For artists, getting in the Mainsail Art Festival is never a sure thing

For an artist, the competition begins long before the show opens.

Visitors to this year's Mainsail Art Festival will find the beloved and familiar mix at work. But specific artists? You never know.

Mainsail arrives for its 40th year Saturday and Sunday with the white artists' tents jammed into St. Petersburg's Vinoy Park, each filled with paintings, ceramics, sculptures, jewelry or photographs. Many of the artists who create the works seem to return year after year and we assume they are rewarded a coveted place on the artist list because of their longevity.

Not true, says Bridget Nickens, Mainsail's volunteer chairwoman.

"The only person guaranteed a place is the artist who won first place the previous year. And it's only for one year. Everyone must apply every year."

Inclusion one year, exclusion the next creates an interesting dynamic for popular and admired artists, especially if they're married.

"I was rejected a couple of times," says John Bayalis, a painter who lives in St. Petersburg and has been showing at Mainsail for more than 10 years.

His wife, Margaret, a painter, was accepted.

"We've both been in that position and it's bad," he says. "It's terrible being rejected."

Some rejections even shock Mainsail's longtime volunteers.

"We'll get the list from the selection committee and say, 'Oh my God, that artist didn't get in' when they have been longtime exhibitors," says Nickens (wife of Tim Nickens, editor of editorials for the Tampa Bay Times). "But new jurors see different things."

David Connelly, director of public relations at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, has rotated on and off the selection committee for about 10 years. Five or six members do prejudging in January, weeding through about 1,000 applicants for about 250 spots.

"We look at examples of each artist's work and photos of their installation booths and we give each a score," he says. "Nobody shares views or expresses opinions and there is no undue influence. It takes about five hours."

John and Margaret Bayalis both have spots at Mainsail this year and it's one of their favorite shows. She works in oil paint and is known for her figurative paintings. He works primarily in watercolor with what he describes as a hyper-realist style.

"There's a lot of competition and, frankly, I've always been a little on edge trying to raise the bar and challenge myself," she says.

Lee and Sharon Jones don't have the worry or pain of seeing one rejected and the other accepted by Mainsail because they work together in their New Port Richey studio.

"We don't always get in," Sharon says, "but we always apply."

Their medium is sculpture and they use copper sheeting and tubing for works inspired by nature, the most recognizable ones representing tangles of mangroves, used as table bases and dock gates. Lee's father, Loyd, started the business, and the couple followed. Much of their work is commissioned, Sharon says, from mailboxes to huge sculptures costing more than $20,000, but for Mainsail they bring a variety of smaller items that begin at $65 as well as tables that sell for up to $6,500.

Many on the Mainsail committee, all volunteers, have worked, like Nickens, for more than 10 years. Some have volunteered for almost 30.

"It's indicative of how much the people who work on this like each other," she says.

Over the years, Mainsail has grown both in size and added amenities and programs. The artists this year will compete for $64,000 in prize money, including the $10,000 Best of Mainsail and, in honor of the 40th anniversary, a this-year-only award for $4,000.

For all its success and stability, Nickens and the committee understand the importance of looking to adapt to changing times.

"There's more competition from more arts festivals," she says, and selling art online "is a whole different kind of competition."

However, if there's one thing John Bayalis appreciates about Mainsail's approach, it's the consistency, even if it includes a chance for rejection.

"Their committee has been very stable over the years," he says, "so you get to know the system."

Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.