St Petersburg’s Living Room

Two Decades of Community Gatherings
and Studio@620 Honors

. . .

“When we first started The Studio, Amber Brinkley was on our board,” said Bob Devin Jones, introducing the final speaker at The Studio Honors, the St. Petersburg cultural center’s annual awards event. “Now, two decades later, she’s back on the board as chair.”

It was, said Devin Jones, quoting Oprah, a “full circle moment.”

Studio@620 founding director Bob Devin Jones at last weekend’s Studio Honors celebrations

“This has been an extraordinary weekend for The Studio,” Brinkley told the sold-out crowd gathered at 620 1st Avenue S for dinner on February 10, the second night of a weekend-long celebration of the 20th anniversary of The Studio@620 and its awards program.

“We started yesterday afternoon with a ribbon cutting in what we called the rededication of the building – because we are honored to now own the building.”

Along the walls I spotted sepia posters dedicated to some of the amazing cultural events, hundreds of them, that have been held at The Studio in those two decades, from the very first (Grand Ma’s Hands: One Hundred Years of African-American Quilting) to one of the most memorable – Bob Devin Jones’ one-man show, Uncle Bends: a home-cooked Negro narrative in which he satirized stereotypical African American characters like Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima – all while cooking up beans that he served to the audience at the end of the play.

“This is St. Petersburg’s Living Room,” said Christopher Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, at the ribbon cutting.

“Yes, this is St. Pete’s living room,” Brinkley agreed. “That is the perfect encapsulation of how I feel every time I walk into this room.”

When The Studio was first launched in 2004, a handful of people put up money to invest in what was then a run-down warehouse, answering YES (The Studio’s favorite word) to visionary founders G. David Ellis’s and Bob Devin Jones’s dream of building a gathering place for all kinds of arts and all kinds of people.

I don’t use the word “visionary” lightly. The city was hardly the arts destination it is today. “In 2004, Bay Walk (today’s Sundial) was just four years old,” ILOVETHEBURG, an online news outlet for all things St. Petersburg, pointed out in its coverage of the re-dedication. “You could count the restaurants on Beach Drive on one hand, with a finger or two to spare. Parking on the quiet surrounding streets was abundant.”

The Studio@620 at 620 1st Avenue S in downtown St Pete – photo courtesy of Studio@620 social media

Now, says ILOVETHEBURG, “it is not an overstatement to say the Studio@620 became the beating heart of the city’s renaissance.”

Of course, that renaissance came with soaring real estate prices. The fact that most of The Studio’s original investors, instead of cashing in on those increases, were willing to donate their now highly-valued shares so that The Studio could afford to buy its own building outright (a rarity for cultural institutions) can only be described as an extraordinary act of community generosity.

But community generosity is what The Studio is all about.

Pinellas County Commissioner René Flowers was honored for her work by The Studio@620

TheStudio@620 (whose motto literally is, “The Answer Is Always YES”) gives its awards not to people for their individual achievements, although everyone who is recognized certainly has a long list of those, but to people in the arts and politics who have given back to the community.

On February 10, I was in that “living room,” a space that over the years alternatively (and often simultaneously) has been an art gallery, a theater venue, a concert hall, a movie house, a literary salon, a dance site, a forum for social justice discussions and even a yoga studio.

Yet another gorgeous reconfiguration of the versatile Studio@620 by managing director Marcus Wehby

Thanks to managing director Marcus Wehby’s genius at stage setting, that night it had been transformed into a glittering, upscale restaurant bathed in green light. A space that still managed to project the intimacy of your best friend’s living room or one of those friendly neighborhood gathering places where everyone knows your name.

We were there, of course, to honor the recipients of this year’s Studio Honors, but in a sense the two-days of partying also was a celebration of the man who has most embodied the spirit of The Studio and those awards during these last two decades – Bob Devin Jones.

Erica Sutherlin, who will lead The Studio@620 when founder Bob Devin Jones retires in June

It is a bittersweet moment for Studio aficionados. At the end of June, Bob is stepping down as artistic director and handing the reins over to Erica Sutherlin, an award-winning actress, director, poet and essayist and former director of community engagement at American Stage.

In Bob’s last act as artistic director, he will be directing Hamlet, which will be staged in the round at The Studio, starring John Bamberry as the brooding Hamlet and David Warner as the villain Claudius.

Fittingly, the first award given out at the Honors dinner was the Bob Devin Jones Award, one of the two Founders Awards bestowed on individuals who “share a love for community and foster a spirit of inclusion.”

Jim Sorensen, a 25-year theater veteran who is currently the managing artistic director of Tampa Rep, picked up that award a little earlier than the others because he was due onstage that night in Tampa for the production of Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men at the USF Theatre Center. 

