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Avenue of Art expands mission of bringing color to the city

The project in Burns Square now enters its third phase, with 100 sidewalk paintings set to be added to the existing 210 by the end of the month.

The Avenue of Art is intended to highlight the history and culture of Sarasota.
The Avenue of Art is intended to highlight the history and culture of Sarasota.
Photo by Ian Swaby
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When your artwork will serve as a permanent fixture of the city, finding the right section of sidewalk is a must. 

At first, Sarasota artist Maggie Davenport had her sights set on the east side of South Pineapple Avenue, but after she noticed a certain painting on the other side, she changed her mind. 

She thought the patterned sun she had submitted as her design would complement the historical painting below it depicting two Calusa natives in the outdoors. 

“As a visual artist, you're always taking in composition,” she said. “Well, how does that piece work with this piece? And how might they speak to each other?"

Davenport calls the juxtaposition of the artwork a storybook experience for the community, but if that description is apt, it is a story that has not been fully painted yet. 

The Avenue of Art, which was created by the Sarasota Chalk Festival, entered its third phase in early April, will see the addition of 100 paintings to the previous 210 by the end of the month. 

Artists from around the community, and the world, have contributed to the project and continue to do so. 


A cityscape evolves

The appeal of the Avenue of Art endured after it was introduced in 2021 to commemorate the county's 100th anniversary while serving as a socially distant alternative to the Sarasota Chalk Festival.

The funds reserved for the chalk festival were reallocated to that project, which was adopted into the city's Public Art Plan.

According to Bill Baranowski, manager of the Sarasota Chalk Festival, the result has been an added sense of identity for Burns Square.

“On a daily basis, we're seeing people stopping, taking pictures, looking around, and then all of a sudden they are like, ‘Oh, there's a knife shop here,’ ‘Oh, here's a juice bar,’ and they know the neighborhood because of this kind of thing.”

Beck Lane paints the sidewalk beside SEE Alliance.
Photo by Ian Swaby

Denise Kowal, founder, chief curator and CEO of the Sarasota Chalk Festival, said the project has seen artists from countries such as Turkey, Australia, Colombia, Spain and Italy. 

“It brings a lot of opportunities and brings a lot of joy to a tremendous amount of people,” she said.

Kowal said whatever the subject of the painting, be it an octopus or something else, all images shine a light on some aspect of the community. 

"It gives us an opportunity to talk about things that have to do with our community that people may not have thought about before," she said.

The hand-painted sidewalks went on to receive awards from the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation for the writing explaining the artwork, which can be accessed using QR codes found on the paintings.

Although previously the furthest extent of the project, which covers areas of South Pineapple Avenue and South Orange Avenue, was south to Oak Street, the paintings are now set to extend to Mound Street.

QR codes are also being replaced, while writers are being paid to created additional material. For this phase, all artists are receiving stipends through county funds, with supplies provided by Sarasota Paint.

Maggie Davenport
Photo by Ian Swaby

Kowal emphasized that the costs involved in the project for the Chalk Festival, a nonprofit, are multifaceted.

The cost of the phase when completed is estimated at $80,000 and includes the expenses of writers, artists, painters and restorers, insurance, space rental, web development, production, office expenses, memberships and licenses, accounting and audits, QR content, marketing and public relations, contract services, management and supplies.

There is also in-kind support amounting to roughly $300,000 that involves bookkeeping, donated artistic production and other volunteering as well as fees, space rentals, marketing and promotion, materials and supplies.

Art in the outdoors

The Florida sun hasn’t been a deterrent to artists who enjoy working outside. 

In fact, Davenport barely notices the heat. On her first day, she found she was still eager to continue painting by the end.

“That's how I knew I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. I couldn't even stop myself,” she said.

Despite the permanent nature of the work, she enjoys a sense of creativity in the work, not planning her pieces precisely. 

“If I think about it too much, it ruins the process. I'm just an intuitive painter. It's just whatever comes through me.”

Like Davenport, Truman Adams, a 2000 Ringling College of Art and Design graduate, finds that when working on a large piece, the artist’s body simply becomes their instrument.

Truman Adams
Photo by Ian Swaby

Adams has long been an outdoor muralist in Sarasota, after being inspired by working at the chalk festival. 

He has contributed multiple pieces to the Avenue of Art.

“I loved the movement. Instead of just having to use my wrist, I got to use my whole body in the movements of making the art, and that's why I like working so large,” Adams said. 

Adams has a different process, using his phone to superimpose an image for reference atop a doodle grid. 

What many artists have in common, however, is a love of working in the public sphere. 

“The greatest thing for me ever was to be out here barefoot, painting,” Davenport said. “It’s keeping the art available, keeping the oxygen available.”

The work does not end with adding paintings; preserving older works is also a priority.

Kirsten Pruitt, who graduated Ringling College in 2023, was excited to find the opportunity available to perform restoration work.

“It means I can put my name into Sarasota, leave something there," she said. "It’s really awesome to just leave something behind, because I know I’m not always going to be here.”

Participants are not limited to individual artists; nonprofits along the streets also have had the chance to become involved as well. 

The Child Protection Center (CPC), an organization that provides services to victims of child abuse, is employing eight artists, some of them staff members, to help tell its story. 

Children come to the center on difficult days, explained Douglas Staley, its executive director. That, he said, is one reason it was important to feature images that are uplifting and entertaining.

"It's a cool way for us to represent the children that we serve, but also represent the community with a continuum of art," he said. 

Also involved is SEE Alliance (Social Equity Through Education Alliance), an organization that serves as a hub of youth social justice and LGBTQ+ activism.

The paintings in front of the organization's building, many of which will be created by the young people involved with the organization, will be centered on social justice, highlighting lesser-known figures in Sarasota's history and events like the 1955 beach wade-ins that led to desegregation.

"I think highlighting the moments that we've experienced as a community, that have mattered and changed our history, is a reminder of why we're doing the work we do today," said Zander Moricz, the organization's founder and executive director. "I think that's a big part of it, that the art is a reminder of our history and an inspiration for our future."

Meanwhile, those from beyond Sarasota have also been inspired by the project. 

Cathy Polland from Medford, Oregon.
Photo by Ian Swaby

Cathy Polland from Medford, Oregon, loves returning to paint at the Avenue of Art. 

“I'm a guppy in an ocean,” she said. “We're all really sharing that gift and that inspiration. That’s where my heart's at, and I love it, and I'll be back anytime and every time."

“I think it really speaks to authenticity,” Davenport said. "And I think as Sarasota transforms as a city, it's really important to me to contribute and be part of the things that I love about the city, which is the arts community, the interaction between the people, just the hip, fun vibe that it has on the edges.”


Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.