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An Emerging Artist Success Story: Nneka Jones

Nneka Jones, GFA 52 Best of Show Artist
Nneka Jones, GFA 52 Best of Show Artist

Nneka Jones mixed media piece “Modern Renaissance” won Best of Show at GFA 52.

 If you’re an emerging artist on the fence about whether to apply to the 53rd Annual Raymond James Gasparilla Festival of the Arts Emerging Artists program in 2023, you should learn more about Nneka Jones.  Her story is a journey of hope and promise and her future is indeed bright, thanks in part to the visibility she attained through the Festival.

Leaving her friends and family behind in her homeland of Trinidad in 2016 was hard but Nneka had a mission.  After placing first in the Caribbean for Art and Design Examinations, she decided to further her art education in the U.S. At just 25 years old, she graduated with a BFA with a minor in marketing from the University of Tampa and has since blossomed into a multidisciplinary activist artist working in mixed media, embroidery, and paint. 

In 2019, Nneka won the Emerging Artist award from GFA, which was the beginning of a successful Festival history for her.  Fast forward three years to 2022.  Last year, Nneka was awarded Best of Show and the $15,000 prize for her work Modern Renaissance, which was also purchased at the Festival.

 “I had been to the Festival and had seen the amazing artists and I was a bit intimidated to apply the first time,” said Nneka about her decision to apply as an Emerging Artist.  “I didn’t think I had a great body of work or know if people would be interested in it. 

Nneka crossed her fingers and applied for the 2019 Festival despite her hesitation and was accepted. It was the first time she had ever shown her work in public. At that show she not only won, but she sold her first two pieces of art to buyers who remain clients to this day. 

 That’s just a few of her many accomplishments. In October of 2020, Nneka was the keynote speaker at Adobe Max, honoring the best in the creative industry.  To date, her work has been acquired by the Tampa Museum of Art, Florida Craft Art Gallery, The Ferman Center for the Arts, and many public and private collectors.  Nneka uses her artwork as a tool to advocate for the protection of women and girls of color and is most known for her realistic embroidered portraits.  She recently completed the mural History Starts Here at Tampa’s Gwen Miller Community Center to tell the story of the community and envision the future.

Nneka Jones puts the final stitches on her artwork for the cover of TIME Magazine.
Nneka Jones puts the final stitches on her artwork for the cover of TIME Magazine.

In 2020, Nneka’s painted portrait of George Floyd that she posted on Instagram caught the eye of TIME Magazine’s international art director Victor Williams, who reached out to her about designing the cover for a Time series by recording artist and producer Pharrell Williams.  The series included conversations and essays about creating a more equitable future for Black Americans.  Nneka’s cover solution was of an embroidered American flag that had black stripes stitched onto the canvas. The white stripes in between are raw canvas. Similarly, the stars of the are also the white of the canvas with black thread embroidered around them.  She left the flag unfinished and tucked the needle she used into the last stripe, indicating that “The New American Revolution” was a work in progress.

“Every time she pushes the needle through the canvas, it’s an act of intention that mirrors the marching, the protests, the push to form a more perfect union,” TIME’s Williams says. “It’s deliberate. It’s painstaking. It’s long. It’s hard. Each one of those stitches is a single person’s story, a single person’s travails. That’s why we wanted to make the stitches visible.”

Nneka Jones, GFA 52 Best of Show Artist
Nneka Jones with her artwork entitled “Special Delivery – Unzipped”, which is part of the permanent collection at Tampa’s Ferman Arts Center.

Nneka says the one thing that has been constant in her career is GFA. 

“GFA has been so amazing and I can’t thank them enough,” Nneka said.  “ Anyone interested in signing up to be an Emerging Artist, all I can say is please do it.  It’s life-changing.”

Typically, about 150 emerging artists apply and 15 are selected to participate in the Festival. 

