Scoring some art in the park

"Drugs are back this year," one of my neighbors wryly informed me last Friday evening. No, she hadn't sampled a fresh batch of GHB; she's a mature woman who doesn't do that sort of thing. Instead, she had just returned from the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival in Central Park, where she had noted a hallucinogenic slant to many of the 270-plus exhibits of works by artists and craftspeople from across the country.

Her comment took me by surprise: I normally associate the spring's biggest juried show and sale with nonthreatening landscapes and oil immortalizations of pet dogs, not chemically stimulated attempts at mind expansion. But a quick trip into the fray validated her judgment. Though the 41st annual event was typically awash in safe fare that left my wallet unmolested -- hanging a painting of a bookcase next to the real thing is no way to open up a studio apartment -- there were still plenty of off-kilter offerings that hinted at altered states of awareness. Florida Southern College's Jimmy Hubbard, for example, contributed a series of mixed-media pieces that were festooned with fuzzy photographic portraits of shrieking, tortured men and women. A bad trip indeed, albeit a terrific illustration of how drivers licenses must look in the Great Beyond.

The only hole in my amateur narc's theory? Many of the more challenging items were proffered by veterans of the festival, not new participants still giddy on their first fumes of airplane glue. A constant mob surrounded the booth retained by Marc Sijan of Milwaukee, Wis., whose clay body-cast sculptures were as eerily lifelike as ever. His resin-finished recreations of live models have become the festival's unofficial figureheads, if you'll pardon the pun.

"I thought that was a real person," one patron shuddered, joining in a refrain that was heard more often at Sijan's booth than at a convention of public-relations executives.

Time for a hit

Weirdness enjoyed its biggest triumph in Saturday afternoon's awards ceremony. The coveted Best of Show prize (a $10,000 dividend) went to Theodore T. Gall, an Ojai, Calif., sculptor and festival stalwart of 26 years' standing. Gall's articulated pieces were hinged affairs in which the heads of lizards, pigs and jesters could be swung open to reveal tiny humanoids dancing about inside.

"This is called Gallery of No Evil," Gall told a young fan as he unclasped one construction, instantly recruiting a juvenile pledge to the ranks of the odd.

In her address to the crowd, event judge Sandra Blain earned a different honor: the George Dubya Bush Tangled Syntax Award. The Knoxville, Tenn., art professor did her best to laud the assembled multitude for its support, but only managed the confused declaration, "You're what make it all about." You can say that again.

Always the most important element of the festival (it's the first section erected and the last torn down), the food court was right in line with the spirit of inventiveness. The time-tested burgers and chicken were augmented with the culinary experiment "Sea in a Sack," a pita sandwich stuffed with shrimp, scallops, grouper and crabmeat. Throw in the DVD of "Waterworld" and you're on, cap'n.

Copping a spot

The park was a hubbub of activity throughout the weekend, with spectators hauling lawn chairs and beach blankets onto the north lawn to check out the rotating cast of entertainers. At the nearby WLOQ-FM (103.1) booth, honey-voiced on-air personality Robyn Austin told me that record attendance had been registered for Friday's headlining appearance by sax man Dave Koz. The turnout was similarly strong for Saturday's tag-team recital by guitarist Marc Antoine and keyboardist Roger Smith, turning the cramped area in front of the temporary Southwest Airlines Stage into a veritable Smoothstock. But no one got naked and set the portable toilets on fire.

Elsewhere on the grounds, a number of familiar faces were spotted. Precious drummer Matt Bloodwell sang the praises of some "funky glass" he had seen, and local filmmaker Pat Fatica waded through the throng, resplendent in the sunglasses he's barely doffed since his short, "Five Miles From Heaven," had its debut at last November's Brouhaha Film & Video Showcase. While planning a soon-to-come encore of the Barbie Opera she staged a few weeks ago at Stardust Video & Coffee, gonzo visionary Janean Williams cooed over an exhibitor's paintings of (what else?) toy dolls.

While we schmoozed, we all tried in vain to avoid the elbows and shuffling feet of the less watchful folks around us. That's the only drawback to a popular gathering like the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival: People show up for it. And most of them are obviously unaware of the simple law of physics that prevents them from occupying a space in which you yourself are already standing. I thought it was the art that was supposed to step on toes, not the art lovers.

Maybe I should let it go. They're probably all on drugs, anyway.

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