THOMAS PAQUETTE relishes walking through the countryside and exploring nature. But during the time he was studying to become a naturalist, he made a sudden career shift. ``I took a painting class - and it was all over,'' says the smiling young man from Minneapolis. Though he had always enjoyed drawing, pursuing it full-time ``was a big decision, and I knew what it entailed.''
Now Mr. Paquette puts a brush to nature. He paints woodlands, leaning fences, and shady country lanes.
As with many artists today, following his muse demands a leap of faith - an inner drive to make a living doing what he does best, even though the rest of the world may define a ``real'' job as a weekly paycheck.
Fortunately, Paquette is not alone in his determination. For the past two years, he has developed under the wing of a national organization that helps young people gain a foothold in their artistic fields.
``It's very hard to pay rent and put food in your mouth and at the same time develop a portfolio of materials to show people,'' says Grant Beglarian, president of the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts (NFAA). With money from mostly private sources, the non-profit foundation has brought six artists to this vacation town, found them apartments, and provided studio space where they can concentrate on their craft.
``A lot of people have a tough struggle after school, because they get caught in the 9-to-5 routine,'' says Paquette, sitting in his canvas-filled studio on Lincoln Road Mall. But for four months out of the year, he and five other visual artists can forget about ``making a living'' and make art.
Unlike those in many other artists colonies in the country where creative people retreat to isolated rural settings, these young artists are part of a bustling urban neighborhood, blossoming with artistic activity.
The nondescript building where they have their studios is just down the street from the Miami City Ballet, and from the Southern Florida Art Center, home to some 85 juried artists.
``I feel like I'm really part of this town,'' says Manuel Acevedo, a photographer down the hall from Paquette.
Though Mr. Acevedo and the other artists are here primarily to work, they have been encouraged by the NFAA to interact with the community. One open house at their building drew about 150 local people, including collectors, gallery owners, and other artists.
Fellows for the Career Advancement of Visual Artists (CAVA) program are chosen by a jury of nationally prominent artists, critics, and curators. In the program's two years, over 360 artists have competed for the three-year residency, which includes $1,000 monthly stipends.
The CAVA program, like other NFAA initiatives, seeks to ``invest in people'' over the long term, Beglarian says. Though corporate and individual support is growing, he adds, the financial picture is still ``touch and go.'' Only last year did the nine-year-old foundation reap a small surplus in funds. From May 16 to June 10, the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach will host an exhibition of new works by the CAVA fellows, which could become an annual event.
Acevedo, a man with long wavy hair and captivating green eyes, leads the way into his small studio. Leaning against the walls are variously painted wooden doors, metaphoric constructions of ``how people adapt to certain environments.''
As a professional photographer for the city of Newark, N.J., he has captured stark black-and-white images of the rough street life he grew up with. But now he wants to explore painting, a longtime interest. The residency gives him ``thinking time'' to do so.
It's been fun, he says, going out into the neighborhood ``scavenging'' for wood supplies. Workers at construction sites ``all want to be invited to any exhibitions to see how I use the materials.''
Down the hall, May Sun creates paintings and silkscreens for her multimedia installations. She incorporates themes of Chinese history as well as recent events like the Tiananmen Square massacre. Though her background is in sculpture and painting, she enjoys performance art.
``When you watch something [performed] live,'' she says, ``it can be very emotional, and it affects you deeply.'' May Sun, who lives in Los Angeles, gets bored working in one medium. ``I like working with artists from different disciplines - like composers and actors,'' she says, sweeping her long black hair behind one ear.
One of her recent installations, entitled ``L.A./River/China/Town,'' appeared last fall at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. She has been commissioned to do a piece for the Los Angeles Festival this September.
It was a local artist who first suggested the idea of a visual artist residency program to NFAA officials. The concept made sense to the Miami-based foundation, since the organization spotlights artistically talented high school students, and four years ago initiated the widely acclaimed New World Symphony here, a training orchestra for young virtuosos.
The foundation has published a catalog of the CAVA fellows' works, which it plans to distribute nationally to dealers, curators, and other art professionals.
The artists appreciate the opportunities and exposure the program offers. May Sun says last year was ``so busy and hectic with a lot of financial hardships'' that she found it difficult to work. ``Here,'' she adds, ``I can do my art and not worry about it.'' Paquette, who hopes to take his paintings to New York, says it's rewarding to be part of a program ``that says `we believe in this person's work, and we're going to give him a chance.'''