To qualify for the Emerging Artists program, an artist must not have an established record as a professional artist presenting their work in museums, art festivals, major galleries, or juried exhibitions.  You must also not make more than 25 percent of your total annual income derived from the sale of your art or be employed as an artist practicing your specific medium.  All you need to do is submit three high-resolution images that represent your work along with a $10 application fee. Selected artists will receive a free booth at the 2023 Festival, a $350 stipend to help with preparation and mentoring opportunities from established Tampa Bay-based artists.  Those selected for the program are also eligible to win the Emerging Artist Prize which includes a $1,500 award.   Click here to apply.

GFA would like to thank the Hillsborough Arts Council and the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners for their support of the Emerging Artists Program.  We are still seeking 2023 Emerging Artist Presenting and Patron Sponsors and invite you to join us in bringing this career-building opportunity to our participating Emerging Artists. To learn more about this and other sponsorship opportunities and the visibility they give your company, click here.


Ajeva is a funk/rock band from St. Petersburg, FL. The band started in 2013 and features Reed Skahill (vocals), Taylor Gilchrist (bass), Mike Nivens (guitar), and Lyndon Thacker (keys). They’ve carved out a sound of their own with epic melodies and distinctive vocals that pair perfectly with their deep grooves. Each Ajeva show is a one of a kind experience with the band taking their songs to different places and new heights every night.

Light the Wire

Light the Wire makes heartfelt, indie-folk rock that with powerful vocal harmonies, thoughtful lyrics, and powered by driving bass and drums.  The quintet is based out of Tampa, FL, and released its self-produced, debut EP – “Someday Is Coming” on all streaming platforms on November 1, 2023.


Rock musician that refuses to find a niche


FFO: Foo Fighters, Jimmy Eat World


Biggest influences are church, his mother, Coheed & Cambria, Acceptance, James Morrison, Bombay Bicycle Club, Disturbed, Arctic Monkeys, Young The Giant, Chevelle, Rusko, Chief and Matt Corby. Most of the music he listens to has a darker sound to it so he in turn makes darker, melodic music.


Datagram has been the moniker of shapeshifting Tampa musician Scott Olson for the better part of the last decade.

In that time, the sound and styles of this project have shifted and morphed, painting with shades of glitch, downtempo, techno, and all that lurks in between.

Shevonne and the Force

A multi-hyphenate, genre-bending artist, Shevonne Philidor is a singer-songwriter, producer, and actress who epitomizes her dynamic background in music and performing arts. A military brat born in Philadelphia, PA, she experienced living in multiple cities – including a stint in Italy – before landing in Tampa, Fl, where she nurtured her musical ability throughout her childhood. She’s a scion of a musical family stemming from her half-Haitian descent and taught herself to play the guitar at an early age, inspired by the likes of Prince, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, Bob Marley, and M83. In 2003, she made her first TV debut on America’s Most Talented Kids, and in 2010, she made an appearance on America’s Got Talent Wild Card. A recipient of the prestigious NFAA scholarship, she also made American Idol’s top 40 twice in 2016 and 2019, the same year she performed at Austin City Limits with five-time Grammy award-winning artist Gary Clark jr. In 2021, she performed alongside CeeLo Green at a Superbowl party for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was tapped to sing for ABC’s Juneteenth celebration with T.I. and Domani. Working with Grand Hustle Records, she’s a Luna Guitar-endorsed artist who was also selected to perform in Just Blaze’s SXSW showcase in 2022. A theatre kid at heart, she’s flexed her acting skills on a national tour for Todrick Hall’s musical, Oz The Musical, and she was also recently casted in Life’s Rewards, an upcoming Amazon Prime TV show.

Kristopher James

Though he’s lived in the Sunshine State, for most of his life, Kristopher’s talent for melody and song (now) extend far past the state’s line. Like his influencers Otis Redding, Amos Lee, and Roberta Flack, Kristopher’s voice is clear, controlled, and full of all-the-feels.  As with all artists, Kristopher’s sound has ebbed and flowed, evolving yet remaining instantly recognizable. With the growth he’s experienced as an artist, Kristopher felt it was time to capture his songs, in their fully-imagined sound!

