Not Your Grandfather's St. Petersburg: City Of The Arts Gains Traction

It's hard not to do a double-take when you notice a pair of high heels – the kind Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City might wear – splattered with every color of paint under the rainbow.  Or paint-streaked sneakers topped off with a business suit.  Dozens of these multicolored shoes, boots, sandals and sneakers are showing up at City Hall, at restaurants and corporate offices.  

Are Floridians suddenly unleashing their inner artist?  Perhaps.  But behind the scenes the shoes are part of a brilliant promotion heralding the grand opening of the Chihuly Collection, a combination gallery and retail shop that will house the most comprehensive permanent collection of Dale Chihuly glass art in the country, right here in downtown St. Petersburg.

Why the pairing of Chihuly with shoes? "He's known for wearing paint-streaked shoes, says Katee Tully, president and executive director of the Morean Arts Center, a partner in the new arts venture. "We're having a lot of fun with it."

This summer, when the Chihuly Collection opens in a prime location on Beach Drive, the Morean Arts Center will be realizing a dream that started more than six years ago when the Tampa Museum of Art and then the Museum of Fine Arts brought Chihuly exhibits to the Tampa Bay region.  

One of the most recognized modern glass artists in the world, Chihuly's dazzling glass designs drew record crowds to the museum. The Morean Arts Center, whose mission is education and community outreach, got involved by developing a series of live glass blowing demonstrations and classes.  Not long after, the arts center began talking with Chihuly about creating a center here that would showcase his work and offer educational programs for children and adults.

"Many twists and turns later," says Tully, the final result of that initial conversation will be ready for public viewing on the July 4th weekend.  The new venue, designed by Tampa architect Albert Alfonso, will have a real "Wow factor," says Tully.  "It's intended to be a unique multisensory experience that wraps around you."

Warning:  Hot Glass

Chihuly's gallery space is just one aspect of the total picture that the Morean Arts Center has managed to create.  There is also a glass "hot shop" under construction at the arts center's main facility a few blocks away on Central Avenue.  It too will be ready for unveiling on the July 4th weekend.  

The hot shop will have classrooms, a retail shop carrying locally produced glass art, production space for artists and an outdoor covered venue with stadium seating where the public can watch demonstrations.    

"The stadium will function like a live theater so the audience can observe a glass artist at work," says Tully.  "This is really unique in the country; the pairing of museum gallery with a hot shop."

Douglas Taylor, Jr.
, a 36-year-old Tampa artist, will be the star of the show transforming molten liquid into solid shapes.  "I do some of my best work before an audience," says Taylor.  "I love the visceral nature of glass and the excitement and sounds as you're working with it.  You have to be able to take the heat, which can get up to 2,500 degrees."  

He hopes that viewing the Chihuly Collection will raise public awareness about glass art and that it will entice people to visit the Morean Arts Center to watch a performance and take a class themselves, sort of a full circle arts experience.

Tully takes that idea one step further.  She sees art as the impetus for economic development.  "When Dale decided to put his flag in Seattle (Chihuly's home base), there wasn't much of a glass presence there.  Look at it now.  Why couldn't we create the same thing here?"  She envisions the Chihuly Collection and the Morean Arts Center hot shop as the kick-start for a burgeoning glass art industry that draws artists, suppliers, shippers and other related businesses to the Tampa Bay region.  

A Growing Hub For Clay Artists

It's not only the glass industry that stands to benefit from Chihuly coming to town.  

Clay artists got an expected boost when the Morean Art Center decided to located its hot shop in the former clay studio.  Needing to find a new home for the clay program, the arts center turned to the St. Petersburg Clay Company, a long-time co-op housed in the historic Seaboard Coastline Freight Depot in St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood.  

"It just made sense to pair the Morean Art Center clay program with the exiting powerhouse clay program at the train station," says Tully.  Little known outside the inner circle of clay artists, the clay company has working studios for some 60 clay artists, a nationally recognized artist-in-residence program and dozens of kilns for firing clay.

Valerie Scott Knaust, Morean Arts Center clay program manager, is thrilled with the arrangement. "We're providing an educational component that wasn't here before, we're in a beautiful new space that has been completely renovated and we've been able to triple the size of our program," says Knaust.  Plans also call for creating an onsite restaurant, which will further raise the Clay Company's visibility.

Matt Schiemann, a 28-year-old clay artist, is one of eight artists in the artist-in-residence program.  He moved to St. Petersburg last year with his wife, McKenzie, after graduating with an MFA from Southern Illinois University. He also teaches clay art for the Morean and for Eckerd College, a private liberal arts college.  

"When I started checking out residency programs, I was looking for a bit of an urban environment," says Schiemann. "St. Petersburg offers that and more.  For the first time in my career I have an arts community around me. It's a great feeling."

More on the Horizon

The recent transformation of St. Petersburg's Crislip Arcade into an artist's enclave filled with small galleries and studio space is providing yet another creative outlet for the arts.  It's also dramatically changing a space that was once a run-down block of 1926-era stores.  Now dubbed the arts district, the place is buzzing with new energy.  A ribbon-cutting block party took place this spring with hundreds of people of all ages spilling out into the streets to enjoy music, a fashion show and art.

 And, still to come is the new Dali Museum, a $36 million, 66,450-square-foot museum that is twice the size of the former marine warehouse that currently houses his art.  The new place, under construction in the Progress Energy Center for the Arts complex on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront, is expected to be complete by early next year.  

Not surprising, considering Dali's eccentric artistic genius, the building has an unusual, surrealistic design with a geodesic glass dome that looks like it's alive and flowing from the rectangular gallery space. Drive by and you can see it take shape. The arts are definitely alive here on Florida's Gulf Coast.

Janan Talafer is a St. Petersburg-based freelance writer with a passion for swing dancing, tropical gardening and collecting shells.  She shares a home office with her faithful cat Milo and dog Bear. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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