Artists & Writers Group: Harbingers Of Creativity, Incubators Of Talent

On a simmering mid-summer day at Tre Amici in Ybor City, David Audet and T. Hampton Dohrman are busily preparing for this weekend's Deep Carnivale: A Celebration of Words.

The fourth annual Ybor City event, commencing on Friday, Sept. 10, features the talents of Tampa Bay area authors and poets, children's workshops and readings. Among the lineup: Tampa's first official Poet Laureate James Tokley Sr., poet Silvia Curbelo ("Ambush,'' "The Geography of Leaving,'' "The Secret History of Water'') and beloved children's author Eric Carle ("The Very Hungry Caterpillar,'' "The Grouchy Ladybug,'' "The Very Quiet Cricket'').

But halfway through a discussion about DC's fabulous upcoming festivities, Audet is already looking far ahead, eagerly turning the conversation to focus on his next big revival project: the new and improved Cuban Sandwich Show.

"It'll be a big monster -- a whole month in June (2011)," Audet says with enthusiasm.

He's in the process of nabbing local venues to host the event -- places like Grown Man Brand Studios, La France, The Bricks, the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and Hillsborough Community College, where Audet is the special projects manager and artistic director.

Audet refers to it as an unpretentious celebration of all things Tampa: art, food, poetry, literature, film, dance and music.

It's his kind of unbridled prolific creative energy that has revived and reorganized the Artists & Writers Group, one of the greatest incubators of artistic and literary talent in the Tampa Bay region.

The organization, like its members, has undergone a maturation since its beginnings in the the late 1970s. The brainchild of photographer Bud Lee and his wife Peggy, people like Audet, Paul Wilborn, Jeff Dunlap, Beverly Coe, Bebe Williams, Mary D. Scourtes and Charley Greacen originally started the group as an attempt to offer a unique bonding experience for creative, free-spirited writers and artists.

Lee drew inspiration from the provocative artist and models parties of Paris to create legendary Artists & Writers balls in Ybor City, injecting a wealth of creativity and debauchery into the traditional Cigar City in the process.

Idiosyncratic party themes ranged from "Little Calhoun's Hawaiian Circus for the Poor" to "Daughters of Bizarro" to "Bad Taste In Outer Space" to "Cowboys and Indians In Love."

Giant art installations lined the walls of the Cuban Club. Makeshift lighting rigs towered over a sea of sweaty, intoxicated patrons dressed in ridiculous costumes. Belly dancers performed in the restrooms. Strippers graced the stage. Jazz orchestras, new wave, bluegrass and cheap polka bands filled every level of the four-story venue. It was a veritable vaudeville show.

"Bud didn't care if you were talented, just whether you wanted to do something," Audet says.

It was an attitude that permeated their friendship from the beginning.

Synergy Grows From Relationships

The two met in 1977 when Audet, then a St. Petersburg resident, braved the Howard Frankland to earn his bachelor's in fine arts from the University of South Florida in Tampa. Lee was the judge of a USF photo contest that Audet won, and the two struck up a conversation about a film project Audet had in mind.

"I mentioned I was taking Cinematography 1," Audet recalls, "and Bud said 'Oh! Tomorrow you're coming out to Plant City and we're gonna shoot a movie!' I didn't even really know how to hold a camera yet."

It was the birth of a dynamic relationship that played out nicely through the years and enabled the Artists & Writers Ball to grow exponentially. Lee came up with the ideas. Audet made them happen.

"They had no budget to do these things," Dohrman says. "They just made s--- up and it became huge."

Construction projects for the balls began two weeks in advance. That's how long it took to build a giant flying saucer 18 feet in diameter hovering over the stage and DIY decorations like spray-painted newspaper flowers made out of The Tampa Tribune. Salvaged materials and paint donated from Buddy Arnold's art store helped make these self-funded events a reality.

"[Buddy] carried us for five years, and after "Bad Taste In Outer Space," we were finally able to give him a nice big check," Audet remembers.

Upon making their first bit of money following "Bad Taste," the group decided to start a quarterly magazine called Tabloid. Its content reflected the eclectic individuals of the group: profiles on local artists, short stories, poems, photography, etc. The pursuit of perfection and correcting typos resulted in typesetter bills that would run anywhere from $3,000 to $4,000. The magazine went bankrupt after seven issues.

Soon the unexpected magic of the parties tapered off and the group knew when to quit.

"That's when we decided,'' Audet says, "if we're not gonna do the ball, what can we do?"

So, they shifted their focus to others like The Festival of the Moving Image, an event that then HCC Ybor campus President Lois Gaston invited Audet to help create in 2003. Then came Deep Carnivale, following the Artists & Writers reorganization as a nonprofit in late 2006, and the newest event, Homemade Music Symposium.

Each has a unique purpose and style, but the common thread is clear -- celebrating what Tampa Bay artists and writers have to offer.

Homemade Music & More

Homemade has developed into more of a workshop-oriented event than a music festival to meet the needs of the local music community, says Dohrman, who first joined the Artists & Writers Group in 2006. One of those needs is the explanation of standard industry practices that budding musicians might not even consider.

"It's an awesome networking opportunity for musicians to find out who the people are that can produce music, how they can do it inexpensively and how they can make a press kit that won't get thrown away," says Leilani Polk, Music Editor of Creative Loafing Tampa. "If you send me a burned CD with marker written on it, I'm sorry -- I'm not going to listen to it."

Polk has participated for the past two years in "Meet the Press: Music Critics and Bloggers Sound Off," Homemade's panel of Tampa Bay media experts. This year, she participated in a one-hour roundtable discussion with Ryan Bauer of The Tampa Tribune, Julie Garisto of TBT, Bryan Childs of the blog Ninebullets and Jason Green from Wednesday-Music.

The two-day event is loaded with workshops with titles like "Friendbase to Fanbase: Making the Most of Social Media" and "DIY Recording," which are aimed at educating those involved in the Tampa music scene as well as lovers of music.

Earlier this year, National Public Radio's Bob Boilen appeared via teleconference from the Bonaroo Music & Arts Festival to help provide a broader perspective. Last year, the event featured veteran record promoter Tony Michaelides, known for working with U2 and David Bowie.

Putting events of this scale together, with a staff of two and a handful of dedicated volunteers, has its nightmarish qualities, says Dohrman.

"We kind of did things backwards," he jokes. "We worked really hard on creating an authentic event that's beneficial to the community without a plan of how to pay for it."

Despite limited funding, Dohrman says that the amount of creative return the organization gets off such small dollar amounts is pretty incredible.

Such is the spirit of the Artists & Writers Group and its founding father Bud Lee, who now resides in a Plant City nursing home after a stroke in 2003 paralyzed the left side of his body. The revitalization of the organization is more than a tribute to his tireless creativity and impact on the community he once called home. It's a tribute to his friendship.

"He inspired me to be who I am," Audet explains.

"He loves Ybor City. I love Ybor City."

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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