Artists Prove To Be Urban Pioneers In Tampa Bay

Artists have always been willing to take a creative and sometimes economic risk in opening studios or galleries.

In doing so, they often help spark urban revitalization by serving as pioneers in moving into neighborhoods still rough around the edges. 

A good example is what's happening in St. Petersburg's Warehouse Arts District, where artists are fueling a slow neighborhood turnaround. In Tampa, creative clusters were among the first to populate neighborhoods like Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights and Ybor City before others would follow.

Moving From Paris To Tampa Heights

Erika Schneider was living and working in France as a fine-art master printer for more than two decades when she decided to relocate to Tampa to be closer to her family. Scouting locations for a studio, she ended up in Tampa Heights, where she bought a vacant 1925-era building that had at various times been a boxing gym, a Haitian preacher's soup kitchen, a hair dressing shop and a "five-and-dime'' general store.

"The neighborhood was a little rough and the building was a wreck, but there was good karma,'' says Schneider.

She got to work demolishing the building's interior – and building the trust of her neighbors, who were skeptical at first about her moving in.

"I was really a pioneer at the time,'' she says. "It was culture shock at first, moving from Paris to Tampa Heights.''

Schneider, along with her husband Dominique Labauvie, a French artist and sculptor, and their daughter Esther, a rising young opera star and student at Tampa Preparatory School, moved into the remodeled building, which they named Bleu Acier.  

The space is now their home, as well as a working artists' studio and an art gallery in which they exhibit works by artists in the U.S. and Europe.

Artists like Schneider and Labouvie have always been urban pioneers of sort. They're the first to move into "transitional'' neighborhoods long before they're gentrified. 

They're often driven by the search for affordable housing, but they're also looking for zoning laws that allow them to live and work onsite, with a photography, glass blowing, metal fabrication or woodworking shop in the backyard -- or in the case of Schneider and Labouvie, right on the other side of the living room.

Regardless of the time of day, Labouvie can step into his studio and create the unique graceful metal sculptures for which he is known.

In her workspace, Schneider has antique printing presses, an onsite dark room and even a prototype of a 1720 French guillotine paper cutter in her studio space for the high-end printing work she does for international clientele.

Converted Garage Turned Art Space

Artists can often see possibilities that most people couldn’t begin to fathom. It's the nature of creativity.

Tracy Midulla Reller, a tenured professor of art at Hillsborough Community College, had been looking for a space for an artist collective, but hadn't really found anything until some suggested a nearby vacant garage, which was owned by her landlord.

"My landlord was only too happy to have someone jump in and use it,'' she says and laughs.

The garage was bare bones -- just cinder block with exposed beams, and it had no running water or air conditioning. It was behind a commercial screen-printing business on a busy street.

With the help of friends, Reller painted the floors, whitewashed the walls, put in an A/C unit and launched Tempus Projects, an alternative artist-run project venue. That was in 2009. 

Today Tempus Projects features both emerging talent and more established local and national artists in all mediums. Exhibitions are contemporary, out-of-the-box and often edgy. 

During last year's Republican National Convention in Tampa, Tempus Projects invited artists to submit "politically charged works in all media,'' including painting, drawing, sculpture, video, digital/graphic art and photography. This year, eight artists exhibited work that explored the theme, "I never thought so much could change.''

"We primarily operate as exhibition and event space but we like to collaborate with other artists, creative groups and collectives,'' says Reller. "We have an eight-person board of directors and hope to get federal nonprofit status some time this year.''

An Old Bus, Now Traveling Bookstore

Two years ago, Mitzi Gordon, a resident of Tampa's Forest Hills neighborhood, purchased a retired short yellow school bus from a used car lot. With the help of friends, she fixed up the inside and painted the outside bright blue. 

Now dubbed, the Bluebird Books Bus, it functions as a mobile bookstore, or what Gordon calls the intersection of books and art -- part bookshop, part art house. 

Gordon hosts book sales, fundraisers, exhibitions and giveaways through the bus and she brings it around town to venues like Tempus Projects, as well as art galleries, vintage shops, record stores and museums. 

On April 23, she toured the Tampa area to give away 20 new copies of Ray Bradbury's classic story, "Farenheight 451'' in recognition of World Book Night US.

Gordon is also the inspiration behind the Open Book Exchange -- book boxes that can hold 30 new or gently used donated books that are free for the taking.

