ST. PETE BEACH — For a time, his lifestyle resembled the sun-bleached driftwood he uses to make his art.
Pat Powers peddled his kitschy crafts from Tampa Bay to Key West, shuttling around the state in a beat up '88 Dodge van. His studio was a home-made trailer. His creations, three-dimensional sculptures of spindly driftwood, ocean detritus and plastic, technicolor fish. He strapped the biggest ones right on the truck for effect. He parked on roadsides, sleeping in his rig, a cheap motel or the beach.
Word of an art show or a friendly restaurant was like a wind, sweeping him away to distant cities.
Now, Powers, 51, has found a home in a small storefront at 427 75th Ave. Tropical Driftwood Art, he calls it. It feels like home, even with a gentleman's club, Mermaids, next door and the adult superstore, Shhh! Don't Tell Momma, across the street.
"Living the dream," says Powers, echoing one of the hand-painted flotsam signs in the store.
Not long ago, Powers was a different kind of artist. Born and raised in Tampa, he was a subcontractor spraying concrete to form swimming pools for 27 years. It was good money, and he raised two sons.
It was around 1999 when Powers found himself in a rut. It was getting difficult to get paid. As he tells it, he went to the kitchen for a cold beer and absentmindedly came back with something else, too.
"I'm sitting there tapping on the table. I look at my hand and there's a fish magnet," he said.
He stuck the fish on a stick of wood, and it soothed his nerves. The next day, he added a little piece of plant material.
"I thought — that's it!" Powers said.
At first it was a hobby. He gave away the underwater scenes to friends. He became familiar with the gulf's flotsam and jetsam, learning to hunt for it after a good storm. He came to appreciate red cedar driftwood from Crystal River for its beauty. He learned to linger by the water, soaking up its inspirations.
In 2001, Powers began selling his art.
For a time he set up on sidewalks in Tampa. For two years, he set up outside Gator's Cafe & Saloon in Treasure Island. People liked his "maintenance-free aquariums."
In 2007, as he went through a divorce, Powers stopped doing pool work altogether and took his driftwood studio on the road.
"Key West was just a bomb, it was fantastic," Powers said. He sold a 12-foot-tall piece, a montage of a dozen hand-made copper fish screwed onto cedar, for $5,000
A bad business partnership and his family in Brandon brought him back home. Last year, he settled on the beach on Gandy Boulevard, finding it just as lovely as Key West.
But business suffered. The pieces he carries on his truck range from $20 to under $1,000, and weeks would go by without a sale.
His new location holds promise for him. Once a travel agency, it was most recently a sunglass store.
Powers says he is merely pitching a tent and has not given up on his itinerant artist.
"Love what you do," said another sign on the wall he likes to quote from, "so you can do what you love."
Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Luis Perez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2271.