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Artist Jean Yao shuns twigs, artificial fibers and even imported material to weave baskets solely from the flower stalks of Florida palm trees.

That self-imposed restriction, an indication of artistic integrity, was unknown to Charles Cowles when he chose Yao for the $15,000 Best of Show prize at the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, which concluded Sunday along the Tampa waterfront amid picturesque weather and the annual packed crowd of art lovers.

Yao, 45, lives in Miramar in Broward County. She immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in 1982 with her family.

"Very early I learned the basic weaving technique from my mother, but all these designs are my own idea," she explained Sunday as crowds began to surge into her booth, curious about the modest work that had taken such a coveted award.

Prices for her baskets range from $45 to $4,000, the high figure for a vertically woven "bag basket." She often combines flower stalks of palms _ coconut, royal or queen _ to give texture and interest. Each stalk has spots where the tree's flowers once blossomed. Some baskets have what appears to be a dried flower, but is actually the base attaching a coconut to a tree.

Cowles, owner of a gallery in New York's Soho district and former curator of modern art at the Seattle Art Museum, named Yao the winner Saturday. He said he was impressed by "the style, the shapes, the materials" in Yao's work. "I've never been turned on to baskets before. They were so marvelous, so sensational." He was also impressed by the way she stood at the back of her booth, letting the art speak for itself. Her biggest and most expensive baskets were also at the back, in contradiction to many artists who place major work in front to attract attention.

Cowles said he "was very pleased with the total quality of the show. This is one of the best I've ever seen." But he added, "I think there are some artists here who could develop into national artists. They need to spend less time promoting themselves and more time developing their works. (Promoting) is the job of the gallery. They are out here in their booths when they should be creating."

As if to answer those who were disappointed with Cowles' choice, he commented, "A painter is no more of a craftsman and no less of a craftsman than a basket-weaver. When you're an accomplished painter, you're awarded the title of artist. To be an artist you have to have a natural talent, and have the time to develop the natural talent. Innovation certainly is part of it, but everything has been tried somewhere. Quality is the overriding factor."

Yao, appearing at her third Gasparilla, won $1,000 merit awards in 1995 and 1996. She has also won best of show in Gainesville and Maitland, and lesser awards at Mainsail (St. Petersburg), March on Art (New Port Richey) and Art Harvest (Dunedin). She returns April 19 and 20 for Mainsail.

Other winners

Board of Directors award, $7,500: Duncan McClellan, glass

Gasparilla award, $3,500: Louise Cherwak, drawing/graphics

Anniversary award, $2,500: Ray Gross, sculpture

Friends of the Arts award, $2,000: Paul Andrews, mixed media

Awards of merit, $1,000 each: Gwen Bennett, mixed media; Jim Brown, photography; Dori DeCamillis, painting; Ellie Diez-Massaro, photography; Charles Gatewood, painting; Italo Gazzoli, mixed media; Andre Greene, wearable; Edwin Harris, watercolor; Morris Johnson, mixed media; Tom Kenney, painting; Duke Klassen, jewelry; Tom Koole, sculpture; Jim Martin, sculpture; Jerry Napoli, sculpture; Kevin O'Dwyer, jewelry; Bruce Peeso, paint; Ronnie Phillips, photo; Jude Pokorny, painting; Mary Proctor, mixed media; Suzanne Roth, watercolor; Rose Ann Samuelson, painting; Garry Seidel, photography; Brad Sells, sculpture; Les Slesnick, photography; Fraser Smith, wood; Margaret Steward, mixed media; Peter Strueben, photography; Captain Dave Tracy, mixed media; John Williams, wood; and May Yang, fiber.


1997 Gasparilla Festival of the Arts, held Saturday and Sunday in downtown Tampa on Ashley Drive and Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.