Made from reclaimed materials, the boxes are painted in bright colors, covered with a marine-grade varnish to protect them from the elements and then stuck on a post in the ground, like an oversize mailbox or birdhouse.  There's a little roof on top to keep out the rain and a door that unlatches so you can to reach in to grab a book or drop off a donation or two.
So far there are three book boxes, with more to come.  The first one went up on the sidewalk in front of St. Petersburg's Studio@620 last fall.  Now there's one at the Whimzey House in Safety Harbor and at the nonprofit Community Stepping Stone in Tampa. Gordon is in discussion with the City of Tampa about installing one in downtown Tampa.

"Open Book Exchange is about literature and maintaining people's passion for books as a tangible object,'' she says. "There's nothing like a book in your hands. The project is also about bringing the community together around this idea that encourages them to share.''

Early Seminole Heights Pioneers

Susan Gott of Phoenix Glass Studio was teaching art at two Tampa high schools, but wanted to work full-time as a glass artist. She also wanted to build a hot glass studio on property where she could both live and work.

"You can't have a studio like that in a two-car garage subdivision,'' says Gott.

She found what she was looking for in Seminole Heights. 

"The neighborhood was a little tough at the time, but there was this large, two-story house that was in foreclosure and a big lot that went with it,'' says Gott. There were other advantages too -- natural gas on the property, a location on the fringe of commercial zoning and most important of all, it was affordable.

The house turned out to be an historic, 1912 original Sears & Roebuck home, one of the many Sears' homes sold as a ready-to-assemble kit through a catalog. Gott got a low-interest renovation loan to renovate the house.  She built an adjacent metal structure to house her hot glass shop.

Today, some 20 years later, she's an accomplished glass artist whose work can be found at galleries internationally, as well as public art venues throughout the City of Tampa, such as the Zach Street Promenade of the Arts. She and her 15-year-old daughter continue to live on site and her property now includes additional glass-making spaces, a gallery and gift shop.

New Zealand native Elizabeth Mitchell and sculptor Charlie Parkhill also moved to Seminole Heights in the 1980s, taking a risk on a neighborhood in transition that offered them the chance to work at home right in their own backyard.

"When I first moved here, I wanted a house with no major road between my home and the Hillsborough River and I found exactly what I wanted,'' says Mitchell, who has been creating beautiful silk art in the 600-square-foot apartment studio in her backyard ever since.  

Her work can be found locally at Baisden Gallery in Tampa and Clay and Paper Gallery in Dunedin.

After graduating from the USF Tampa and getting his master's in fine art at the University of Utah, Parkhill bought a house in Seminole Heights and turned a detached garage in back into a woodworking studio.  He worked as a carpenter for almost a decade until his passion for art "called him back.''  

Today, Parkhill is known for his freeform abstract wall sculptures. His art can be found in public, corporate and museum collections around the state and at various art shows. He enjoys working with wood that has signs of wear and tear like nail holes or even old paint, like the piece he made for St. Petersburg's Mainsail juried art show in April. The wood came from the floorboards of a 1918 South Tampa home scheduled for demolition.

Ybor City's Artists

Ybor City is known for its colorful historic past as a cigar-making district. Today it has a reputation for its nightlife. 

It's also where Nataly and Dan Balk have set up shop as artists. For several years, the couple made their living traveling to juried art shows, exhibiting Dan's sterling silver contemporary jewelry.

In 2010, with two young sons to raise, they decided to take a vintage 1900-era house in Ybor City and turn it into Singing Stone-Casa de Art Gallery and Studio

It's the perfect set up. Dan designs and makes jewelry at his studio there, while Nataly manages the gallery.  Work by local and national artists, including Dan, is on display throughout the year. Nataly also enjoys helping emerging artists through the gallery's popular Art on 19th St., which offers live art demonstration and music. Different local artists are showcased each month.

"We open our doors and give new artists a chance to be seen,'' says Nataly. Tampa artists Leigh Robinson and painter Dave Sigel were featured in April.

On May 4th, Singing Stone will feature Dan's work along with that of artist Candy Woolley, a fourth generation tailor/seamstress, who creates one-of-a-kind fashion accessories. Her colorful luxury handbags using quality leathers and exotic skins are reportedly a favorite among Hollywood and New York celebs.

Janan Talafer is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, FL, who shares a home office with her dog Bear and two cats Milo and Nigel. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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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.