At the end of his life, Evander Preston wanted to finish his "men.”
This was after the era of the gourmet cooking and extravagant dinner parties that could stretch over days. It was after the limousine and the painting and beer brewing and bourbon giveaways to the homeless.
It was after decades of the jewelry that made his name well-known to residents of Pass-a-Grille and tourists who pressed their nose to the windows of his gallery on Eighth Avenue.
Some saw his bracelets and thought for years about coming back with enough money to buy one, until they did. Others ordered custom pieces from afar, from all over the world actually, said his wife of the past 20 years, Susan Cameron. His customers were said to include Jimmy Buffett, Lauren Bacall and Carl Reiner.
Many others knew Mr. Preston only by sight. He stood 6-foot-3 with a massive gray beard. He took daily 10-mile walks, which became 10-mile bike rides once the knees gave out. Some mistook him for a vagrant when they saw him rummaging for discarded junk.
Mr. Preston died Sept. 14 at 84 after what his family said was a long illness. At the end, what Cameron called his “men” were his main project. The sculptures were kooky humanoid forms with bodies formed of old rakes and fence posts, African masks and clocks, bicycle seats and tarnished French horns.
He’d lined them up in a private room above the gallery where they stood at attention before the grand, antique pipe organ like a poor man’s army of terracotta warriors guarding the tomb of a Chinese emperor for eternity.
He wanted exactly 50 of his men, and when he was sick he’d lamented to Cameron that he might not get there.
Evander Preston Jr. grew up in St. Petersburg with Juilliard-trained parents who served as minister of music at Pasadena Community Church and the church’s organist. After graduating from Admiral Farragut Academy in 1952, he left to attend college but struggled to get by after blowing most of his money on pinball.
After scrounging leftover shrimp tails and working at an adding machine company in New York City, he returned to St. Petersburg and went into business with his father at Preston Music Co. For decades, it was one of the city’s largest businesses selling and repairing musical instruments.
In the ’60s he was clean-shaven and wore a suit and tie — “total GQ” as one old friend described it.
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“We always joked and said his change of attire was due to him wearing those suits through the years of bell bottoms and tunics,” said Tommy Angarano, a musician who performs as Tommy Tempest.
“He always treated us like adults and would help us out by loaning us gear for large gigs and would give us special financing on gear and instruments we purchased, even though his dad hated it,” Angarano said. “We were around 16 or 17 years old. ... How many people can you think of that would trust teenagers with thousands of dollars worth of gear?"
Eventually Mr. Preston burned out on the music business and the suits. By the late 1970s, he’d divorced and remarried for the second of four times, grown the long beard and moved into a shop upstairs from Preston Music Co. where he wore jeans and sold his own custom-designed jewelry — he’d started out making it as a hobby after taking a class.
He didn’t have a sign on the door, but enjoyed a steady stream of customers struck by the artistry of his hammered-gold designs, heavy and bold when the cost of gold was skyrocketing and the trend was toward delicate jewelry.
A 1980 Tampa Tribune story noted he’d sold one men’s ring for $35,000. "It doesn’t seem right to be doing something you enjoy so much and still make so much money,” he said.
He began hosting legendary dinners. A society column noted his eccentric invitations for one barbecue. They were printed on shellacked cow chips collected from a barnyard and delivered in Neiman-Marcus bags by a denim-clad courier in a Jeep.
He moved the Evander Preston Gallery to its current location, an old building near the beach where he could combine both passions. Out front was a showcase of his jewelry and business was good. In back was a kitchen and dining area to rival a four-star restaurant where he added a tandoor oven from India and a three-station wok stove. He wrote a freelance cooking column for the then-St. Petersburg Times.
He had a flair for showmanship.
“Preston’s well-heeled clients, by appointment, are picked up in a white, chauffeur-driven stretch limousine and are served gourmet meals prepared by Preston and his chef Edward St. Clair,” read another Tribune article from 1990.
“His jewelry was beautiful, but he was really the draw," said Mr. Preston’s daughter, Heather Lipps. “People loved to meet him. ... He liked the nice things money could buy, the fun you could have, but believe it or not the last thing he cared about was money. It was always more about having a good time and having a vision. He gave away so much jewelry over the years.”
He made functional items out of gold, including a model train and mousetrap that remain in his gallery, gardening tools, a bubble blower and a diamond-studded fish hook that sold for $50,000.
Tom Moran, who befriended the jeweler as a doorman at the Don CeSar resort, would find Mr. Preston rummaging through the garbage on trash day, salvaging and "reinventing decay into decadence.”
“I remember specifically him finding an old guitar amplifier, fixing it and giving it to a neighborhood kid who was learning guitar.”
He started painting wild abstracts that vibrated with energetic color and often reflected his love of music, splashed with onomatopoeia like “bloop de bleep” and “zoot bop be.” He collaborated on Evander Beer, saying “I’ve spent a lot of time drinking beer. I deserve to have my name on a bottle.”
He tried to create a club for local eccentrics and had a neon sign reading “Eccentric Club” mounted over a doorway. Then he realized most eccentrics don’t want to be in a club.
He made a Christmas tradition of driving to Williams Park in a silver Bentley where he handed out hundreds of bottles of Kentucky bourbon and premium cigars to the homeless. This upset some people so much that the city tried to make it illegal.
In Pass-a-Grille he rode his bicycle with the skull on the handlebars, always wearing a ragged denim shirt and Carhartt jeans with expensive shoes, all splattered with paint.
He could come off like an old grump. Some people got little more than a grunt. Others would get long, gregarious stories.
“He loved people, but his rides were his time for thinking and coming up with ideas and if you interrupted that, sure," Cameron said. “He never knew what day or even what year it was as long as I knew him, but he’d put something on the stove and go off for a ride and he’d show up just at the exact right time to stir it. So he was on a schedule when you saw him.”
Days after his death, Mr. Preston’s gallery burst with his life. Nearly every space, even the ceilings, were covered with his paintings, framed articles, proclamations, photos of Mr. Preston with Wolf Man Jack and James Rosenquist and every sort of bit and bauble. There’s a neon-sign of Mr. Preston’s face.
And there’s tons of the art he collected by artists he admired, inspired and befriended.
“He encouraged and promoted so many people. Gave them something and they gave him something,” Cameron said. People like sculptor Fraser Smith, she said, who was just one of the people who’d been helping build the army of “men.”
And there were the people he met on the streets. Tate McGhee would see Mr. Preston around the neighborhood. Once, Mr. Preston walked up and reminded him, “Be happy and have fun today.”
“In many ways, Evander was the father figure to all the drifters, searchers and pirates looking to find their own happiness in travelling from wherever they had come from and arriving in Pass-a-Grille to find it,” McGhee said.
In the end, Mr. Preston finished a couple dozen of his humanoid sculptures. But his wife still believes he completed the project.
His army of men includes the sculptures, but also the real friends he collected. Anyone he inspired or who inspired him. And if you count them all, she said, he had way more than 50.
Born: March 22, 1935
Died: September 14, 2019
Survived by: His wife, Susan Cameron; his daughter, Heather Lipps and her husband Jack Lipps; and his grandchildren, Evander Lipps and Autumn Lipps, and an ex-wife, Judy Preston.