With his debut album “Kindness Never Quits”, featuring members of Scary Pockets, Kristopher caught the attention of Relix & Glide Magazine, Spotify Playlist curators and continued praise, such as “vocals are so powerful and as the song progresses, he showcases why he is one of the best singers out there. All that soul in one artist is just unbelievable” from Reignland Magazine.

Continuing through the COVID years, Kristopher partnered with musicians to keep the music and community alive. Along with composer and keys player Mike Hicks of Rascal Flatts, The War & Treaty’s Max Brown on guitar, as well as talented artists Kyshona Armstrong, Jonathan Huber, DeMarco Johnson, Kristopher released 3 acclaimed singles: “Never Had to Find Our Way”, “Feelings” and “I Can Only Love You in a Song”

Deaf Company

Three piece Rock n Roll band hailing from St. Petersburg, FL.

Skyler Golden

Musician from St. Pete Florida and Studio Producer for Zen Recording. Brings an eclectic sound of string instruments for the Yoga Classes at GFA 2024


From Tampa Florida, SydLive was born to write and sing songs that touch the world. As her mother recalls, her climb to stardom began with getting on top of restaurant tables to sing at the age of two.

By the time she was eleven, she acquired her first guitar and began to teach herself to play by learning Beatles songs. Within four years she found her way to the stage singing in a Carpenters tribute band. Since this time, Syd has amassed over a decade of experience as a professional singer/songwriter and recording/performance artist. Within the industry, she names Aretha Franklin as her idol.


The first sound you hear on Durry’s rambunctious and poignant debut album, Suburban Legend, is an old-school Internet dial-up tone. To songwriter Austin Durry, the sound is instantly familiar but his bandmate and sister, Taryn, hadn’t heard it before. The Burnsville, Minnesota-based duo might identify with different age groups — with seven years between them, Austin is a millennial and Taryn is Gen Z — but by joining forces in Durry, they show just how much the neighboring generations have in common.

Between their serendipitous origin story and a crop of dynamic, hook-heavy alt-pop tracks, Durry are doing something few bands can achieve — and they’re doing it entirely on their own terms. As a band, Taryn and Austin’s journey happened both unexpectedly and fortuitously. At the start of the COVID pandemic, Austin and his wife moved back into his parents’ house, where Taryn was also living at the time. In addition to moving back in with his family, COVID forced Austin to cancel an extensive tour with his previous band, Coyote Kid. Faced with nothing but time, he got back to songwriting, regularly asking Taryn for input — or as the two playfully put it, “Gen Z quality control.”

“I’d say, here’s an early concept, what do you think? Then she’ll steer the ship, and then I’ll evolve it from there,” Austin explains. “Taryn is the sounding board and Gen Z vision of the band, where I’m kinda cranking stuff out.”

As they got going, forming what would turn into Durry, the siblings also outlined DIY ideas for branding and promotion, creating all of their own content and imbuing their visuals with nostalgic golden yellow, large fonts, and tactile images that would later make their way into eye-catching merch.

The immediate result of their musical partnership was the pop-punk/alternative anthem “Who’s Laughing Now,” which leads with wry, tongue-in-cheek lyrics about the futility of young adulthood in 2023: “My mama always said I would regret it if I ever got a tattoo,” Austin chants, adding: “She said I’d never get a job like I ever wanted one with that attitude/ My dad said I had to learn to drive a stick shift, but every van I ever had was an automatic/ My friends said that someday I would make it big, but I’m still living in the basement.”

After posting an unfinished version of “Who’s Laughing Now” on TikTok, it swiftly took off, galvanizing thousands of viewers who shared their coming-of-age frustrations. Clearly, the song’s sentiments — which land somewhere between a shrug and a clenched fist — resonated with millions of listeners, and today the song has garnered more than four million Spotify streams. Meanwhile, Durry have recorded a fully fleshed-out version of “Who’s Laughing Now,” which is set to appear on their riveting, perfectly sardonic debut LP, Suburban Legend.