It was a couple of cups of coffee at Mike’s Diner that got the creativity flowing.
Vendula Kalinova, a fashion designer and artist, is a regular at the mammoth-menu eatery, which is a neighborhood fixture at the Ditmars stop.
It just so happens that Idania Flores, who designs jewelry for animal-rescue organizations to sell at fundraisers, is generally the server who takes her order.
As things progressed, the women, on more than one occasion, struck up conversations that had nothing to do with breakfast.
United by their artistic pursuits, Vendula, a striking woman with short-cropped blond hair who is from the Czech Republic, and Idania, an Astoria resident since age seven who lives with six rescue cats, became fast friends.
“I approached her and suggested we get coffee together at the diner’s outside tables when she wasn’t on duty,” Vendula says.
As they chatted about this and that, the idea to hold an art show sprang to them spontaneously and simultaneously.
“I used to paint back in the day, and every night when I was working, I noticed that Mike’s outdoor space was empty,” Idania says. “It was drab, dark and dull, and I wanted to fill it.”
Adds Vendula, “She had the venue, and I told her I could fill it with artists.”
The result of their collaboration is Astoria Art Bites, a collective comprised of a roster of rotating artists and musicians that uses outdoor spaces in the neighborhood to display and sell their works while entertaining passersby with concerts.
The group grew quickly and far beyond Idania’s and Vendula’s expectations: By late summer, Astoria Art Bites was drawing crowds who not only came to check out the photographs, paintings, jewelry and custom-crafted fashion accessories, but also to hang out.
“When other artists walking by saw us, they asked us whether they could join,” Vendula says. “We started with artists then added musicians.”
Just as Astoria Art Bites was making a name for itself, the fall pandemic rules, which require unvaccinated diners to eat in the outside space the group was using, forced Idania and Vendula to rethink and revise their concept.
“We’re looking for a venue – it could be outside or inside – where we can do this in cooler weather once or twice a month,” Idania says.
To assure the group’s future, Vendula is doing research on applying for nonprofit status and grants.
“There are so many creative people here that Astoria Art Bites will be the base for something else,” she says.
It may still be possible, Idania tells her, to occasionally devote a small part of the outdoor space at Mike’s Diner to Astoria Art Bites.
In the meantime, they are planning at least one last Astoria Art Bites grand stand for 2021: a Halloween-themed show.
Vendula and Idania don’t know where or when the event will take place yet, but they are optimistic that they will be successful in pulling it off.
Whatever form Astoria Art Bites takes, they say, it will continue its commitment to being an integral part of the community.
“It is about camaraderie, it is not about making sales,” Vendula says. “To create it was something special.”
As Idania walks back inside Mike’s Diner to resume her shift, Vendula becomes reflective.
“I’ve made lifelong friends by doing this,” she says, grabbing her coffee cup to follow Idania for a refill.
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter at @nancyruhling and visit astoriacharacters.com.