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Two Pinellas residents vie for Pepsi grant to build art center in Safety Harbor

SAFETY HARBOR — This was once a sleepy little town until artists Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda moved in 25 years ago and turned their ho-hum home, which they named "Whimzey," into a mind-blowing fantasia of vivid colors, mosaic pathways and mythical lawn art.

Some even refer to it as the "Bowling Ball House," so named for the hundreds of painted bowling balls adorning the yard.

The home has been featured on Oprah and Home and Garden Television, and in several books, including Weird Florida. Tourists and others frequently seek out the local landmark.

Now the town is poised to become even more groovy.

The 50-year-old artists, who've been inseparable since high school, want to create a bohemian-style center to serve as a hub for music lessons and art classes, performances by musicians and poets, and visual art displays.

The Safety Harbor Art and Music Center, as it will likely be called, is planned for Second Street N just off Main Street.

"It will serve both adults and children since we've seen the amount of time allocated to art and music in the school system decline over recent years," said Kiaralinda, who goes by just her first name.

To help them launch the venture, the two are competing for a $50,000 grant from the Pepsi Refresh Project, a philanthropic program that has been funding "refreshing" ideas to benefit communities since early 2010.

The application for the center has been accepted into competition for the month of January. Now, the artists need a little help from their friends.

To help them win one of the 10 $50,000 level grants awarded monthly, they are asking supporters to visit refresheverything.com and vote for their project daily throughout January. Just hit the Arts and Culture button, select the $50,000 grant category, and arrow down to "near you" in the Vote For box.

The artists began their appeal for public support and votes last month by creating a float for the Safety Harbor Christmas parade, handing out postcards and campaigning at the city's Third Friday Music Series event.

Ramquist is optimistic they will snag a grant.

"We have a ton of public support already," he said.

He's so positive about the center's future, he's laying out plans with architect Grant Genova of Fresh Fruit and Architecture, a firm operating out of Fort Lauderdale and Montreal, Canada, which uses indigenous materials and industrial artifacts in building designs.

"(The art center) will have a whimsical feel like our house and be made with lots of recycled materials like gears and exposed vertical beams," Ramquist said. "It will be one big open gallery with walls that move and a stage for plays and musical performances."

Each month, the Pepsi Refresh Project accepts 1,000 ideas for social good and doles out $1.3 million in 32 grants: two at the $250,000 level and 10 each of the $50,000, $25,000 and $5,000 levels.

So why not go for the quarter-mil?

"It's too competitive," Ramquist said. "We'd be up against national nonprofits. The $50,000 grant is more for individuals."

The Pepsi website says the company is "looking for projects that are beneficial, achievable, constructive, and 'shovel-ready' (meaning it can be finished within 12 months of funding)."

The couple wants to build the center at 706 Second St. N., where they own a 1,200-square-foot rental bungalow. They purchased it in 2000 with the idea of creating the center, but they haven't had the time or money to make it happen. It would be renovated in such a way that it could be expanded, if future needs dictate.

This is not the first time the artists, known for their capricious sculptures and garden art, have entered a national contest.

In 2009, they hung thousands of peace flags in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich., as they vied for money and recognition in a competition called ArtPrize. They didn't win, but to their surprise were voted among the most controversial.

Some may remember the pair for their over-the-top installations that have drawn holiday light-gazers from miles around and served as fundraisers for charities.

Perhaps the most memorable was when, in 1999, the couple wrapped their entire house with silver Mylar and tinfoil and created a spaceship on the front lawn to welcome in the millennium. The installation nabbed them a year's worth of free power bills in a national holiday decorating contest sponsored by Sears.

If the art center doesn't make the top 10 in the $50,000 grant category this month, but is among the top 100 runner-ups, it automatically advances to the February competition and another chance to win 50 grand.

"Even if we don't get the grant, we're going to create an art and music center," Ramquist said. "We travel all over the country and we have a really rich list of musician friends and visual artists that will come here."

Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at treeves@tampabay.rr.com.

fast facts

Want to vote?

Information and details on the Pepsi Refresh Project can be found at refresheverything.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/refresheverything or on Twitter, @Pepsi or #pepsirefresh.

Two Pinellas residents vie for Pepsi grant to build art center in Safety Harbor 01/01/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 1, 2011 1:38pm]
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