On the Rise

By staff May 1, 2006

In a town filled with artists, what makes these five special? First, they're not only talented, they are committed to showing their work-you will see more of them in the future. Second, painting is back in a big way, and four of them are reinterpreting that art in bold new ways, while the fifth uses photography to engage the subject as well as the viewer.

Peppi Elona, 70, is a gifted painter with a rich understanding of color and its power to be subtle or emotive, despite spending much of her life in New Jersey, where, she says, "there's a lot of gray-it makes your heart heavy." So after raising her four children and taking care of aging relatives, she moved to sunny Sarasota in 2000, rehabbing a Siesta Key house and creating a sky-lighted studio.

Elona says she's always used figurative work to deal with the emotional side of life and abstract painting to satisfy her intellectual side, but the move to Florida brought some changes. "I'd never painted plants or flowers before I came here," she says, "but the garden is so rejuvenating, the color so rich. I'm in a more peaceful spot now."

Art, she says, "consumes my mental activity." Her recent exhibition at the Harmony Gallery of the Florida West Coast Symphony scored by using musical terms and definitions as a departure point for an exploration of composition, color, form and pattern. She's also shown at Art Center Sarasota, was recently voted into the longtime Petticoat Painters group, and is working with her longtime partner, Wendy Surkis, to get the Sarasota Museum of Art (now allied with the Ringling School of Art and Design) off the ground. A dynamo who has a hello and a hug for everyone she cares about, Elona says that young artists here give her hope for Sarasota's visual arts scene. "They're so devoted to it," she says. "If you're not idealistic when you're young, you never will be."

"I want to effect change," says 24-year-old Lauren Grant. "I want to get back to art that has meaning and makes you think." Grant, who calls herself a "visual anthropologist" who is both "driven" and "optimistic," was raised in Fort Lauderdale and graduated from New College, where she spent two years on her thesis project, DIXIE-Segregation in Sarasota. She haunted the streets of Newtown, at first just "getting to know people," then eventually taking thousands of photographs. Powerful and well-conceived, her photographs convey a familiarity with her subjects that extends beyond the documentary image. "I didn't want to come across as this white girl going into a black neighborhood," she emphasizes. "I wanted it to be about their lives and experiences." When she chose the final selections, she asked her subjects to write a caption and sign the 30-by-34-inch print, so the image would reflect their perspective, too.

For her current job as art director of SCOPE, Grant handed out cameras to people from disparate community groups-the Boys & Girls Club, the Senior Friendship Center and more-asking them to take pictures that show "what race, culture, and aging mean to them." The results will be shown next month at a still-undetermined venue.

Grant, who counts among her influences civil rights photographer Bruce Davison, discovered the camera only six years ago in a community college class, where a teacher encouraged her ability to "go into a community where I don't necessarily belong without exoticizing it."

"I never thought I'd be in Florida-never in my life," says Jeffrey Schwartz, 37. But in 1998 when an offer came to teach painting at the Ringling School of Art and Design, Schwartz, who had been teaching at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, "sensed an opportunity." Since he and his wife moved here, says Schwartz, "We've gone from having nothing but a trailer full of stuff and a cat to having a house, two kids and being involved in the community." He's traded downhill skiing and rock climbing for biking to the beach with his family and remodeling his house.

His creative process has changed, too, reflecting his new understanding that "you never know what's going to happen." While his earlier work was idea-driven, now he's more "open to surprise," he says. He still has "one foot rooted in the tradition of representational painting," but uses "observation as a point of departure," creating personal, suggestive images that transcend objective reality.

His most recent work, a series of vivid still lifes inspired by the fruit in his back yard and the vegetables he loves to cook with, glow with color and almost quiver with energy. The paintings, which were recently exhibited at Thiel College in Pennsylvania and will be shown in September at Greene Contemporary gallery, have sparked more response-and sales-than anything he's done before, says Schwartz. And though he finds Sarasota "an exciting place for art," with the right combination of casualness and sophistication, he'd like to see support for young artists who can't afford high housing and studio costs.

Dave Piurek is a modest 38-year-old who's been quietly advancing his career by painting at home each day after he's done working as a conservation technician at the Ringling Museum of Art. It's a good fit, since Piurek's work combines a contemporary artist's sensitivity with some of the methods and manners of the old masters, such as the art of gold and silver leaf he's incorporating into both his still-life paintings and a series of paintings about the Tower of Babel.

Piurek moved here with girlfriend Dana Luci in 1995 to attend the Ringling School (among his influential instructors there: Leslie Lerner, Robert Farber and Moe Mitchell), deciding that art school was for him after seeing Rene Magritte's work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He landed his job at the Ringling Museum the day he graduated.

Since Piurek grew up in Amsterdam, N.Y., a small town without an art scene, he says that in Sarasota, he's "lucky to have friends and creative people in my life, and to work at a great art museum and meet scholars." He loves working at home at night with Dana and their two cats close by, occasionally taking a break to strum one of the guitars he collects.

Piurek's work is not presently carried by galleries, but that may soon change, as he's been visited recently by some dealers in town. In the meantime, he's emerged in shows like last year's Pure/Impure event at Ovo Café, where he sold half a dozen paintings in the first hour.

At 25, painter Tim Jaeger has an easy charm and a casual elegance. He also has serious ambitions, not only for making art but for sharing it. "The most important thing is to paint, and to have people fall a little bit more in love with art is part of my goal," he says.

This native of Paducah, Ky., started making art when, as one of five small children, his mom gave him a pen and paper and said, "Draw something." Soon he was drawing at church while his father, a pastor, was preaching. Eventually he came to Ringling School, where he studied with Leslie Lerner.

Jaeger's bold, colorful paintings, which often include a figure, display his uncanny ability to react to the emotions of his subjects, capturing their real essence. And things are happening for him: He had two solo shows (selling most of the work) and three group shows last year, at Metamorphosis and ETC. This summer he'll have another solo show in Paducah, where he's represented by the Mark Palmer Gallery; he's now with mack b gallery here in Sarasota.

Recently married to Laura Baruch (they met pouring "coffee and smoking cigarettes" at Sarasota News & Books), Jaeger says his motto is, "What goes around comes around, and you only get out what you put into it." To live by this creed, Jaeger is painting as much as he can these days in his Gulf Gate studio.

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