Bob Devin Jones’ Legacy at The Studio@620

Bob Devin Jones’ legacy includes supporting Black artists and a mission of “YES!”

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The Studio@620’s founder and artistic director Bob Devin Jones has built a legacy of embracing a village of diverse artists, community members and organizations since the performance-space-art-gallery-community-meeting-theater opened two decades ago in downtown St. Pete.

The Studio has been a home to a broad cross-section of community – and has offered an affordable option for independent arts producers, creatives, educators and businesses looking to invite their audiences to the ideally-located, versatile space.

photo by Jake-ann Jones

“When you pass through the doors of The Studio, look to be entertained, educated and challenged by art, heritage, history, song, literature, theater, moving pictures, and moving bodies through space,” Jones noted in 2019 when interviewed on receiving IMA’s Legacy Week Award.

Jones took a fan’s comment that 620 had become a place where “the answer is always yes,” as his programming motif. “We took that as our motto, and then we took it as our philosophy – not only as our motto, but as our mission. The answer is always ‘yes.’ I don’t want to miss a thing.”

Jones announced his retirement as producing artistic director earlier in the year. The transfer of reigns to his successor Erica Sutherlin, a dynamic and visionary artist, entrepreneur and arts administrator in her own right, officially starts June 30.

As he prepared for the opening of the production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet he directed just weeks ago, the veteran artistic force was thoughtful about preparing for the next phase of his life.

“It’s a time for reflection. I think there’s a definite time, just like any harvest – it’s a natural transition,” he acknowledged. “I’ve learned to listen,” he said, adding he will continue to write columns and is working on a play, along with his memoirs. He commented that he is looking forward to keeping his “own council.”

Bob Devin Jones directing rehearsals for Hamlet – photo courtesy of The Studio@620

Currently operated with a skeleton team made up almost single-handedly by the wonderous studio manager Marcus Wehby, The Studio has seen everything from yoga to art classes to theater to the “Through Our Eyes” Journeys in Journalism annual student photo exhibit by students from Melrose Elementary, John Hopkins Middle and Lakewood High schools.

While it is home to a large and supportive non-BIPOC community of artists, art-lovers, donors and supporters from around the globe, the Studio is also home to the local BIPOC arts community. BIPOC audiences have steadily come to acknowledge that The Studio presents art and performance by artists that speak to their life experiences.

Bob Devin Jones and Erica Sutherlin with Mark and Sandra Russell at the 2024 Studio Honors

A playwright, poet and performer himself, over the years audiences have been blessed with Jones’ performance in his one-man show, Uncle Bends: A Home-Cooked Negro Narrative, as well as his performing in plays, hosting artist and political talks, and directing annual productions. These include the memorable 2017 production of Voodoo Macbeth – starring Sutherlin as Lady Macbeth, Sharon Scott as Hecate, and featuring Jai Hinson’s Dundu Dole Urban African Ballet.

Jones’ reputation for daring to say “yes” always included offering space to a number of veteran Black singers, performers and artists, including Scotty Wright, Sharon Scott, Fanni Green and Gary L. Lemons. The Studio has held annual Gospel Brunches that have seen elbow-room-only community attendance with performers including the legendary Ms. Scott, Leotte-Keiva Harrell, Alex Harris and Edward Leonard, among many.

Over the years, The Studio has seen Black and Brown creatives offered space under the banner of Lift Every Voice In Art visual art and dance pop-ups with artists Evan Cool and William Lunderman, Real Loud Open Mic shows sponsored by The Blunt Space, and a live-stream of Anthony Murphy’s “It’s gonna be a Great Day” jazz, soul and “Broadway fusion concert.

Film screenings have been held by Sunshine City Film Festival and DreamMakerz Productions. Other recent film presentations have included David Weathesby and Khari Bowden’s Chicago body-positive, house music documentary Thee Debauchery Ball, Sharon Preston-Folta’s Little Satchmo, and a screening of Sutherlin’s Lifetime Kirk Franklin’s A Gospel Christmas.

Jones/The Studio’s daring has also included its long-running Social Justice Round-table series – in the last few years, that series has expanded into its larger Social Justice Initiative.

Through these offerings “with an added focus on equal rights and justice for all groups regardless of race, orientation or gender,” the Studio has inserted an even wider number of BIPOC artists and presentations reflective of the whole of St. Petersburg, Florida, and the world.

These include Vincent Terrell Durham’s 61 Unused Pages is directed and produced by Patrick Arthur Jackson, the solo theater piece Never Had A Friend by Dr. Micah E. Johnson, and the recent exhibit The Florida Highwaymen: La Florida, Re-found. Jones’ own play, Further Down the Road – an ode to the Florida Highwaymen, was performed for an evening during the exhibition.

photo by Marcus Wehby

Larger group events have included Green Book of Tampa Bay’s annual shows including the “Poetic Justice Artist Showcase” and Journey to Emancipation exhibit.

The Well’s Healing While Black Summit’s “Poetic Joy” performances, and Pinellas Diaspora Arts Project’s annual Tampa Bay Afrofuturism Festival exhibitions and panels have brought local and traveling artists, presenters, panelists and educators through the doors – examining the global BIPOC community’s past, future, and present. Visual artists including Dallas Cooper Jackson and Vivia Barron have enjoyed solo art shows at the location.

In the last several years, the mission of “yes” has also offered a home for a new wave of Black creatives, from former artist-in-residence Alex Jones and projectALCHEMY, to poet Meisha Brundridge hosting open mics, to visual art shows by young artists including the now-with-the-angels Nick Davis, and Jabari Reed-Diop aka i.B.O.M.s.

photo by Margo Hammond

Other Black live arts events have included “Unplugged, A musical experience” featuring J’Nelle; Eris Eady’s poetry performance “How I Got Over;” and “An Evening with Artist Jennifer Msumba,” a music show by the heralded BIPOC autistic performer.

Jones has been open about recent health challenges, but catching a recent rehearsal of Hamlet reveals his chops and expert theatre instincts are sharp as ever. He prefers to let audiences draw their own conclusions regarding the timeliness of the play. “The connection is there, for those who have ears to listen,” he recommends dryly. He does admit to telling his actors not only to learn their lines, but to “pay attention to the headlines.”

Bob Devin Jones and the cast of Hamlet – photo courtesy of The Studio@620

As he looks forward to a new chapter, he assures us that his legacy of daring will remain intact at the Studio. Based on her body of work and community commitment, it seems likely BIPOC artists will continue to enjoy a home and a solid foundation of support and encouragement under Sutherlin’s upcoming tenure.

“Turning the reigns over to Erica Sutherlin is a joy and a delight. But the mission, however she artistically grows with the place – the mission is a ‘yes’ in the community. We haven’t wavered from that.”


Originally published in The Weekly Challenger

Bob Devin Jones and Erica Sutherlin – photo by Jake-ann Jones

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