good teachers, she doesn't just teach her subject, she proselytizes it, and in the 20-plus years she has been at it here, she has become something of a legend. Her classes at the Judith Dazzio Art Experience in downtown St. Petersburg have waiting lists. To get into one, there must not only be an opening but the potential student must also pass an interview with Dazzio. • Openings are rare; her students on average have been with her for 10 years, some as long as 20. They are mostly in their 50s and 60s and retired since the classes are full days during the week. They range from professional artists to those who have never picked up a brush before. • "I always talk to a person before they can join the class to see if I'm right for them," Dazzio says. "I do so many things that challenge their creativity. I mostly want to see if they're positive. I can teach anyone to paint if they're positive."
So she stands before the assembled group at 9:30 a.m. sharp on a recent Thursday, doing her warmup act before the serious business begins. She improvises a monologue about Zumba, the dance-exercise class, that she thinks has somehow energized one student's work and, just as vital, improved her love life.
"Instead of breaking for lunch, we need to get Zumba in here," she says, sounding a little like Anne Meara in the days when she had a routine with her husband, Jerry Stiller.
Then she begins the morning session, which is always the group critique, part of every class. One of its purposes, she says, is "so they don't end up as clones of my painting."
Anyone can bring a work in progress to the front of the room for assessment. She hangs one by Leo Hampton, 81. He has painted two birds that are slightly fantasized versions of herons.
After a long, silent appraisal, Dazzio says it has a very rich background. Then she asks if the legs are positioned correctly.
"I'm working on those," Hampton says.
Dazzio asks for opinions from the group. Someone questions the feathers. Several others ask about a stylistic discrepancy that involves tightness versus looseness.
"But that's Leo," Dazzio says. "Leave it or not, it's up to you totally," she says to him.
Other paintings follow with Dazzio's pointed directives tempered with praise. Nothing is ever wrong; it can usually be better.
"I always thought I wanted to paint," Hampton says later. Before retiring to Florida, he was a guidance counselor in Michigan and says his hobbies would generally hold his interest for four years, max.
"But Judi continually changes things," he says. "The critiques are so educational. We want to hear all these opinions."
"All artists need someone to bounce things off of," Dazzio says. "I myself don't have that and I wish I did."
Dazzio, who prefers not to discuss her age but admits to being somewhere north of her 40s, grew up in New Hampshire. She pestered her father for art classes when she was young but he brushed her off. When she was 12, her grandmother gave her a set of oils and she painted a horse which, she says, was not bad and came effortlessly.
"My father saw it and took the paints away," she says. "He was an engineer, a police chief in a small town. He loved uniforms. There was no room in his black-and-white life for an artist."
In high school, he wanted her to take secretarial classes.
"I knew I wasn't going to be a secretary but I took them and snuck in some art and college prep classes, too."
He thought college was a waste of time for girls, but she went anyway, to the University of New Hampshire, working her way through by herself. When he learned she was majoring in art, "What a fight. It was the first time I brought up any strength of character. I told him I wanted to teach art and that's what I'm going to do. But I also had a double major in literature so I could teach that if I had to."
She taught art in Massachusetts public schools for a few years then moved to Boston to get her master's degree in studio art and art education. She lived in an unusually cheap apartment on Beacon Street because, she says, the Boston Strangler had killed someone in it.
She met her future husband, Jay, a scientist, on a trip to Europe and they married and moved to Louisiana where he had business interests. They had two kids and a great life, she says, until the 1980s savings and loan crisis, which she says wiped them out financially. They moved to Pinellas County for another business opportunity that didn't work out and found themselves homeless.
"The four of us moved into a friend's spare bedroom for six months," she says. Their livelihood came from T-shirts Dazzio painted.
"Every weekend, I and my kids would take them to outdoor things and sell them. At first we only had a table in the sun. Finally we were able to afford a little tent."
