Artist Enclave in Historic Kenwood gains momentum in St. Pete

Sculptors, writers, fiber artists and stained glass artists, painters, costume designers, and dancers live here in St. Petersburg's Historic Kenwood, a small neighborhood district defined by brick cobblestone streets, hexagonal paver sidewalks and distinctive Bungalow and Craftsman-style homes from the 1920s and ‘30s.  

The neighborhood, bordered by 9th Avenue North and Central Avenue, and 19th Street North and 34th Street North, has the highest concentration of Craftsman-style homes in Florida and was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2003.  Michael Baker, liaison and artist, and his wife MJ Baker, also an artist, both with the Artist Enclave of Historic Kenwood.

In 2014, as a testament to the growing number of creative people who were moving to the area, the City of St. Petersburg gave approval for Historic Kenwood to become an officially sanctioned Artist Enclave Overlay District.  

The designation gives local creatives permission to make artwork in garages, porches, spare bedrooms, and backyard studios. It also gives them the approval to sell their artwork and teach classes from home.

“We call ourselves the neighborhood of the arts -- where art lives,” says MJ Baker, a fiber artist and former liaison between the Artist Enclave of Historic Kenwood and the Historic Kenwood Neighborhood Association. 

“Artists are allowed to create art in their own space at home; it’s very organic with a mix of small-scale home businesses,” says Baker, who is also the secretary of the Historic Kenwood Neighborhood Association.

Today there are about 60 artists who are members of the artist enclave, including several with international reputations, such as fine artist Steven Kenny and installation artist Ya La’Ford.

How does the city define an artist 

An artist is defined by the City of St. Petersburg Arts Enclave Overlay District guidelines as an individual who creates a product in one of the following categories: Fine Art, Craft Art, Design, Photography, Filmmaking, Musical, Literary or Performing Art. That includes artists whose craft is book cover design and layout, mosaics, woodworking, jewelry, theater design, and writing plays. 

A handmade rag rug in the early stages created by MJ Baker.Creating from home has obvious advantages, including not having to pay for rental space and definitely saving on the commute. But there could be some concern among the neighbors.  

To try to make sure everyone is happy, the artist enclave ordinance has specific rules and regulations, such as limiting scheduled
appointments to four per day and limiting the number of artist enclave-sponsored events per year. There is also a noise ordinance. Walls and fences are required around the property and kilns must be set back at least 10 feet from the lot line.

Baker credits both the LGBT community and historic preservation specialist Bob Jeffrey with helping transform Historic Kenwood into the thriving neighborhood it is today -- and with pursuing its arts enclave designation.

Designation as an artist enclave has helped raise the community’s visibility, says Baker, and allows the continued revitalization of the neighborhood’s many historic homes by people who recognize their value.

It has also been a useful economic development tool for the artists in helping generate greater awareness of their work. That’s especially true of the annual Artists at Work in Historic Kenwood Tour, held in March.  

Hands-on art activities prove popular

This year’s tour on March 16-17 was the organization’s 4th annual event, and the most successful to date, says Baker. Twenty-one artists showcased their work at 12 different homes.

“Not everyone who came on the tour purchased a piece of artwork, but that was not the point. It was about seeing the artists working in their studios,” says Baker.  

In fact, Baker hosted two hands-on art activities for tour participants -- a session working with hot glue guns and stencils and a craft workshop making an impression of a leaf or flower on a piece of cotton fabric.  “People loved it; it made the tour personal and they got to make something for free and take it home with them,” says Baker.

Baker and her husband Michael, a mosaic and stained glass artist, moved to Historic Kenwood in 2015, after living a few years
in a golfing community in New Port Richey.  Stained glass pieces made by artist Michael Baker, liaison of the Artist Enclave of Historic Kenwood.

Originally from Lansing, MI, MJ had been a high school drama teacher, and Michael was an electrician for the local GM plant. After they retired to New Port Richey, Michael jokes that he found out he couldn’t play golf.

