Sense Of Place Inspires St. Petersburg Artist To Create On Her Own Terms

The Tampa Bay area arts scene is on the verge of greatness, according to St. Petersburg-based artist Aleshea Harris. Since she moved to Florida in 2004, the 28-year-old artist has emerged as a local talent whom arts aficionados respect and applaud. For good reason, too -- Harris is a jill of all trades; musician, actress, playwright, spoken word poet and teacher. For her, it's all about variety.

"I feel like I'm cheating on one thing if I don't multitask," Harris jokes. "It feels very necessary and genuine to do everything."

If there were any doubts about her sincerity and love of the arts, the creation of her production company, Bag of Beans, should erase them. Bag of Beans launched at the end of 2008 as a vehicle for Harris' artistic goals and, perhaps most importantly, a way for her to share her gifts with the community as a teaching artist.

"The idea is to come in and share what I know as a working artist with other people," she says.

Harris has worked for the Marcia P. Hoffman Performing Arts Institute at Ruth Eckerd Hall and The Royal Theatre Boys & Girls Club, and has been a teaching artist for the Youth Arts Corps for more than a year.

"I get the feeling that a lot of kids haven't been told they are artists before," she says. "It's just a matter of owning it and realizing that it's not easy -- you have to work hard as with any profession."

Harris' investment in her own work has involved the development of her presence as a performing artist, which she's nurtured through open mic gigs at St. Pete and Tampa hot spots like Studio@620 and Sacred Grounds, slam poetry competitions and original shows like "Grit and Silk," a mix of cabaret and spoken word, and her latest creation, "Oddlie."

"The show was born of a number of things, but particularly my frustration as an artist and not feeling like I was being heard," Harris says.

Mixing Poetry And Narrative

"Oddlie" first premiered last summer at Studio@620, and with the help of freeFall Theatre Company it received a larger platform at the Orlando Fringe Festival this May. She expanded her one-woman show with the help of Orlando-based musician and actor James Martin Roberts and conservatory-trained musician Nicholas J. White.

The results earned rave reviews, praising Harris' ability to intertwine poetry and narrative in the 60-minute tale of a young woman who lives on a garbage heap and is ignored by everyone. One day she hears someone performing spoken word, falls in love with it and is trained by another woman in the ways of spoken word.

It's a story that draws parallels to Harris' own realization of her desire to become a performing artist -- a career path she instinctively desired, but almost didn't take.

"When I tried to get into Rietveld Academie [an art school in the Netherlands] for drawing and I didn't get in, I took it as a blessing," she says.

It was easy to turn the corner and focus on performance and writing after that rejection, Harris says.

She switched majors from visual art to theater at the University of Southern Mississippi, eventually earning her B.A. Her post-graduation plans included the possibility of Atlanta, where she had done an internship with the Alliance Theatre Company. But then her plan took an unexpected turn.

Rosemary Newcott, the artistic director at Alliance, knew Eckerd Theatre company's artistic director, Julia Flood, was looking for a black woman for a suffrage piece titled "Vote." Harris' name was mentioned and she subsequently booked her first professional job out of college.

But the excitement was also mixed with a small bit of anxiety of moving to a region she knew nothing about.

"Tampa was not on my radar. St. Pete was not on my radar. Clearwater -- what?" she jokes.

Moving To St. Petersburg

After doing a little bit of research on the Web, however, she soon found St. Petersburg was the place for her.

"I'm so glad I ended up living here," she says. "I'm excited about people making the decision to make art and not just wait to be cast in a show, or wait for a gallery to accept their work but to do it themselves."

Count Harris in as one of those go-getters. She still devotes some time to another one of her first loves -- music -- and takes the opportunity to promote herself at local events like the Artists & Writers Group's Demo Listening Party in February.

After receiving an e-mail from the group that urged local musicians to submit their demos, Harris decided to send in the song "Back Roads" from her first EP.

"I think it speaks to who I am," Harris says. "I think as far as what's going on in our world it's an important piece people can latch on to."

Harris' socially conscious lyrical content caught the attention of Creative Loafing Music Editor Leilani Polk when it came time to sift through the demo entries, but it wasn't her first introduction to her work.

"She was on my peripheral radar for her poetry when I was the events editor [at Creative Loafing]," Polk says. "So, I was interested in seeing what she could do live."

Judging from the reactions, she didn't disappoint. Following the demo party, Harris was invited by the event's director, T. Hampton Dohrman of the Artists & Writers Group, to perform at King Corona as part of Creative Loafing's Sensory Overload in March.

"There were so many people who left that night talking about her," Polk says. "She's got a great voice, great stage presence and she's got what it takes."

Making Your Own Tracks

The positive reinforcement was a welcome sign for Harris that she was on the right track.

"I'm a perfectionist," she admits. "I know I'm not the best guitar player and there were [musicians] there who knew about guitar, but I was pleased they seemed to like it."

A busy summer allowed Harris to take a breather for music: she played Diane in the American Stage Theatre Company's wildly successful production of Hair, The Blue Scarf Collective -- a playwriting group with local artists Heather Jones and Roxanne Fay --  presented a trio of one-act plays titled Triage: The Mortality Plays to audiences in St. Petersburg and Tampa, and placed third at the Southern Fried Poetry Slam in Knoxville, TN with team members Reggie Eldridge and DeTyme of Sacred Sounds at Sacred Grounds and poet Walter Jennings.

Active involvement in the local art scene gives this burgeoning young talent a chance to appreciate everything the Tampa Bay region has to offer creative individuals -- including its people.

"There are a lot of brilliant gems in the Tampa Bay area," she says. "Young people who are struggling financially, but want so much for this community and for the arts. I'm inspired to know them and am inspired by them."

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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