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Artist colony makes debut with festival

A month ago, some dusty windows along Cleveland Street offered nothing more to pedestrians than a glimpse of empty space.

Today, the windows are clean, the walls have fresh coats of paint, and the space in eight once-empty stores is filled with works of art and artists eager to show and sell their pieces.

The galleries and studios opened Wednesday to coincide with the start of the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, which takes place in Coachman Park today through Sunday.

Brenda Nixon, who organized what has been dubbed Clearwater's artist colony, said the studios will benefit from the annual crowd of people who flock to the festival. The studios also will provide another activity for festivalgoers _ browsing and shopping, she said.

She pitched the idea for an artist colony to the Downtown Development Board last month and board members hired her to pull it off.

"I'm overwhelmed that it has gone this well," Nixon said.

The galleries, an eclectic group, are clustered on Cleveland between Osceola and Garden avenues, which is within walking distance of Coachman.

For instance, the Backdoor Gallery, 528 Cleveland, features abstract paintings and handmade jewelry. And in the middle of the gallery sit three unique sculptures: Pink vacuum cleaners are embellished with frilly fabrics and furry skirts in various shades of pink and red.

Next door, at Sixteen Cowries, Claude Kennedy is displaying contemporary West African instruments and paintings.

"We want people to look around and then go home and say, "Gee, this is a boring house I live in,'

" said Dee Meatyard of Tampa, who has work displayed at Backdoor.

Kennedy, a Clearwater native, said he has been making African instruments for several years, selling them to stores throughout Tampa Bay. He also travels the country selling instruments at art fairs, and gives workshops in schools for the Pinellas County Arts Council. But Kennedy, also a musician, grabbed the chance to open a gallery.

"I've always had an interest in African music, and I want to spread that to other people here," he said.

People can buy a flute, kalimba or a drum made by Kennedy, and he will give them lessons on how to play.

"This is a gamble," Kennedy said. "But it beats playing the lottery."

Gamble? Yes. But the opportunity was too good to turn down, said Casilda Amuchategui, a sculptor who opened Gravida Fine Arts across the street.

"It's free rent for three months," Ms. Amuchategui said. "It's difficult to open a place and pay everything."

Most of the artists work out of their homes and show their work at art festivals and have set up temporary displays in various galleries.

Nixon's plan is intended to revive Clearwater's core downtown. The activity, she has said, should make Cleveland attractive to retailers, other business owners and potential developers who would pass through.

Under Nixon's plan, the owners of the storefronts would give the artists the space rent-free for at least three months. They would be allowed to stay longer if no one else asks to rent the space. If a retailer were to make an offer, an artist would be allowed to stay only if he or she begins paying rent.