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Still COOL after all these years

In 1988, a small group of artists united to create an event to be held during the summer months, traditionally the off-season for the arts in Florida.

To the relief of art lovers, however, they decided upon a July show held in air-conditioned comfort. Under the direction of Bill and Linda Renc, Jack Breit, Dennis Gaston and Lisa Glaser, among others from the Professional Association of Visual Artists, the show came together.

Now in its 14th year, the COOL Art Festival is a summer staple in the Tampa Bay area. It has expanded from 25 participating artists to 50, moving from Eckerd College's conference rooms to the Campus Activity Center at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus.

Most of the organizers have stayed with the show year after year, pretty much for the same reasons that patrons keep returning.

"We have quite a few new artists this year who have never shown before, which will add a breath of fresh air to the show," said prominent local watercolorist Bill Renc, known mostly for his Florida themes.

Gaston, known for his abstract portraits, calls the show "a chance to look at new artwork, meet new patrons, and see old friends." James Michaels, whose mixed media paintings always stir plenty of conversation, says, "I'm just looking forward to a fun weekend and seeing people I don't see too often."

The three, plus Breit, the photographer-turned-digital artist who recently curated the digital art show at the Arts Center, and his wife, Lisa Glaser, a clay artist who created a beach-ball-based snowman for the Times last Christmas, recently talked about that first festival and how their art has changed over the years:

Q: What's your best memory from the first COOL Art Festival?

Renc: For the first show, most of our advertising was done through a 4-foot-tall sandwich sign donated by Lance Rodgers and placed at the college's main entrance. At the end of the first day we discovered that heavy storms had blown the sign into one lane of the road. The police had not discovered it, and traffic was backed up for miles. The sign had our name all over it, so we could not hide the fact that it was ours.

Gaston: The sense of anticipation with starting something new, and feeling a great sense of camaraderie among the artists.

Michaels: Some of the guys would bring their clubs and have a minigolf game going on, while people walked around and looked at art.

Breit: The companionship of fellow artists.

Glaser: Getting together with fellow artists and friends in order to form our own art show.

Q: How has your art changed since the first COOL Art Festival?

Renc: I have moved from hand-colored etchings to original one-of-a-kind watercolor paintings denoting whimsical Florida landscapes.

Gaston: I am taking more chances with my art, as I branch out to acrylic works on canvas. As far as my imagery, I am still pursing creating expressive and figurative works.

Michaels: I do various themes and techniques in my paintings. I have gone back and forth over the years, and my style varies from abstract expressionism to photo-realism and everything in between.

Breit: I do more work on canvas with an emphasis on mixing new techno-media with the traditional art mediums.

Glaser: After receiving an (Artist Resource Fund) grant from the Pinellas County Arts Council, I was able to purchase a slab roller, which has dramatically influenced my creativity in clay.

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