ST. PETERSBURG — Putting a face to a name. The Mainsail Arts Festival does it every year. • And every year, it's an ageless face, a new makeup job by a new artist. • We're talking about the posters, one for each of Mainsail's 33 years, those commemorative cash cows that people purchase along with, maybe instead of, original art to remember a fun day in the sun. • "We're a nonprofit," says Lisa Wells, who for 20 years has been the volunteer chairwoman for the art event, which is Saturday and Sunday in Vinoy Park. "The posters have always been an important source of money for our operating costs and to supplement donations for the artists' cash prizes." Sales can generate as much as $20,000, a significant chunk of the organization's $100,000 budget, with half of that going to artists prizes. • And, though not originals, the posters always begin that way, created by artists chosen from the pool exhibiting each year at the outdoor show. It's a coup for any artist commissioned to create the annual face of Mainsail. • "I was honored," says Jane Slivka, the Mount Dora painter who created a genre scene of Mainsail itself for the 2008 poster.
Choosing an artist
Jane Link has been the volunteer in charge of Mainsail promotions since 1989 and is the point person for the poster. She and Wells troll the booths, looking for a style they think will complement the event. And, most important, will sell.
Link and Wells pass on their nominations to a larger committee that makes the final decision.
"Marketability is the most important thing," Link says, "what will reproduce well and attract attention."
The common denominators through the years have been vivid colors and images representing a slice of local life.
"We have had a lot of flamingos," Link says. "And boats. Boats sell really well as long as they're the kind people use here."
Link discusses ideas with the artist and gets preliminary sketches in August, "sometimes near-finished work," she says. She might make suggestions or ask that it be tweaked.
"They're always so easy to work with and willing to please," she says.
By November, Link has the art in hand, ready to go to the printer.
The chosen artist gets an automatic return invitation to Mainsail and a free booth. Neither is a small thing since only 250 artists are selected each year from 1,000 applicants, and exhibition fees are $250. And the artist keeps the original artwork. The only stipulation is that it must be exhibited at Mainsail, in the artist's booth, even if it has already been sold.
"Sometimes they have been sold before the show," Wells said. "If not, the artist almost always sells it at Mainsail."
The idea of commissioning an artist was born of necessity. For more than 20 years, the St. Petersburg Times, as part of its sponsorship of Mainsail, assigned one of its artists to create a promotional poster each year. The paper collage from 1992 Mainsail was the work of former Times staffer Kathy Taylor Zimmerman, who has her own graphic design business.
"I loved doing it," Zimmerman says. "It was one of those fun things we got to do as part of our work."
Always someone new
Things changed after 1996.
"The Times told us they couldn't produce the posters any more and would provide other ways of sponsoring us," Wells says.
"So we had to scramble," Link says, "and find a poster artist. Some of the artists said no in the beginning."
Robert Schott, a St. Petersburg landscape artist and muralist, was not among them. He has the distinction of being the first commissioned Mainsail artist, in 1997.
"It made sense to ask me," says Schott, "since I painted large Florida wading birds and at that time a flamingo was a requirement for the poster since that was their logo. I recognized the value of the exposure, much more than anything they could have paid me."
Link says that was one of the few editions that sold out.
And now, she says, "Artists approach us, offering to do the poster."
"I was thrilled," says Russell Yerkes, a North Carolina painter who exhibited at Mainsail for the first time in 1996 and was asked to do the poster for 2007. He chose a dual-frame composition of swarming mackerel-like fish beneath the water's surface, which is loaded with magenta flamingos.
"I never did a poster before. I had a lot of people come by my booth to talk to me about it."
Yerkes' originals start at $300 for a small painting. Large ones begin at $4,000. Mainsail posters are $20 unsigned, $25 signed and $75 for a framed and signed copy. Editions are never more than 1,000.
Artists are not asked twice to design a poster. And though many reapply to Mainsail as exhibitors, they are not guaranteed a spot after their Featured Artist year.
"Some of them call me and ask if there's anything I can do," Link says. "There really isn't. Those choices are made by a special selection committee."
So far, Mainsail has never had a black and white photograph grace the poster ("Maybe if Clyde Butcher agreed . . .," says Link) or a three-dimensional work such as a sculpture ("I just don't think it would have the same impact when it's reproduced," she says), but she remains open to anything as long as it promotes the spirit of the event.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.