“He’s also known to me as the wonderful Nick Flebber, the indomitable, idiot private eye from Radio Theater,” said Bonnie Agan, the emcee for the evening, as she welcomed Sorensen to the mic. Agan is a veteran actor herself (a video put together by Wehby showed a montage of her in various roles in films, commercials and onstage over the years) and the current driving force behind The Studio’s popular Radio Theatre Project.

Theatremaker Jim Sorenson gives a humorous and moving speech before rushing off to perform in a play

Wearing a shirt with rolled-up sleeves over khaki pants, Sorensen gave a hilarious and heart-warming acceptance speech that resembled a stand-up routine. It was the first of many that evening that would inspire and make us laugh as 13 awards — glass sculptures from St. Petersburg’s Zen Glass Studio & Gallery — were handed out. Sorensen also was the first honoree but not the last, who took time to praise the man handing out the awards, “the one, the only Bob Dev,” as Sutherlin has dubbed him.

“TheStudio@620 was literally the first place I set foot in when I first arrived in St. Petersburg in 2008,” Sorensen told us. Casting for freeFall Theatre’s The Wild Party before they had a building of their own, he arrived at the airport in Tampa, took a cab into St. Petersburg (“which was 70 bucks, I had no idea!”) and went directly to The Studio.

“Bob was so kind, so welcoming. I think it might have had something to do with the fact that I was a tall, square-jawed, good-looking white man named Jim,” he joked, nodding toward Bob’s tall, square-jawed, good-looking white husband Jim Howell, seated at a table at his left.

“When Bob first asked me if I was available on February 10,” Sorensen said, “I assumed it was to once again host the Studio Honors with my partner in crime, the amazing Bonnie Agan – to be the tall guy with the loud voice who draws your attention to all our amazing local illuminates, to introduce incredibly deserving, special and talented people who make St Pete the amazing place to live that it is.”

Unfortunately, he told Bob, he wasn’t available for that date, citing his theater gig, but much to his amazement, Bob — “in his Bob way” — quietly responded, “Well, that’s too bad. We were planning to honor you.”

“I know there are a lot of you out in the audience who have received that message from this man, past and current recipients who are here and know that, holy shit, this is something special, right?” Sorensen said. “Bob and Dave have created something special here at The Studio@620 and Marcus and Coralette (marketing director at The Studio) and countless others who have come here to say YES to the arts, YES to creativity, YES to our diverse community.

“Each year I would watch people come up here to receive this recognition and I’d say, yah, absolutely, that person is deserving… but honestly I never thought of myself as a member of that community. I’m a person who likes to be the support system, whose work allows other people to shine and to fly.”

Suddenly Sorensen’s words caught in his throat as he started to tear up at the thought that that was the whole point of this award, recognition “by the organization and by the man whose mission is all about support of this community. So thank you for letting me be part of this journey,” he concluded, before skipping dinner but leaving with dessert (red velvet cake) that was already on the table, and hustling to his performance.

Barbara St. Clair, who recently retired as Creative Pinellas CEO

The second Founders award, named in honor of G. David Ellis, who died in 2018, was given to Barbara St. Clair for her tireless work for the past eight years at literally putting Creative Pinellas on the map. Appropriately, Ellis’s wife Astrid was seated at a table directly in front of St. Clair as she gave her acceptance speech.

A life-size portrait of G. David Ellis by Neverne Covington was on display, the internationally-known exhibition designer who created St. Pete’s Great Explorations the Hands On! Museum and co-founded of The Studio@620. Ellis passed away in 2018.

Reviewing her accomplishments as director of Creative Pinellas (under her 8-year leadership the organization’s budget went from $150,000 to a whopping $1.7 million today), she praised the Studio’s founders for their tireless work in supporting the arts.

And what’s next for her now that she has retired? “People have said that Bob always says Yes – but what they don’t say is when Bob tells you what to do, you do it,” she joked “…so what Bob has told me that I am doing is that I am going to pursue creative writing as a poet and playwright. And when Bob says it, it becomes real.”

Another honoree who had a theater gig that night was Roxanne Fay, who received The Studio’s Artists Legacy Award (an award which previous had been given to the late photographers Tom Kramer and Herb Snitzer, actor Bob Heitman and Director of Theatre at Eckerd Richard Rice, among other notables).

Fay sent her thanks via video from the stage of Jobsite Theatre where she was appearing as the jester Feste in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. She, too, was first introduced to The Studio thanks to freeFall. “The first time I ever saw The Studio@620 I walked in to audition for a young man named Eric Davis and his theatre company freeFall and the very first production of The Wild Party which took place historically at 620.”

Mural painter Jason Harvin was given the Ola Mae Jones Award for Emerging Artists, named in memory of Bob Devin Jones’s mother – an award which, as Bob pointed out, doesn’t always have to go to a young artist. He, of course, also had a Bob story.

