DUNEDIN — It's often said that artists are a misunderstood bunch, and St. Petersburg artist Sarah Gail Hutcherson is no exception.
In her case, it was words, not works, that caused confusion.
During an art exhibition called "Contain It!" two weeks ago at the Dunedin Fine Art Center, visitors — even some fellow artists — helped themselves to 54 of her exhibited paintings after reading the following note she posted at her art installation:
"This series of vintage patterns, on raw wood, can be clustered or piece by piece hung alone, allowing creative movement for the individual to experiment with. This is an essential part of Sarah Gail's vision. As pieces are taken away from the clusters, it changes how the installation looks and allows the exhibit to continually evolve. One can take a piece or twenty and create their own creative cluster, which is why Sarah Gail feels purpose is greater than profit."
The question is, what does the word "take" mean?
A heartbroken Hutcherson said the verbiage is part of her biography, which she has posted many times before at other exhibitions, and she's never had a problem.
"It was a message for art buyers to let them know they could buy as few or as many as they wanted," she said. "This was just an exhibition; nothing was for sale. No work should have been touched."
For those who did touch — and take — she'd like the paintings returned as soon as possible to the Dunedin Fine Art Center.
"These were two years in the making and part of a traveling exhibition that was going to Brooklyn this summer," said Hutcherson, 32. "I am attached to every one of these pieces."
At the fourth annual "Contain It!" event, 10 artists built multimedia installations inside the boxy portable storage units called PODS. Hutcherson blanketed the walls of her unit with more than 200 pieces of her work, some painted on exotic woods like zebrawood and mahogany.
Johnny Hunt, 24, a Tallahassee artist who created an installation on the economic crisis and how it affected the housing market, said she noticed people leaving Hutcherson's unit with pieces of art.
"There was a big crowd around her container," she said. When Hunt and a friend went to investigate, she said two women inside the container with lots of art in tow told her the artist had invited people to take her work. They directed her to the artist's statement.
"I read the part about taking the art and that she didn't care about profit, so we took a few pieces," Hunt said.
When the art center's special events director, Kaya Jill, found out what was happening, she closed the unit and asked Hunt and others to return the pieces.
"I was embarrassed," Hunt said. "I felt kind of like an idiot for being sucked into peer pressure."
At her own exhibit, Hunt was handing out tiny plush homes to symbolize people having to give away their own homes.
The practice of giving away freebies is not uncommon at the "Contain It!" event, said Ken Hannon, associate executive director at the art center. That could have contributed to the mixup.
To help Hutcherson, the Dunedin Fine Art Center is offering a free one-year membership, valued at $45, to all who bring back the items. No questions asked.
"We know that no one intended to steal the paintings," said Hannon. "People interpreted the artist's statement to mean she was giving them away."