ST. PETE BEACH
Inside the yellow-and-white house, Maria Saraceno and nine friends weave needle and thread through a 70-pound, pearl-covered tablecloth.
The work began over a decade ago. Today, they are sewing some of the 45 names that will grace the tablecloth's edge. The names represent everyone who has worked to complete the one-of-a-kind piece of decorative art.
Several times a month, the women, who call themselves pearls in honor of the project, get together and sew for two or three hours. They don't knock or ring the bell; they walk in and make themselves at home.
Each pearl takes a seat at the long dining room table. They pour cafe latte and share stories and laughs.
A few of the pearls, whose ages range from 14 to 88, have been around since Saraceno, 64, began the project in 2004. The others joined after catching word of it. For all of them, the "Tablecloth Project" is more than a piece of eye candy. It is a symbol of community that they hope will generate enough money to further the educations of two impoverished youths.
"(Our goal is) to fund one or more college scholarships for a disadvantaged young person," Saraceno said. "I feel that education is the door to coming out of poverty or ignorance, so what better gift to give someone than a college education."
To fund those college scholarships, the women said they will need to raise about $52,500, the cost of a four-year Florida Prepaid scholarship for two high school juniors.
The pearls have a few ways they could raise the money.
They've already applied for a grant from a New York-based foundation. The application is sponsored by Florida CraftArt, a nonprofit organization at 501 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg that advances artists and their work.
"Maria came to us with their needs, and she thought we'd be a perfect match," said Diane Shelly, executive director of Florida CraftArt. "We saw what they had, and we realized she was right."
Florida CraftArt is also considering using the tablecloth as inspiration for an exhibition workshop similar to its 2011-2012 community project, which spawned a life-size crochet coral reef.
"That kind of project brings people together and gets them talking; it gives them a sense of purpose," Shelly said.
One way or another, the pearls are determined to accomplish their goal.
Saraceno discovered the world of art activism while working on her master's in fine arts, which she received in 2005, at the University of South Florida Tampa.
Louis Marcus, a professor of art at USF Tampa who was on Saraceno's thesis committee, said her plans for the potential grant money is a testament to her love of community.
"The expected use of grant money is for the artist to put it back into their art," Marcus said.
For her thesis project, Saraceno wanted to bring her love of community into focus.
So with a gas grill, a table and a couple of chairs, she set up shop on the corner of the Pass-a-Grille Circle K parking lot. From noon to 4 p.m. every Sunday, she cooked pasta for anyone who wanted it, including Circle K employees. She called the project "Spontaneous Civility."
Projects like that, Marcus said, were what made Saraceno stand out from her peers.
"Maria's work has always been very compelling," Marcus said. "She makes beautiful objects, but it's more about the process of the work she makes … Her work was unique with respect to what other students were doing."
"I'm originally from Italy, and in any of those European countries there's a lot of life in the streets; there's a lot of people connecting in the streets," Saraceno said.
The idea was to bring her Italian roots to the streets of Pass-a-Grille and liven up a lifeless spot.
The Circle K lot is "a very sterile commercial space — very unpleasant — no place to hang out, no shade," Saraceno said.
She continued the effort for four months, and visitors would use doilies as comment cards. One, Saraceno said, was an artist who suggested Saraceno use art for her community unification project.
"He helped me see that I needed to add something to (Spontaneous Civility) because (it) was just an action — it was performance art," she said.
Saraceno wanted the next step of her journey into art activism to carry the spirit of Spontaneous Civility and her Italian roots, while blending food and art. That was when the plan for the tablecloth was conceived.
"A tablecloth is such an icon of time spent being together," Saraceno said. "And then I thought pearls would be great because being together and sharing is such an important occasion, and we wear pearls during important occasions."
The pearls' dining room-inspired masterpiece is a celebration of homemade craft.
"It kind of harkens back to an older time when people created tablecloths … with sort of a modern twist," Shelly said.
The tablecloth's mission won't end with the scholarships. Saraceno wants it to reach others through galleries and museums and spark similar humanitarian projects.
"We want this tablecloth to travel," she said, "and to maybe inspire or start a dialogue for other communities to come together and work together on projects."
Mark Wolfenbarger is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Contact him at (727) 488-4552.