By Shaun Ryan
Support for a vibrant arts community was on full display during the second annual Beaches, A Celebration of the Arts, held Sunday, May 23, at The Surf Club at Ponte Vedra Inn & Club.
The event, which featured an awards ceremony, fashion show, live painting, dinner, hors d’oeuvres, cocktails and violin music was very well attended. In fact, according to honorary co-chair of the event Hilah Autry, it was sold out and even had a waiting list for tickets.
The weather was perfect for the outdoor gathering, which attracted some of the area’s most prominent supporters of the arts.
“I thought it was fantastic,” said Autrey, a former member if the organization’s board.
Husband Ron Autrey, the other honorary co-chair, called it “fabulous” and explained the importance of the arts even to those like himself who come from the world of business.
“There’s so much ugliness in the world today,” he said, “it’s a blessing to connect community and art together and celebrate the beauty of fine art.”
Among those recognized during the event were three of the founders of The Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra Beach, Janet Wilson, Sandy Beers and Ellen Diamond.
Wilson, an artist herself, said that when she moved to the area she felt a need for some cultural outlet. She got involved with the Cultural Center through its first holiday shop, which was held at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club.
She recalled the center’s humble beginnings and its former home at 50 Executive Way, which once been a post office sorting facility.
“When we bought that building, you can’t believe the condition that it was in,” she said.
At the time, the center had almost no money in the bank and needed immediate revenue. The solution was to begin classes right away, but to do that, the building would need a thorough cleaning. Wilson recalled her husband and son bringing in various cleaning supplies and helping to transform the space.
In those early years, “we did a lot of neat things on a very, very small budget,” said Beers.
But the center’s founders had a vision and they kept true to it.
“When you’re trying to start something like this, to get established takes years and years,” said Wilson.
Persistence – and dedication – paid off. Today the Cultural Center is a centerpiece of culture and the arts on the First Coast.
“I’m quite proud of it,” said Beers. “I really am.”
Diamond is a master artist who said she has been painting as far back as she can remember.
“My father was an artist,” she said. “When you grow up with the smell of paint in your house, you’re just drawn to it.”
She moved to the area from New York and quickly became affiliated with the Cultural Center.
“I always said New York was a wonderful place to go to museums and see art,” she said. “Here, I had an opportunity to really get myself involved in the art world.”
Wilson remarked on the high number of artists living here.
“It’s like an artists’ mecca,” she said.
Of course, what’s an arts event without art? Artist Mario Della Penta painted live during the celebration, decorating articles of clothing with his own unique style.
One of the highlights of Sunday’s event was the “Bespoke on the Boulevard” fashion show, arranged in conjunction with Dr. Arun Gulani, also known as “Dr. GQ” and “the best dressed man in Ponte Vedra.” The show featured Aaishwariya Gulani, Miss India USA 2019-20.
During the main program Donna Guzzo, president and executive director for the Cultural Center summarized the organization’s activities over the past year.
It was a year in which the center sold its building to Virginia-based Roanoke Vinton Radio Inc. and moved into a new studio at 3972 Third St. South in Jacksonville Beach. The center ultimately hopes to build an arts complex on St. Johns County land near the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall.
The past year was also one in which a partnership was formed with the link, a 22,500-square-foot facility being constructed now in Nocatee Town Center. The link will be a place for entrepreneurs to launch their companies, but also a place for those entrepreneurs’ families. To that end, the Cultural Center will provide programming, camps, exhibitions and more.
It was also the year that Gulani collaborated with the center to launch a “Mask-A-Rate Worldwide Challenge.” People from more than 50 countries made masks to protect against coronavirus and then sent them to Guzzo at the center, which received an astounding 10,000. The center donated the masks to nursing homes and first responders and sold the rest.
The awards ceremony was one of the main focal points of the celebration.
Jenn Peek won the Emerging Artist Award. The University of North Florida alumna has two works installed at the sculpture park in Jacksonville.
Caelen Proctor received the Chairman’s Choice Award. She has an installation at the sculpture park and is planning an exhibition at the Beaches Museum.
Beaches Go Green, famous for its Octopus Garden at the Deck of Chairs event in Jacksonville Beach, won the Arts Education & Advocacy Award.
The Art of Giving Award went to the DuBow Family Foundation, which has provided funding for arts programs throughout the region.
Word Revolt, a nonprofit studio gallery in Atlantic Beach dedicated to hosting free events that benefit artists, charities and the community, received the Community Impact Award.
All Beaches Experimental Theatre received the Irene Lazzara “Beaches, A Celebration of the Arts” Award.
In addition, David Wedow was named Volunteer of the Year.