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Raymond James Gasparilla Festival of the Arts Saturday in Tampa

By LENNIE BENNETT

Times Art Critic

TAMPA — Sunny and mild. That's the weather forecast for the Raymond James Gasparilla Festival of the Arts Saturday and Sunday.

Any of the 300 or so artists in the show will tell you that sales can never be forecast from year to year. This year, it is less clear than ever.

"Sales are down, no doubt about it," says Scott Coulter, a painter who has been on the art festival circuit for 18 years. "Mine are down at least 50 percent."

Then again.

"I did a show in New Smyrna Beach last weekend," says jeweler Chris Carlson. "I did really well."

Both artists work in that narrow junction where finely crafted work and commercial appeal meet. Both say the show circuit supports their work.

Coulter, 55, creates landscapes that from a distance look like photographs with painted foregrounds. Carlson, 57, was an earth science major who has transformed her love of rocks into jewelry with both an organic solidity and lovely delicacy. Each artist has been accepted into Gasparilla many times.

It's one of the best shows in the Southeast and has one of the highest awards purses — $75,000 total — in the country. More than 1,000 artists usually vie for one of the 300 spaces. Even so, Mac McCoy, an attorney and the volunteer chairman of the event, says the group had to extend the deadline several weeks because applications lagged this year, a sign that artists are picking and choosing shows more carefully.

"When each application fee is $35 to $40, nonrefundable," says Coulter, "you think harder about them."

In the past, he has been in 20 festivals annually. He says he's cutting back this year, mostly on those farthest from his Sarasota base, because he thinks sales won't support the expense. Gasparilla, for example, charges $275 for booth space (lower than many of its caliber, McCoy says) and artists not within commuting distance must pay for lodging and food.

"I can't explain why I'm still doing well," says Carlson, who lives in DeLand. "People really don't need anything we have. Art does feed the soul, but people have to feed their kids first. But I can only work with optimism."

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lennie@sptimes.com.

. Shopping tips

Talk to the artists. That's why they're there, and you'll learn how their art is made. If you can't commit to a purchase or want time to think, get the artist's card and make contact later.

Got more? If you like an artist's style but don't love what you see, ask if he or she has more examples on a Web site.

Insider tip. If you're interested in prints or photographs, find out how many of a particular image have been made. The number is usually in the lower left corner, looking like a fraction. The bottom number is the total of that edition, the top one is the number of that print. The lower the total number, the better its value. (But don't buy art as an investment. That's for experts only.)

Surf the bins. They have unframed works and larger print editions that are usually less expensive than those on display.

Be nice. Whatever your opinion (and you're entitled to it), remember artists have both ears and feelings. Most of them are trying to make a living, just like you.

. What you'll see

Gasparilla includes 13 categories of arts and fine craft: ceramics, digital art, drawing, fiber, glass, jewelry, mixed media, painting, photography, prints, sculpture, watercolor and wood. Jewelry is especially well-represented this year, event chairman Mac McCoy says. Some examples include:

Above: Scott Coulter's acrylic painting Huron Shore can fool the eye with its illusion of photographic realism.

At right: Chris Carlson crafted this necklace from a piece of fossilized coral and hand-cut turquoise beads.

Facing page: Crafts are often popular because they're considered useful but many of the finest works, such as this basket by Sally J. Bright, are intended as sculptures.

. If you go

The Raymond James Gasparilla Festival of the Arts is along Franklin Street and Gaslight Square Park in downtown Tampa, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Hands-on children's activities, entertainment and food vendors both days. Free admission. No pets, alcohol, skateboards, skates or bicycles. (813) 876-1747; gasparilla-arts.com.

Raymond James Gasparilla Festival of the Arts Saturday in Tampa 03/04/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 4, 2009 3:30am]

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