As America prepared to celebrate its bicentennial more than three decades ago, plans were developing for an art festival on St. Petersburg's waterfront.
Over the years, the event evolved into a nationally acclaimed fine arts show now known as the Mainsail Arts Festival. This year's festival — the 35th — will take place Saturday and Sunday, bringing thousands of visitors to Vinoy Park to buy art, enjoy entertainment and savor cuisine from crab arepas to sweet potato butterfly fries.
The troubled economy has not dampened interest in Mainsail, said Lisa Wells, chairwoman of the volunteer committee that organizes the annual festival.
"There are more artists coming from all over. They are so enthusiastic,'' she said. "No one is canceling. In addition, we have many artists e-mailing and wanting to know how they can get in.''
Only 250 artists get to participate, though. A panel of jurors made its selection from close to 1,000 hopefuls from around the country. Mainsail artists will vie for more than $50,000 in prize money. The Best of Mainsail winner will get a $10,000 prize and this year there will also be a 35th anniversary prize of $3,500. Among the other prizes will be 10 awards of excellence, 17 awards of distinction and 20 awards of merit.
Michael Milkovich, director emeritus of the Museum of Fine Arts, will be this year's judge.
"We were so thrilled when he said yes. He's always been a wonderful friend to Mainsail,'' Wells said.
The festival will feature art in the following categories: ceramics, fibers, glass, jewelry, metal, mixed media, oil/acrylic, photography, sculpture, watercolor and wood.
Besides adult artists, top work by Pinellas County public and private school students will be displayed in the Young at Art exhibition. Bob Devin Jones, co-founder and artistic director of Studio@620 in downtown St. Petersburg, will judge the work. He'll select awards of excellence for schools showing the most outstanding body of work and make other awards.
There will also be free activities for children with volunteers from the Junior League of St. Petersburg.
Each year, a new Mainsail Arts Festival poster is produced. This year's was created by award-winning St. Petersburg artist Duncan McClellan. The work will be offered for sale as a traditional poster and also as a signed piece or framed. It has been reproduced on T-shirts and tank tops, which also will be for sale.
Wells, who has been chair of the festival's volunteer committee for more than two decades, says her passion for the arts keeps her involved year after year.
"Art is something that can be shared by all generations and it brings people together and I enjoy doing that,'' she said.
Two other committee members, Gretchen Tenbrock and Cathy Hakes, have worked on the festival since it began in 1976 as an endeavor of the city's Bicentennial Committee, the recreation department and the St. Petersburg Arts Commission.
Wells said that more than 100,000 people are expected at Vinoy Park this weekend.
"Maybe once they're there, they'll just see something they just have to have,'' she said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.