Tampa artist Nneka Jones was awarded Best of Show at the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts March 5 for her mixed media piece Modern Renaissance. The award comes with a $15,000 prize funded by Raymond James Financial. The piece combines Jones’ skills as a painter and an embroidery artist.
Modern Renaissance was purchased by Tom James, chairman emeritus of Raymond James Financial and co-founder with his wife, Mary, of St. Petersburg’s The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.
The festival was juried by Janet Echelman, the artist whose Bending Arc twine sculpture floats above the St. Pete Pier.
In Modern Renaissance, Jones reimagines paintings of saints and religious figures of the Renaissance era, focusing on the features of Black females that weren’t celebrated at that time. People are often amazed to find out her work is embroidery because of its intricate detail.
Jones, 24, hails from Trinidad and Tobago and graduated from the University of Tampa in 2020. She first exhibited at the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts as an emerging artist in 2019. She won the award for emerging artists that year. The following year, as an exhibiting artist, she placed third.
Last year, when the event went virtual, she placed second. Her winning piece was purchased by the Tampa Museum of Art for its permanent collection and is on display there in the exhibition “Verde: Poetics of Shade.”
“It was kind of like me working my way up,” she said of her win this year. “It just feels like the biggest reward that I’ve ever had basically, because it’s been years of putting in the work starting from being a student.”
Back in 2018, Jones was hesitant to apply for the festival’s emerging artists program. It was her first public show, and she felt intimidated.
“It just goes to show that there’s opportunity for you to succeed by just trying and putting yourself out there and taking that risk,” she said.
Jones’ star has been rising since then. In 2020, her embroidered American flag was the cover image on Time magazine’s special edition titled The New American Revolution. It was curated by musician Pharrell Williams. She was later commissioned by The Washington Post to make a piece of Vice President Kamala Harris.
The award money will help Jones continue to be a full-time artist and to create works on a larger scale. She credits her “GFA family” for supporting her by coming to other events. Jones currently has two pieces on display in “Interwoven” at Mize Gallery in St. Petersburg. Find more information about her on her website, artyouhungry.com.
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In addition to the $15,000 best in show award, $72,000 was awarded during the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts. The following artists won top awards.
Board of Directors Award ($9,000): Helen Gotlib, Dexter, Mich., printmaking
Mayor’s Award ($5,000): Pam Fox, Sarasota, jewelry
Roddy Brownlee Reed Award of Artistic Excellence ($4,000): Athlone Clarke, Douglasville, Ga., mixed media
President’s Award ($3,000): Daphne Covington, Smyrna, Ga., painting
Lightning Foundation Award ($2,000): Alex Lanier, Tallahassee, digital
Eileen Hirsch Memorial Emerging Artist Award ($1,500): Amy Ilic-Volpe, St. Petersburg, mixed media