When I called Victor Bokas for an interview, he was in the middle of working on a five-foot-square commissioned painting for an art collector in Spain. “I could have never done this had I stayed in the corporate world,” he said to me with an incredulous half-laugh. Since being let go from his position as a senior graphic designer at Tupperware Brands in 2015, he has devoted his full energy to his craft, and it’s made all the difference.
Mandy Keyes, owner of Community Cafe in the Grand Central District of St. Petersburg, also left her corporate position as an interior designer to open a storefront on Central Avenue, the area’s main thoroughfare. When I walked into the cafe for our interview, she was in the thick of taking orders, clearing tables, fielding questions – all the things you’d expect from a small-business owner – popping up at intervals during our conversation to tend to her customers. At 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday, the place was packed. It’s working.
Whether you feel like you’re stuck in a never-ending “Office Space” time loop, or you actually love your nine-to-five and “World’s Best Boss” mug, it’s likely you’ve got a secondary passion that isn’t your full-time gig. Maybe you love restoring vintage furniture, or planning parties, or experimenting in the kitchen. Perhaps you can’t wait to clock out so you can get home and practice your macramé skills or work on your novel.
What if you could do those things all the time and make money at them, eschewing that steady paycheck for the freelance life? Would you? Bokas and Keyes are doing just that, and according to both of them, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, dreams can become reality.
Bokas, originally from a tiny town in the Florida panhandle called Gulf Breeze, is a successful fine-art painter and mixed-media artist. His work is featured in five galleries around the state and in over a dozen permanent collections in Central Florida landmarks, including Orlando City Hall and the Mennello Museum of American Art. In 2000, he was also commissioned to do a floor mosaic at the Orlando International Airport (MCO). His new large-format Plexiglas mural serves as the “Welcome to Orlando” backdrop in MCO’s soon-to-open Terminal C.
Bokas has always painted. He has never wanted to be anything else other than be an artist. He graduated from the University of Florida (UF) with a degree in graphic design, but took plenty of fine art classes during his coursework. “Fine art was always something I wanted to do on the side, but I never thought I’d be able to make a full-time career out of it,” he says.
After graduating from UF, he worked at an ad agency in Pensacola, but then made his way to Orlando, where he worked for nine years as senior art director at SeaWorld. During that time, he painted at McCray Studios, which he refers to as his “therapy” from corporate America’s hustle. “I loved being in the corporate world, but I needed a personal outlet,” he says.
He left SeaWorld in 1996, and became a senior designer at Tupperware Brands, where he was best known for his work on the iconic brand’s catalog. “It was a hectic and stressful job, but I also found that my studio time gave me balance. It gave me the freedom to let go and let the frustrations out to make my own mark,” says Bokas.
In November of 2015, Bokas was laid off from his position. “It was a huge shock,” he says, “I wasn’t expecting it. I had a passion for design and loved working with the other designers and photographers.” Originally, Bokas had planned on staying at Tupperware Brands until he was 60, then planned to retire and work on his art full time. “When I was laid off,” he says, “I decided to move the timeline up five years. I know it’s cliché, but I really do believe everything happened that way for a reason. I would have never left on my own.”
Because he was working full time, there were plenty of festivals and events and opportunities he would have loved to have taken advantage of, but because of his job, there just wasn’t the time or energy to devote to them. “All of a sudden, I did have the time and energy,” he says. “When you do a gallery show, they want maybe 40 pieces of new, original work. When I was working, there was no way I could have done that.”
At the same time Bokas was laid off from his job at Tupperware Brands, his friend in Birmingham, Ala., was opening a gallery. She approached him to design the marketing imagery and name the gallery, now Canary Gallery on Second Avenue in downtown Birmingham. “Since then, I’ve had two very successful one-person shows at the gallery, and I’ll have another one in April of 2019,” says Bokas.
He’s also showing at four other galleries around the state; including Plum Gallery in St. Augustine, the Waldorf Astoria Orlando at Bonnet Creek, Dog Tired Studio &Gallery in Key West and Arts on Douglas in New Smyrna Beach, where he recently presented a show called “Greetings from Florida, Journeys to Paradise.” In that show, Bokas themed his paintings around a central idea: leaving the corporate world and finding his way back to his true calling as a full-time artist. In the show’s brochure, Bokas writes, “truly believe that holding firm to your dreams results in joy. I hope this exhibit inspires you find your focus, follow your passions and journey toward your dreams – your paradise, however you choose to define it.”
