If Brenda McMahon hadn’t lost her way one winter’s morning in 2006, we wouldn’t be talking about Gulfport’s ArtJones Open Studio Tour today.
A ceramic artist from upstate New York, McMahon was in Florida to sell her work at weekend art fairs.
“I was driving, and I got lost,” she remembers. “I found myself on Beach Boulevard in Gulfport. I thought ‘Oh, this is kind of cool. I’ll just stop and walk around.’”
And she fell in love. “There’s an energy field here. I think artists find it, but they don’t know they’re looking for it.”
Less than a year later, Brenda McMahon moved lock, stock and pottery wheel to Pinellas County’s quaint, quirky little town on Boca Ciega Bay.
These days, she says, “I ask people all the time, what brought you to Gulfport? And it’s so frequently an experience like that. It’s sort of magical that people find it when they don’t know they’re looking for it. But somehow, Gulfport has this magnetic force. Especially for creators, makers and appreciators. It’s the combo.”
In 2017, she launched the ArtJones tour, in which a cross-section of Gulfport’s resident professional artists open their working studios – more often than not, their actual homes – to the public. McMahon proudly refers to it as “sort of the merging of a home tour and an art opening.”
ArtJones 2019 takes place this weekend – Dec. 7 and 8, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday.
On this free, self-guided tour art aficionados, friends and fans can meet with 20 artists, at 18 stops, to watch them work, ask questions, talk art or just generally shoot the breeze. (Attention, holiday shoppers: They’ll be happy to sell you a piece or two, too.)
Included are ceramics, painting, glass, mixed media, photography, sculpture and wearable art.
It’s not the only walking art tour in Gulfport. The Chamber of Commerce’s monthly First Friday Art & Gallery Walk is focused on the strip of galleries (and bars and restaurants) along Beach Drive. Infact, McMahon has a gallery there.
“Beach Drive,” she suggests, “is more like a retail environment. Therefore, you don’t get all of the quality artists that you could if it was more like an Open House. It’s a different paradigm. It’s three hours a night, one night once a month.”
Because the ArtJones Open Studio Tour is juried, it’s limited to artists whose work is considered at the professional level. In Gulfport, there are many candidates, most of them drawn by that same magnetic force that lured McMahon. And the cast of characters changes every year.
“Some people clear their whole house, and put their artwork in their homes,” she explains. “Others are like me – I have my backyard, and my studio and my neighbors, and live music. It’s a big spread.
“So in some ways it’s artists opening their lives. And a lot of these artists are nationally and internationally renowned, and they don’t want to open their houses more than once a year. They don’t need to.”
Brenda McMahon has been a self-sustaining professional artist for 23 years. She walked away from a successful career as a writer and producer for radio and television in the Albany, N.Y. area.
It wasn’t a “bolt of lightning” realization – just a nagging suspicion that life had other plans for her. “There was,” she says, “a ringing inside that said ‘I’m done with this. It was fun, but it’s not me. And there’s something out there for me – I don’t know what it is, but I’m going to go find it.’ So I quit and went on a two or three-month cross-country trip, looking for that thing. Never found it.”
A hint: She had always loved to sketch, and had done a lot of creative writing in her off-hours. “I always felt I should be creative,” McMahon recalls, “but I didn’t know what my medium was.”
To keep the lights on, she took temp typing work, and one day – without thinking about it too much – she decided she would take a pottery class. Something she’d always meant to try, but somehow never got around to.
“And the first night, I had my hands in the clay, and I went ‘This is it. This is what I traveled cross-country for.’ It was so loud. I went home and I looked in the mirror, and I said ‘I want to be a potter.’ And my reflection said ‘You’re crazy. How are you going to make a living?’”
Luckily, her reflection didn’t get the final word.
She creates exceptionally fine, polished ceramic vessels using a glaze-free method called saggar firing. McMahon is also renowned for crafting clay into sculptural wall murals for residential, corporate and hospital facilities across the country.
And she hand-crafts contemplative tiled wall hangings for yoga studios and wellness centers.
“I don’t consider my work pottery,” McMahon explains. “Even though I work at the potter’s wheel, and I call myself a potter. The truth is, I don’t do pottery – I do more fine art ceramics.”
There’s an ages-old argument about ceramics vs. pottery, and the spaces between. Much of it has to do with functionality.
“It’s so unclear to know what the distinction is,” says McMahon, “because I think if you put 20 potters in the room, we’d all disagree.”
McMahon has never been one to sit idly by and watch others make something happen. At Hunter College in Manhattan, she studied political communication, and received her Master of Arts from SUNY Albany in 1987.
“In college, I was a social activist,” she says. “I went door-to-door canvassing on environmental issues, I went to rallies … and I think what happened is, I’m now an art activist. And I’m a community organizer.”
In New York, she founded the Albany/Saratoga Pottery Trail, then the Washington County Fine Art Tour. So creating Gulfport’s ArtJones – the name is a sly reference to “jonesing” for art – was a natural for her.
“After I’d lived here for a few years, I realized that all these artists live here, and they never show their work,” she says. Everyone she asked – well, almost everyone – said they’d love to be part of a home/studio tour.
McMahon heads a small, dedicated group of artists and volunteers who plan and manage the tour. Keeping it juried, she insists, not only keeps the quality up, it keeps the quantity down – ensuring that each ArtJones is a one-of-a-kind experience. Change and happenstance, both important concepts in art, factor into things too.
“The tour, and that walking and inviting people into your home, isn’t for everybody,” she admits. “We had 12 artists that first year, and several stepped out afterwards because it just wasn’t for them. The second year, we had 17, and then a bunch stepped out. And this year we jumped up to 20.
“The reason we have 11 new this year is that some of them were new to me, or they were new to town. Or they watched it for a few years, and they waited.”
More info here.
Download the ArtJones brochure and map here.