“What I’ve learned about Bob is that he really does care about people’s stories. And not just the stories, but the details of the stories, the nuances,” Harvin began.

Portrait of Bob Devin Jones by Neverne Covington

“I do not come from this art world. I spent 13 years as an installer and project manager for Oracle and along the way art found me and took over my life. I now get to get up every single day and do what I love  I don’t have to answer to anybody but myself…

“Along the way, for Bob to have heard my story and to want me to have this award is something I could never have expected. In my corporate career, I managed millions of dollars in accounts and tons of projects and never once felt the way I felt when Bob called me and said he was going to give me this award.

“For anyone who is struggling with finding who they are, if you find something that you love, put absolutely everything into it,” Harvin concluded. “Do not care what anyone else has to say. Put your head down and work hard and people will recognize it. And you don’t have to go search for it – it will come to you when it’s right and when it’s meant to.”

Bay News 9 reporter Virginia Johnson

General Honor Awards also were given out to arts and entertainment reporter Virginia Johnson (“I’ve bothered so many people who are here tonight, put a camera in their face. I think that Bob is infectious because a lot of people here just say yes all the time”); County Commissioner René Flowers (who dressed in beautiful African regalia); and civil rights activist Mozell Davis (“I think I am the most senior member in the room with memories of this city that others don’t have”).

Community activist Mozell Davis received a standing ovation at The Studio@620

Three “power couples,” as Bonnie Agan called them, also received recognition – Dalí Museum director Hank Hine and his wife Laura, who chairs the Pinellas County School Board; Palladium Theater director, author and musician Paul Wilborn and his wife Eugenie Bondurant, actor, singer, model and acting coach; and playwright and Sparks Collaborative Ensemble founder Sheila Cowley and her Foley artist/playwright husband Matt. Bondurant, Wilborn and the Cowleys all moved to St. Pete years ago because of Bob and The Studio@620.

(Full disclosures – Hank Hine was my boss when I worked at the Dalí Museum, Paul Wilborn was my colleague when we both worked for the St. Petersburg Times and Sheila Cowley is my editor at Arts Coast magazine. Didn’t I warn you that The Studio was a place where “everyone knows your name”?)

“Power couple” Hank Hine and Laura Hine

For the evening’s entertainment, we got a taste of how Bamberry might interpret the melancholic Hamlet when he recited a jaw-dropping poem that began, “This is for the fat girls, this is for the little brothers, this is for the schoolyard wimps and for the childhood bullies who tormented them..” ).

Poet John Bamberry

We swooned when Bondurant sang a soulful version of Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man” accompanied by Wilborn on keyboard and marveled when Wilborn sang and played “Everybody’s talkin at me, can’t hear a word they’re saying” after explaining that the man who wrote those lyrics, Fred Neil, actually lived in St. Petersburg.

Back then, said Wilborn, it was known as God’s Waiting Room, so he fled as soon as he could to Greenwich Village. But who knows, he added, “If he were only here now, he might not have had to leave.”

Eugenie Bondurant and Paul Wilborn serenading an appreciative crowd

The three standing ovations of the night went to three Black women who together embody perfectly the Honors weekend theme of community and inclusion – a voting rights activist and supporter of political and educational causes of African Americans (Davis), a champion of the arts in the halls of power (Flowers) and no-apologies singer Tone I.E, who may have been the youngest member in the room.

Check out her Instagram account where she boldly describes her songwriting – “I like to write songs about mfs who break my heart so I’m like Taylor Swift except I’m Black and Better.”

Vocalist Tone I.E. and her talented band – in the foreground, this year’s colorful awards, created by Zen Glass Studio

Tone I.E and her two-man band entertained us throughout the evening, but it was Tone I.E’s final, Earth-shaking rendition of Andra Day’s Rise Up that brought the crowd to its feet.


All we need, all we need is hope
And for that we have each other
And for that we have each other
And we will rise
We will rise
We’ll rise, oh, oh
We’ll rise

Even during pandemic lockdown, The Studio kept their spirit of arts and community strong – June 2020 Pride month and KITE exhibit installation by Marcus Wehby, photo courtesy of Studio@620 social media

At Friday’s cocktail party, “the one, the only Bob Dev” recalled another song that was sung at The Studio – 20 years ago by the incomparable Sharon Scott.

“After the first ground-breaking ceremony, Sharon Scott came into this room to sing,” Bob began and took his sweet time to set the scene. “The floors were black, blacker than me… and there was no air-conditioning. Many of you know Hazel Hough, one of the great ladies of St. Petersburg. Her hair was in a flip and by the end of the afternoon it had drooped and she looked like Cher.

“But,” he honed in on his message, “Sharon sang a song – ‘We’re Standing on Holy Ground.’”

Then he stopped for a moment, a dramatic pause to let that information sink in, before adding – “Little did we know, how prophetic she was.”

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