Owner, Community Cafe, St. Petersburg
When Mandy Keyes first started taking classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she found interior design to be most in line with her interests. “I’m a very analytical person. I love problem-solving, and that’s probably what makes me a pretty good small-business owner. There are always problems to solve,” she says. After graduating from college, she got a job at a corporate interior design firm two hours north of Madison.
“I liked the job. I’m super detail-oriented and loved arranging the cubicles to make them fit,” she says. “But it was cold, and I never felt I could be myself.” Keyes says that most of the interior design firms she’s worked for were mostly full of people she couldn’t really connect with, and she kept her personal life as a queer, kinky woman a secret. “I never felt I could be authentic. I didn’t feel like I could talk about who I was outside of work at all. I certainly wasn’t telling my coworkers about dressing up in crazy corsets and going dancing at the goth clubs,” she says.
At the time, Keyes was dating a woman who had planned to move to Sarasota. They ended up breaking up before the move, but Keyes used the excuse to move south to St. Petersburg, where she fell in love with the Gulf coast city. “I love St. Pete. I don’t think I’ll ever live anywhere else,” she says. She got a job at an interior design firm in Palm Harbor, where she designed assisted-living facilities. “It wasn’t as technical or as detailed, so I felt like I was getting further away from what I liked in the industry to begin with,” says Keyes.
She bought a house, and eventually was laid off in 2011, when she was 27 years old. “I was unemployed, had been broken up with and was super depressed,” she says. “It was a turbulent time.” Keyes took a job doing residential kitchen and bath design for less than 40 hours per week, with no benefits. That’s when she started formulating the idea for Community Cafe.
Keyes’ favorite thing to do was to throw themed parties for friends she met on OK Cupid. “I watched people who would have never met otherwise break down barriers and that was the most rewarding feeling,” she says. “I found such pleasure and fulfillment in connecting people, and that’s how I knew I needed to make building community my life.”
At the time, The Globe Cafe in the Grand Central District, St. Pete’s historically LGBTQ neighborhood, was closing, so Mandy wanted to open a place to take over the space. Originally, the idea was for a co-op, “but when it came down to the real work, most of the people on our planning committees had fallen away, but I pressed forward,” she says. To fund Community Cafe, Keyes refinanced her house and took out a $15,000 loan. She also ran a $5,000 Indie GoGo online fundraising campaign and got an investor. The extra funding helped Keyes open in a highly trafficked area of Central Avenue, a hotspot for art lovers, yogis and vintage shoppers.
Community Cafe is about to hit its fifth anniversary in December, and each year has gotten better. “We had all losses for the first several years,” says Keyes. “It didn’t skyrocket right away. I still have a fair bit of debt that I’m working on, but every year we are more successful.” She says that, finally, she feels she works in a place where she can be her authentic, homoflexible self. “I always felt that I was leaving work so I could go home to my normal life,” she says. “But now, I feel like I live my normal life all day every day.”
Now, she’s the co-chair of Come Out St. Pete, and sits on the board of the Grand Central District. “It’s important for me, and for my business, to reach out and not just encourage the community to come to me, but also for me to go out there and make myself available to the community,” she says.
“In my personal circumstances,” says Keyes, “I had literally nothing to lose when I came up with the idea of Community Cafe. I could have found a new job in interior design, but I thought, ‘why not try this first?’” Keyes has never managed a restaurant before, let alone owned one, “but you research and work and you figure it out,” she says.
Keyes and Bokas both agree that sometimes what it takes to follow a dream is a little push. “I wish the decision to go out on my own would have been on my terms,” says Bokas, “but it wasn’t my decision.” He credits his friends, many of whom are also freelancers, with keeping his spirits up and pressing forward. “It’s a new mindset. Initially it was hard to let go of a steady paycheck, and it was a difficult adjustment, but there are so many other benefits, like the opportunity to go to a museum in the middle of the day or have lunch with a friend,” he says.
“I wouldn’t call this a ‘reinvention’ of myself – my passion for my own art was always there, but now the faucet is on full blast. This is what I’m going to do forever,” he says. Bokas concedes that he was already an established artist, so going out on his own was easier than for many who aspire to do their passion full time. Keyes says the same, “I was fortunate to have the financial means and connections to make it happen, I know not everyone has that ability.”
But they both echo each other when offering advice to those who dream of a life outside the office: If you aren’t happy in your current situation, you have (or don’t need) the means and have another passion, just jump in feet first and give it every ounce of energy you’ve got.