Tuesday, March 20, 2018

'Yes man' the creative force behind [email protected], entering 10th year


Bob Devin Jones sat in a row of empty chairs at the [email protected], exposed rafters looming over him like a cirrus cloud. He considered the props left from a performance art piece the night before: a beta fish floating in a bowl, a woman's hat, a book.

It was past noon, and in a matter of hours, the studio had to transform for a roundtable discussion about women in the arts. And Jones still had to get home and make enough salmon to feed the 30 guests.

He sprang up and produced a sheet of paper.

"Here's a little diagram," he told a volunteer. "The table's here and we're going to put these lanterns above it. These chairs can stay. The tablecloths are in here."

It was a familiar day at the [email protected], where almost no project is turned down. If people don't have money at the door, they are never turned away. Guests typically leave full of food and wine.

Yes, Jones is a yes man. The term has negative connotations as someone who tries too hard to please, but for Jones, it's not about pleasing. It's about opportunity. It's about an entry point.

A decade later, it's about seeing what happens when someone gives you a chance.

• • •

St. Petersburg's foremost revolving door for artists and thinkers turns 10 years old this week.

The [email protected] is a nonprofit enterprise. Only two staffers take a salary, and it remains self-sufficient on the back of government grants, ticket sales, donations, volunteers and the nearly 500 paying members amassed over the past decade.

They have come to see anyone from Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko to John Hope Franklin to Ralph Nader. Shakespeare plays. Paintings by the Florida Highwaymen. Open mic nights. Poetry slams. Gospel brunches. The studio even provided a birthplace for Freefall Theatre, now a professional company with its own venue.

"The [email protected] is truly so different than anything else we have in the city," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, a friend of Jones'. "Bob's venue kind of has everything. He's been able to do everything from the spoken word to dance to art. He's been able to showcase so many different types of culture. There was nothing like that before him."

Jones is loath to take credit for any kind of local artistic renaissance, but he has relished watching community projects bloom in Tampa Bay, from the Roosevelt 2.0 in Tampa to Artpool Gallery in St. Petersburg to local paintings for sale on coffee shop and salon walls all over.

Artists jump at the chance to work with the studio, partly because they know they stand a chance.

"It has changed greatly how I perceive things," said Coralette Damme, who does everything from marketing and booking to writing news releases and grants. Damme, the studio's other paid staff member besides Jones, recently displayed her own artwork at the studio.

"I know a lot of places aren't open to beginners," she said. "Quality of work grows with experience. But who is going to give you that first show? And who is going to give you that first show without a huge financial investment?"

Ten years ago, the studio was a seedling in the minds of Jones and co-founder Dave Ellis.

They met as neighbors in the Old Southeast. Jones was an actor, director and playwright from Los Angeles. Ellis was an exhibition designer who opened Great Explorations, the Hands-On Museum and had consulted for the Smithsonian Institution.

Ellis hosted evenings on his lawn called On the Rocks, during which people discussed passions ranging from art restoration to dog training to healing properties of light. He envisioned that kind of energy in a dedicated space. And he was troubled by St. Petersburg's race riots and thought the city lacked a place where people could have real discourse.

"What we were saying was, this is something the city needs to heal," said Ellis, 75. "We want to create a place where that's possible."

Jones, too, dreamed of a flexible art space akin to what he saw in big cities, like the 92nd Street Y in New York. One night at dinner, he leaned in and told his idea to Dar Webb, a St. Petersburg arts patron and former executive director of the Palladium Theater.

"He kept describing the idea to me, and I couldn't understand it," Webb said. "It was sort of a theater, sort of a community gathering place, sort of this, sort of that."

The men didn't have an elevator speech — just big ideas and faithful friends. Jones' partner, Jim Howell, pitched the studio as an investment for the community, offering shares at $10,000 apiece. People signed on. Webb and her husband Clint Page bought two shares and helped the founders secure a loan for an old blueprint company's space at 620 First Ave. S.

"It was completely derelict when we got here," Jones said. "The ceiling was partially coming down. ... There was no floor on the second level at all, just joists and tons of guano."

The Dundu Dole Urban African Ballet danced at a groundbreaking ceremony in June 2004. For the following six months, the owners worked furiously to get the place ready for First Night St. Petersburg on New Year's Eve. They painted until a half-hour before the doors opened. They were worried people wouldn't come.

The first night, 250 people showed up.

"It made such brilliant sense when I saw it," Webb said. "It's just not the kind of thing you can describe."

• • •

Jones has always believed in saying "yes." It took others some convincing.

"I had a little bit of a hard time understanding it," said Ellis, who retired in 2008. "Coming from a design background where you have to defend your ideas, there was this thinking of 'Gosh, you can't just throw the door open and say, 'Yes, we'll do anything.' Once I really understood what Bob was after, it made perfect sense. I think that particular move has been one of the biggest successes and basically is Bob's baby."

Why does Jones cling so passionately to this idea?

"The force behind my power is Ola Mae Jones," he said.

Jones' mother died almost three years ago, but he considers her in everything he does, from the plays he directs to the roles he accepts to the untested artists he lets cut their teeth at the studio.

His parents knew how to make their way out of nothing, he said. Jones' father worked many jobs, from a barber to a security guard at a cloistered nunnery, until he opened his medical transport business after Jones was a grown adult. His mother was a domestic worker, always working multiple jobs at once to make ends meet.

She almost never stopped working. Jones' youngest brother was born on a Friday, he said. His mother worked a half day, had the baby and was back to work on Monday.

One Christmas, she summoned the kids to the driveway with the car horn. She was exhausted from work and needed help walking a few steps to the door. But there were dozens of presents under the tree that year.

And Ola Mae saw things in her son — things he didn't even see in himself. She cherished his extroversion, welcomed his friends and loved greeting him with a big "Ooh, Bobby!" She could also see the other side: When she flipped through his sketches in college, there was a pervasive sadness to the art no one else could detect.

"You know," Jones said, "it's difficult to be in the world. Mom made it more than tolerable."

She knew him. She saw him. And perhaps saying "yes" is simply giving someone a chance to be seen.

• • •

Before making salmon for 30, Jones found time to slip away for lunch.

He ruminated on the future of the [email protected] He'll likely step down one day, but only after he has found a successor who believes in the vision and can handle the workload. He's turning 60 this year and would like to turn to other things, maybe a bookstore or a cookie business. The studio eats up his days, but he's not ready to let go yet.

He was barely able to order spring rolls before his phone rang.

"Those lanterns are in the kitchen," he said. "I'm trying to light a huge rectangular table where we'll have the roundtable at tonight. ... So we're going to have a … a little further back. Right. ... I'll be there in about an hour, hour and a half. I'll be there by two."

And he was barely into his chicken sandwich before a young man stepped to the table. He wanted to do a project at the studio.

"When do you get off?" Jones asked him, and the young man said "3 p.m."

"Call me when you get off," Jones said. "Can you do that?"

Yes, the young man nodded, smiling, striding away.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes on Twitter.

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