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Downtown studio helps create possibilities

(ran Seminole, East, South editions)

Asia Yorke's voice, soft and speculative, carries like a sweetly muted bell as she spreads color across an artist's canvas. She caresses, rather than dabs the red and yellow acrylics she is using.

Yorke is blind and uses her hands to paint.

She makes quiet comments to herself as she molds and kneads. Sometimes she gropes for a piece of paper, a bead or a thin, metal hoop. She works them into the painting for texture. Sometimes she sniffs her paint-smeared fingers.

"We're not sure if she can smell the difference in the colors," said her mentor, Steve Riddle.

Yorke, 26, is one of a dozen or more people who come to Studio XP two days a week to create. Some are developmentally disabled, some sleep on the street, some are college students who like the ambience.

"It's more of a society, more of a place to hang out," Riddle said.

The studio is in the rear of The Treasure Hunt, a used goods store Dave Russell operates at 669 Central Ave.

The store also is a kind of informal gathering spot for homeless people. Russell has worked with them for several years through outreach centers.

He opened the store about a year ago in a block that has had its eastern half vacated to make way for new development.

The Treasure Hunt, Russell said, is a "comfort zone" for street people facing what some of them believe is an unfriendly official attitude as much of downtown undergoes a high-end makeover.

The informal sidewalk mission doesn't depend on grants or donations, Russell said, but on whatever proceeds the store and the studio generate, including the jewelry Steve Riddle's wife, Barbara, sells.

Russell tries to help people get a place to stay, a meal and, if necessary, into a detoxification program. He says he doesn't let drunk people loiter.

"We say, "We love you, but come back when you're sober.' "

The Riddles pay half the store rent.

They came to St. Petersburg a few months ago from Oregon, where Steve Riddle, 53, also tutored people who were on the street or in some way disabled.

"We just kind of happened on St. Petersburg. We saw homeless people. We liked it," said Riddle, himself an artist who paints in what he calls "expressionistic surrealism."

On Monday, as Asia Yorke hand-painted for an hour, Debbie Eaton, 51, and Christine Anderson, 27, used pencils to sketch. Later, Riddle put together a temporary palette for them to dip brushes and color the drawings.

Riddle said he likes to help people change their lives. "We're all Christians," he said. "For us, that's what it's about."

Their perspective is reflected in the name, Studio XP. The letters represent Chi and Rho, a sacred monogram signifying Jesus Christ.

Riddle also believes some of his proteges could earn an income from their art.

One, he says, could be a man who fought through bouts of depression. Several of his paintings are on a wall, some priced in the hundreds of dollars.

In Yorke he sees a "vocational artist" possibility, too, but cautions that it is probably too soon to tell.

"Maybe she is, maybe not," he said.

For now, Yorke and her friends enjoy the creative time.

During the week, the women will spend time with older people. They work with Meals on Wheels and visit elderly people. Recently they helped at a balloon volleyball tournament for nursing home clients.

Afterward, Gail Dobbins, who guides the women through their day, helps them doff their aprons. She makes sure stray paint is rinsed from fingers and faces.

On their way out, Barbara Riddle stops them at the store's jewelry counter. She lets them choose a free piece to take along.