My 2023 Emerging Artist Grant Experience

Creative Pinellas
Emerging Artists Exhibition 2023

Through July 16
Gallery at Creative Pinellas
Details here

Opening night for the 2023 Emerging Artists Exhibition at Creative Pinellas was a unique, and most likely, a once in a lifetime experience for me.

For a few minutes, it was overwhelming. I waited outside the gallery, drinking beer and watching my one-year old daughter walk around, examining the nature around the gardens – but more importantly, the stairs that led up into the auditorium (her highlight of the evening).

Visual artwork by Amy Wolf (sculpture in foreground) and Kate Cummins (paintings in background)

But in order to help all of this make sense, I want to take you back to the night I won the grant.

I went through a rollercoaster of emotions when I was selected as one of the winners for the 2023 Emerging Artist Grant. The first was an overwhelming sense of appreciation and happiness. After spending well over a decade and a half writing and getting published here and there, it felt like I was turning a corner. The award gave me a feeling of professionality and legitimacy that I hadn’t experienced. It felt like I was actually moving toward being a successful writer and not just doing the work.

Then I learned about the stipulations for the grant. I knew getting into it there would be something I needed to do for the grant money. Of course there are expectations. That was never in doubt. I learned about the blogs we need to post and how we get in contact with a mentor regularly.

Sculpture by Dennis DeBon – photo by ©Sandrasonik

What I didn’t expect – or what I should have considered beforehand – was that I would also be making art for the Gallery at Creative Pinellas. This is something I had no experience with.

As a writer, I had to ask myself, “What can I do that would be visually engaging and interesting enough to stop people and make them want to read?”

After all, some people run away when there is any reading involved. I know multiple people who brag that they haven’t read a book since high school (which is alarming in its own right, but still true).

For weeks, I spent time mulling over what I should do. I asked what other writers had done in the past – and apparently, most had printed out poems or short fiction, framed them, and stuck them on the walls.

While I wasn’t against this (and I would put some poems directly up on the wall in this fashion) I wanted to diversify what was hanging up there. I was going to be vying for attention with everything from great paintings to glass sculptures, to huge scrolls that went down the entire wall of the exhibit. A few words on the walls weren’t going to draw anyone in.

I considered what could possibly be done to improve my visibility, but idea after idea was scrapped – and as opening day approached, I felt a looming sense of dread. I believed I was going to look like someone who didn’t try or even deserve the grant. I thought about how other artists would have been a better selection, and how I was just an imposter.

My idea actually came to me one night while my wife and I were at dinner. We had a babysitter, and we were out on a date night (which is a rarity for us). The bar we stopped at had a QR code for their beer list, and as I scanned it, I noticed that everyone at the bar knew how to do this, even some of the older patrons. After all, this was a relic of the Covid Pandemic and something that everyone had learned how to use.

Visual artwork by Marie Cummings

The whole concept sort of crashed on me. What if I had something physical that could be representative of a poem or short story with a QR code on the object. Then, I could record myself reading the piece, and the person could just engage with my writing in an entirely new way.

For example, I have a short story, “Dugout,” about two baseball players in the minor leagues. The piece really focuses on purpose and identity. But, what I could do is get a baseball bat, repaint it, and put a QR code that leads to the story. For shorter poems, I could just record myself reading them.

The idea felt novel and fun. Something that would at the very least draw the attention of the people walking by. People might be interested enough to scan a QR code placed onto an object.

Troy Bernardo’s installation at the Creative Pinellas Gallery – photo by ©Sandrasonik

I knew right away, this was a time consuming idea. Not only would I need to find objects that fit my poems – which was already a weird task ­– I would also need to record and upload them to my website using software and hardware I had never used before.

After months of perusing thrift stores and finding objects that worked, I had repainted and retooled them all to fit together. I bought more cans of spray paint, more random objects on Amazon, and more bizarre paintings from thrift stores than I ever thought I would.

A few months of hard work and a few dozen anxiety attacks later, I was done. I had about 12 pieces that could be hung on the walls.

Image courtesy of the artist

The night of the opening, when I got some courage to actually go inside and look around, I was impressed with everyone’s art. I had seen glimpses of the other artists’ works and it was even more fun to see them in person.

When I got to my section – with all my pans and liquor bottles and fake rotting oranges, I sat back and watched with my wife. I saw people filing past, most trying the QR code (later, my website would say my daily visits had increased by over 2,500%) and I heard people say things I had never anticipated.

I was worried the QR codes and objects would be considered corny or the fact that I was reading the poems would come off wrong. But the people were saying things like, “carefully coordinated,” and that I had used, “color wheels.” Comments, once again, I had never anticipated getting, but was happy about.

A few days before, Creative Pinellas had asked if I would do a short reading of a poem and I happily said I would, not knowing how many people would be at the event or what I was going to read. I dug out an old poem I had written a year or two back. It was one that I never found a home for, but I always liked called, “Hot Afternoon Rain.”

Image courtesy of the artist

“Hot Afternoon Rain”

The afternoon rains
came at noon,
the same as every other
Florida day.

I sat at my window
looking out
and thought about what to write
but that never works.
So, I just listened to the
angry patter of the water
falling from the large oak tree
in my front yard
onto the tin roof.

The street cats scrambled,
and the neighbors
brought in their kids’ dripping bikes
from the front yard
to the garage.
The children ignored their parents,
splashing in the puddles
And chasing the small rivers
flowing along the road.

A man turned the corner,
and walked down our street.
The children stared,
but he didn’t notice.
He drank a beer
in the hot rain.
His face was deflated
and his clothes were stained.
I saw parents glare at the man
but he didn’t give a damn,
he was too wet to care.
I thought
how nice it must be
to be the man
getting drunk
in the afternoon sun,
not caring about any of it,
being baptized
in swamp water.
. . .

After reading it, I made my way back through the crowd. People shook my hand and someone patted me on the shoulder. I tried not to let on, but it turns out there were easily triple the number of people I had anticipated in the crowd that night.

I have done readings in the past for various organizations, and different crowd sizes. From bars to college classes and everything in between. But I have never had such an attentive and large crowd, and it was daunting and exciting to experience.

Someone came up and said that one of my poems made her cry.

Someone asked how I make tension in stories.

Someone scoffed at the QR codes.

I guess if there’s one thing I took away from the entire evening, it’s that I can make things other than stories. For so long I put myself in this creative box. I told myself that I have to be a fiction writer, or a nonfiction writer, or a poet, or a short story writer, or a novelist, but definitely not all these things and definitely nothing else. I can’t paint. Hell, I’m colorblind! How can I make something people want to stop and stare at?

But now, in those moments where I want to put some poems and stories up on the wall, at least I know I can do it with a little more style, and the way I like it.

Writer Troy Bernardo and his family – image courtesy of the artist

As the night wound down, I gave out my contact information to a few writers. I watched my daughter climb the stairs a few more times, and I introduced Greg, my mentor, to my parents.

I went home and drank a beer, and it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I looked forward to what was next, although I didn’t know what that was.

In a funny way, it feels nice to focus on just the writing again.


The 2023 Emerging Artists Exhibition
is on view through July 15
at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas
Wednesday-Sunday from noon–5 pm
12211 Walsingham Rd,
Largo FL 33778

Sculpture in foreground by Agueda Zabisky – photo by ©Sandrasonik


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