As Sarasota started to forge an identity, something to set itself apart from Daytona, Clearwater, Naples and all the other Florida beach communities, it settled on two foolproof draws—the circus and the arts. For years that was what we were all about. These days the circus is still here, albeit in a more limited form, but the arts are flourishing as never before.
Sort of. With their enormous budgets and professional management, the performing arts are defining Sarasota’s art scene these days. But what about the individual artists? They’re the ones who put our town on the map. How are they doing? Who are they?
That’s why I’m so excited about the Sarasota Visual Artists Studios tour. A group of 10 or so visual artists—all first rate and nationally known—have banded together to give you a view of what the artistic life in Sarasota is all about. You can hang out in their studios, look at new work, schmooze a little, and maybe buy a painting or two. They’re helping the town rediscover a crucial part of its heritage.
The artists open their studios to all comers the first Saturday of the month. You can visit one or all 10, though packing 10 into one Saturday is probably not a good idea; you’ll want to spend several Saturdays doing them all. For my first foray, I chose the three I know best.
First stop was Barbara Banks. She’s the hip photographer these days, a little like if Annie Leibowitz and Richard Avedon had a rebellious daughter. The most interesting people in town have all been photographed by Barbara, along with the stars of the ballet, Chucko the Clown and families who live in subsidized housing. Her portrait of man-about-town Bob Garner in vintage Burberry is worth the trip to her studio, which is in the Rosemary District.
It’s very cool and modern, with rubber tile on the floor and modern furniture scattered amidst the lighting equipment. Barbara doesn’t live there—she has a chic little apartment on Main Street—but it’s easy to picture her napping on the work desk when she’s been pulling an all-nighter in a creative frenzy.
As I perused the work and chatted with Barbara, people would wander in and you’d meet them and start talking. That’s when I saw the other value of the open studios—you meet people.
Barbara is at the very nexus of Sarasota’s liberal, feminist, LGBTQ community. Very little happens in liberal Sarasota that doesn’t have Barbara involved in some way.
She has several photos she took in various places, particularly Florence, that she’ll sell you. But you should seriously think about booking a portrait session. For a reasonable price, you’ll have what everybody deserves at least once in their life—an absolutely sensational picture of themselves. And please, make it big—at least three feet across. As Barbara puts it, “Everything looks amazing when you go big.”
Next, I visited the grand old man of the Sarasota art scene, Jack Dowd. If you think artists have to be “arty”— that is, a little obscure or hard to understand—wait until you get a load of Jack. His sculptures are life-sized renditions of Florida rednecks and retirees, the geezers in baseball caps and old ladies with walkers who populate every corner of our state. And his mise en scene is the dive bar, the auto repair shop, the corner bus stop. It’s all done with affection, sly irreverence and a great sense of humor.
Jack’s studio is on the mini-estate he owns out in Gator Creek, just past the interstate. There, on five acres, he has a big Cracker-style home designed by Ralph Twitchell and, off to the side, a studio/guest house. Dowd sculptures dot the property; my favorites were the circus dogs with little clown hats, dancing on their hind legs here and there.
Jack had been greeting visitors earlier in the day but by the time I got there he was resting in the main house, recovering from recent surgery. His son John and wife Jill gave me a tour. We took a look at various-sized sculptures he was working on, including a version of the famous sumo wrestler that you can see in the courtyard of Sarasota City Center at 1819 Main St. Even more famous is his butler sculpture—a full-sized, aged butler standing at stooped attention, a tray in hand. A real Dowd butler (it’s sometimes been ripped off) is a prize indeed, worth many thousands of dollars. John estimates his father has done over a thousand of them. “They make people happy,” he says.
Be sure to check out the images from what may be Jack’s masterpiece: Last Call. It’s a full-sized, real-life bar with a dozen sculpted figures based on actual Sarasotans—including Jack. (He’s the biker.) It made its debut at the Ringling Museum and went on to inspire a dance for the Sarasota Ballet in which the figures come to life and begin to dance and, presumably, drink some beer.
If Jack’s studio is the most masculine place imaginable, with its sumo wrestlers, pick-up trucks and rock ’n’ roll atmosphere, wait until you move on a couple of miles from Jack’s to Dasha Reich’s, where the atmosphere is completely feminine. Now, feminine is a tricky word these days, as it can be interpreted to mean weak, unassertive, and pretty but trivial. Dasha’s work is the other kind of feminine, where the pretty transcends to beautiful and color rules everything.
Dasha’s studio is the perfect space to create art. It’s large (almost 3,000 square feet) with high ceilings, and it’s flooded with light. Since her work is famous for its bright colors, the initial effect is rather like walking into a greenhouse bursting with fantastic flowers and plants.
Dasha’s preferred material is resin, a plastic-like substance that can be painted, layered and manipulated into different shapes. The natural world inspires her; in addition to flowers, you can also see—or at least I can—underwater landscapes and what gardens might look like on Mars.
Dasha’s formative years were spent in Prague, back in the Communist era, but her artistic eye was formed when her family moved to Israel and she discovered Mediterranean light and color. Later she worked in the fashion world in New York—she designed fabrics for Liz Claiborne—and then decided to devote full time
to her art.
If you see a man lurking in Dasha’s studio, chances are that’s her husband Chuck. He’s a retired periodontist from New York who’s an artist in his own right. His photographs are mostly of his native New York City. He manipulates them with computer techniques and has been very successful. At his very first show he sold a work to Raymond James for its corporate collection. Chuck’s studio isn’t part of the tour, but maybe they’ll let you peek in.
There is only one more tour this year (on March 3) but there will be more next season. Don’t miss them. (The website is sarasotavisualartistsstudios.com.) They are a crucial part of what makes our town tick, and I guarantee you will have a great time. I can’t think of anything to improve them. Wait a minute—yes, I can. How about a portable bar cart tucked away in the corner of each studio? That way you can have a sophisticated cocktail at Barbara’s, a shot of Jack Daniel’s at Jack’s, and at Dasha’s, some ethereal flowered tea with a drop or two of Grand Marnier. It would be a perfect Sarasota Saturday afternoon.