What are you doing Saturday morning? Take a walk on the artsy side of St. Pete

Central Avenue is where the funky soul of St. Petersburg resides.

Walk past boutiques. Thread through the tangle of tables and chairs at sidewalk cafes. Or take a quick peak down an alleyway. Paint and color and imagination can be found in the most unexpected places.

Murals pop and beckon from walls usually so blank and plain they would go unnoticed. But  they are seen on Central (and often in other areas of St. Petersburg) where artists are using those walls as their canvasses.

"They just need to paint," says Diane Shelly, executive director of the non-profit Florida Craftsmen Gallery (soon to be renamed Florida CraftArt Gallery). "They have it in their soul."

With about 30 murals in the Central Arts District of downtown St. Petersburg, Shelly says, "Big murals are becoming our brand. I think it's' a great addition to the city not only for visitors but for locals."

There are so many that the gallery in partnership with foodie tour company, Eat. Sip. Indulge., organizes mural walking tours at 10 a.m. on Saturdays. Special times also can be arranged.

The approximately 90-minute tours start at the gallery, at 501 N. Central, and head north to the 800 block, following the avenue or strolling down alleys. 

Tour proceeds cover a small stipend for tour guides and help fund more murals.

People don't think about the cost to artists but Shelly says they can spend hundreds of dollars on a single mural. "The artists should be paid," she says.

Strong story behind each one

Alice Copeland likes to explore the urban nooks and crannies of St. Petersburg especially its murals. She delights in her brother's photographs of the city's murals emailed to her home in St. Pete Beach. She points her car in their direction whenever she can.

"The more you come down here the more it means to you," she says, after a recent walking tour with her husband Wally. "There was a strong story behind each one."

And the Copelands note a strong sense of community in murals that sometimes are collaborations among artists. One mural dedicated to the memory of artist Bill "Woo" Correira stood out with its fantastical sea creatures and in one corner coral handprints stamped on by local children. "It's the community pulling together," says Alice Copeland.

Florida Craftsmen Gallery got into murals in a big way with a $2,500 grant from Regions Bank and a commission to artists Derek Donnelly and Sebastian Coolidge. A local landscape worker loaned a cherry picker one evening to help the artists scale the heights of the gallery's three-story back wall as they created a giant squared-head businessman in a tie  "eyes closed in a moment of reflection." 

It is the largest free-hand style mural in the city, says Shelly.

And, surprisingly, this mural and others have been a deterrent to the taggers who spray paint graffiti. The only problem now, she says, is that the occasional tagging is quickly painted over by the city leaving unsightly patches of paint amid the beauty of mural art.

A sense of vibrancy

The gallery's mural as well as others are sometimes the backdrop for model shoots by photographers. 

"It gives it a sense of vibrancy and youth which we desperately need,"  says one photographer who gave his name as Brooks St. Pete. "It feels like an organism. It's not just a historical site. It's alive. There's a constant change going on."
Shelly is always on the lookout for bare walls that need a mural.

Sometimes it can take a bit of persuasion to convince business owners but many welcome the opportunity. The entrance to St. Pete Brewing Co. is a mural in tribute to Tony Jannus, the pilot who flew the first bi-plane from St. Petersburg to Tampa in 1914.

The Florida Holocaust Museum is exploring possibilities for a mural, Shelly says.

Artists and murals reflect a range of styles and subjects from Chad Mize's portrait of Twiggy to Jennifer Kosharek's homage to Frida Kahlo to Rebekah Lazaridis' paper moon in a window behind Crislip Arcade.

"There's like amazing art in your backyard that you never see," says Audrey Henneman, a law student and part-time docent with Eat. Sip. Indulge. who also helps with the mural tours.

Week to week, tour guides spot new murals that suddenly appear and add to the city's street-art portfolio.

"It's a great opportunity to open your eyes," says Henneman. "I know it's helped me personally to see a little more and take in the beauty of St. Petersburg."

Walking Mural Tour information

The cost for the tour is $19 for adults, $11 for children ages 6-18, under 5 is free. Tours can be booked by clicking on this link.. Groups can arrange for special tour times and pricing by calling 727- 458-9839 or emailing ESI. A portion of the proceeds from the tours will be used to fund future murals.

Reservations are required so we can have tour guides available for you. Wear comfortable shoes as this involves walking on uneven surfaces up four blocks and back.

Tours start at Florida Craftsmen, 501 Central Ave. St. Petersburg, 727-821-7391.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer living in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a feature writer and editor at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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