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New Creative Pinellas exhibit is a moving tribute to lives lost during the pandemic

“The Things They Left Behind” explores grief and loss.
Guests view "The Things They Left Behind" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo. The exhibit continues through June 26.
Guests view "The Things They Left Behind" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo. The exhibit continues through June 26. [ PRISCILLA WYATT | Courtesy of Creative Pinellas ]
Published May 26

LARGO — The Jazz DaddyOs moved through the Gallery at Creative Pinellas, playing a number that recalled a New Orleans jazz funeral.

The Jazz DaddyOs perform at the opening reception of "The Things They Left Behind" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas.
The Jazz DaddyOs perform at the opening reception of "The Things They Left Behind" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas. [ PRISCILLA WYATT | Courtesy of Creative Pinellas ]

It was a moving tribute for the opening reception of an emotional show. “The Things They Left Behind: Grief, Discovery, and Remembrance” is a community-curated exhibition to memorialize people who have died in the past two years — both from COVID-19 and other causes. It features crafts, writings, photographs, a video and other memorabilia.

Creative Pinellas CEO Barbara St. Clair said that while not every object in the exhibition is an artwork, the presentation and experience of it as a whole makes it a work of art.

At the heart of the exhibition is the art of beloved artist and arts administrator Suzanne Ruley, who died of COVID-19 in January 2021. Her husband, Matthew, discovered a trove of her artwork, some of which was stored face-down on a storage cabinet.

Matthew Ruley with one of his wife Suzanne's paintings in "The Things They Left Behind" exhibition at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo.
Matthew Ruley with one of his wife Suzanne's paintings in "The Things They Left Behind" exhibition at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo. [ PRISCILLA WYATT | Courtesy of Creative Pinellas ]

Suzanne Ruley was the director of development for the Pinellas Community Foundation. Duggan Coley, the foundation’s CEO, brought the idea of showing her artworks to Creative Pinellas. Since it had recently exhibited the COVID-19 Ribbon Memorial and saw the emotional impact of showing 55,000 names of people who died, St. Clair had the idea to invite the community to also commemorate their loved ones.

“It’s a complicated thing to try to explain, but once people feel it emotionally, you know, they really get it,” she said. “It also offers another way to miss somebody. ... Grief is so private, but we have things in our world to make it part of your community, only we’ve lost so much of that. So it’s spiritual, too, and emotional.”

Creative Pinellas curator Beth Gelman selected some of Suzanne Ruley’s works and dedicated a gallery to them. They include self-portraits with stream-of-consciousness words on them, another work of a chair and a window.

Matthew Ruley said that Suzanne didn’t make a big deal about her artwork. She was also an actor and singer, having performed in local theater and with her husband.

That the exhibition came together to include the community tracks with Suzanne’s passion for serving others, her husband said.

“I often wonder what she would think about this,” he said. “She was so much into serving others that part of her would have been a little embarrassed by the attention.”

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The exhibition offers a meditation room and a legacy wall where guests can memorialize loved ones who have died. Empath Health was at the opening reception to offer resources and will lead an online grief support forum June 16 via Facebook Live at facebook.com/creativepinellas.

Guests view "The Things They Left Behind" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo. The exhibition is on display through June 26.
Guests view "The Things They Left Behind" at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas in Largo. The exhibition is on display through June 26. [ PRISCILLA WYATT | Courtesy of Creative Pinellas ]

“This really is a nice way of putting it all together, putting it out for the public and saying, ‘Yeah, we did lose a lot of things with the virus,’ ” Ruley said. “But we still have this. And that’s nice. We have this tangible part.”

If you go

“The Things They Left Behind: Grief, Discovery, and Remembrance” is on view through June 26. Free. Noon-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. 12211 Walsingham Road, Largo. 727-582-2172. creativepinellas.org.

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