She began teaching art at the Beach Art Center in 1987 with two students. That, the T-shirts and an adjunct teaching job Jay Dazzio landed enabled them to rent a small apartment and then a house.
"My classes were building in size," she says, "so I moved to the Suntan Art Center where there were larger rooms. I opened my own art school in 1990 in Dolphin Village and it became very successful."
Evelyn Craft, who was executive director of the Arts Center in St. Petersburg (now the Morean Arts Center) at the time, asked her to join an arts education committee and to teach a one-time class at the center. They had such a huge response, Craft asked her to consider moving her classes to the center. The timing was good; the ceiling of the Dolphin Village site was near collapse, so in 1996 she joined the arts center, where she stayed until a few months ago.
Dazzio says a different style and different priorities of new leadership there made change a good idea. She became part of a wave of artists who have spaces along the 600 block of Central Avenue with low rents from the owners and incentives from the city to clean up the derelict buildings. Most of her students followed her.
Dazzio now has two studios with about 3,000 square feet at 627 Central Ave. and an equal amount next door for a gallery to show and sell her students' work (plus a few of her own paintings). She teaches three classes, one for beginners, one for general painting and her "professionals" class for advanced painters who want a more informal studio environment without specific assignments. She has four other teachers who also must subscribe to Dazzio's philosophy of rigorous technical education with tolerance for individual ability.
Holly Dodson is a pharmacist who had dabbled in painting on her own but wanted some training. She got into Dazzio's class "by mistake," she says, when Dazzio's classes were at the Morean Arts Center a few blocks west of her current studio.
"I heard it took a long time to get in but one day about four years ago I was at the arts center and accidentally got shooed into the class by a staffer trying to get people into their classes," she says. "Judi told me afterward that if you get in by accident, it was meant to be. I haven't left."
Mary Alice Harley had been a commercially successful artist for decades when she joined the Dazzio group 20 years ago, "when I was just turning 50 and wanted to study watercolor. I didn't feel like an artist until I started with Judi. She's an expert on color. She stresses composition. If she decides our hands (in a painting) are awful, she'll do classes in hands for several weeks. She can take someone who has never painted and within weeks bring that out in them."
"I assume they know nothing," Dazzio says. "I'll start them with a simple shape like a square and simple mixing of colors. They leave after the very first class with a little painting. They should feel successful from the beginning."
Dazzio mixes things up, even with advanced students. They are sometimes required to create paintings with their left hands (if they're right-handed). Some sessions are for painting with fingers only. She'll have a "Pass the Paint Can" class, an artistic version of speed dating in which the students use a paint color for about 10 minutes before they have to trade it for another.
"She's a master at what she does," says Elaine Anagnos, 67, who has been studying for 10 years. "She can look at a painting and pinpoint a little area that needs something no one else would see."
During the afternoon studio sessions, when the students set up their easels, Dazzio moves around the room dispensing more specific suggestions and encouragement. She looks at one canvas, picks up a brush and draws a large green streak through it. The student is unfazed. It happens not infrequently.
"When someone is at a standstill," Dazzio says, "I'll do something like that so they can paint their way out. It frees them up."
Privately, some students, especially the more experienced ones, will say they sometimes ignore Dazzio's advice. They're sometimes irritated by her strong opinions and frequently argue with her. She doesn't mind. And they continue coming, they say, because they enjoy the camaraderie and atmosphere of her classes.
She's not looking to uncover the Next Great Artist.
"My job is to make them the best at what they choose to be."
Chris Zuber is perhaps her most dedicated fan. Dazzio was originally his student when she came to Pinellas County, having been an oil painter and wanting to learn watercolor. The roles reversed fairly quickly and he became her student 20 years ago.
"It was a little strange at first," he says.
Zuber, 96, arrives for class with a walker and a friend to carry his supplies and portfolio. He wears an eye patch.
"I lost my right eye last week," he says, "because of some sort of stroke. I'm here because Judi inspires me. If it weren't for her, I'd probably be dead."
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.