Making the decision to move to St. Petersburg and the Historic Kenwood neighborhood was an easy one, say the couple. “We were familiar with the area and loved the arts vibe,” says Michael. “It’s a great location and everything is right here. We can walk to restaurants, shops and even ball games at Tropicana Field.”

MJ was emphatic that the only neighborhood they would consider moving to in St. Petersburg was Kenwood. And she says the community’s designation as an artist enclave was the reason.  

“Michael was just getting into stained glass and I was determined to have him pursue his art in a meaningful manner. He is so
talented and I wanted him to begin selling his work and seeing the fruits of his labor,” says MJ. “Our real estate agent suggested that we broaden our search, but I said I am not going to consider moving anywhere else. I am not giving up until we find a house in Kenwood.”

Four years later, the couple is an intrinsic part of the arts community. MJ has her own air-conditioned studio behind the house and Michael is drawing up plans to turn the garage, where he has his current glass art studio, into a much larger, air-conditioned space to support his work.

Halloween Lady comes to town 

For more than 20 years, Janna Kennedy-Hyten had a reputation as the “Halloween Lady” in the historic Clinton Hill community of Brooklyn, NY. An accessories costume designer and artisan craftsmen, Kennedy-Hyten hosted an annual over-the-top Halloween celebration that was well attended by the local community. Now she says she might have put her creative talents to work in St. Pete. In September 2018, she moved into Historic Kenwood to be closer to her daughter, who works for the Center for Great Apes, a sanctuary in Wauchula, FL.

“I had initially thought about moving to St. Augustine and opening a bed and breakfast, but a friend suggested that I consider St.(L-R) Paola Nesmith, a jeweler, checks out Janna Kennedy-Hyten's costume art, and Halloween artifacts, inside her Historic Kenwood home.

Petersburg,” says Kennedy-Hyten. “When I toured Kenwood it reminded me a lot of Brooklyn. I had an immediate connection. Then I learned about the artist enclave and felt right at home.”  

Her garage studio, third on the stop for this year’s Artist At Work Tour, is designed to resemble a spooky Halloween set and is
filled with Victorian-era clothing, furniture and accessories, as well as her artisan crafts, which include unusual handcrafted nests made with vintage threads, copper wire, silk yarn, and other materials. 

The home of renowned clay artist Jan Richardson was the first stop on the artist tour. Inside Richardson had on display about a dozen of her distinctive hand-built clay houses, paper clay porcelain bowls, and sculptural vessels that she has been creating since 1977.  

Outside, in Richardson’s plant-filled backyard, 83 Degrees Media photographer Amber Sigman had her outstanding collection of photographs of indigenous people from around the world. 83 Degrees Media featured Sigman’s work in a November 13, 2018 story when she was named one of the 2018 Dali Dozen.

Richardson moved to St. Petersburg four years ago from Washington State and found Historic Kenwood to be the “perfect place.”  

“I bought the house about the same time the artist enclave overlay districtJan Richardson, founder, artist, and designer of Windy Meadows Pottery, and an AEHK member.
was being approved by city council,” says Richardson. “At the time, I had no idea that it would be poised to do what it has for the neighborhood. We have an interesting group in the enclave, many artists with international reputations.”

Richardson doesn’t have her clay studio at home, but rents space at the Morean Center for Clay. “My clay work is very messy and requires kilns in an environment like the Morean,” says Richardson.  But she does help organize the artist tour every year. “It’s wonderful for the community to see artists at work in their own environment and it’s also fun for the public to see inside the bungalow homes,” says Richardson.  

Nanette Davis, a former science teacher at Boca Ciega High School, lived in the Old Northeast neighborhood of St. Petersburg with her husband Robin Davis until a year-and-a-half ago. “We kept hearing all of our friends talking about how everyone was moving to Kenwood,” says Davis. “So we decided to move here too and joined the arts enclave. It was an instant connection. Now I’ve just finished writing a memoir that is soon to be published. Next will be a Young Adult fiction. That’s my dream and I’m going to make it happen. Everyone here is involved in something creative. It’s a very welcoming community.”

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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