Murals pump new life into downtown Tampa Channel District

Looking skyward, pedestrians strolling the streets of the Channel District in downtown Tampa see a vertical urban landscape of residential towers and offices squared into tight spaces and sharp angles.

But at ground level, the view includes lots of eye candy made of bold colors reflected in the imaginative artistry of larger-than-life murals painted on otherwise blank walls.

A giant sea turtle swims beneath a pirate ship. A scrappy, scruffy dog channels the call of a wolf, baying at the moon. A flamingo playfully tosses horseshoes. Local women artists receive a place of honor. The Channel District’s history from banana docks to cruise lines tells the story of the Port of Tampa.

Indeed the murals create a distinct character and culture in the Channel District, and throughout the evolving skyline of downtown Tampa.

The Tampa Downtown Partnership is a patron of this public art through the Activate Downtown Micro-Grant Program, awarding grants of up to $2,500. The Channel District Community Alliance (CDCA) often co-sponsors local art projects with its own grants. Both groups sustain a burgeoning arts community with a creative placemaking vision that sees arts as a catalyst of economic success and a boost to local tourism.

Approved projects are scored on elements including originality, relation to downtown, accessibility, and playfulness.

Recipients of these grants include:

Meaghan Farrell Scalise of Tada! at her studio in Channel District is a Tampa Downtown Partnership Activation Grant recipient.

Meaghan Farrell Scalise
Farrell Scalise and her husband Shawn Scalise live in a two-story home on an otherwise commercial block on 11th Street in the Channel District. The 1960s structure started as an office, now dwarfed by taller, newer buildings.

Behind her home, Farrell Scalise creates artwork at her studio – Tada! Traditional and Digital Arts LLC. A short distance away Shawn Scalise is the team leader for City Blue Digital Imaging.
Farrell Scalise combines two distinct styles of art, offering traditional fine art painting as well as computer design, graphics, media printing, and murals.

In 2017 she received grants from the Downtown Partnership and the CDCA for a mural known as "The Maven'' in Washington Street Park. The artwork depicts the history and heritage of the Port of Tampa.

“They wanted to do something big and beautiful to say welcome to Channel District,” Farrell Scalise says.

Murals are part of the walkable character of the district, she adds.

“This neighborhood has minimal landscaping, zero property lines,” Farrell Scalise says. “Walking on the sidewalk, you’re right up against walls. There’s not a lot that is beautiful at ground level.”

However, she continues, “It’s great for realtors to help sell their rentals. It makes the entire district more desirable.”
Farrell Scalise credits the Downtown Partnership and CDCA for understanding the financial as well as the cultural value of public art.

“Their backing and support have made it a lot easier to get some art downtown,” she says. “They are the ones driving arts in the neighborhood.”

It’s a collaboration that includes the owners of the buildings who must give permission for the artwork.

“It’s not just anyone with a spray can who can come in here,” she says. “It’s been challenging to convince them of the value of this. But it’s been really important to make sure artists are paid and the value is there.”

A high school teacher first pointed Farrell Scalise down the path to becoming an artist. "She told me I had talent,'' Farrell Scalise says.

At the Florida School of the Arts, a plea for student artists unafraid heights put her on another path – as a muralist.

“That (mural) was my first one,” she says, and it required a fire truck with a ladder reaching three-stories high. “All of a sudden you’re sitting in a fire truck on this huge wall. ... I thought this could be fun and exciting and just great art.”

While "The Maven'' has a more formal style to it, Farrell Scalise painted two other murals in the Channel District with large splashes of whimsy.

In the self-explanatory "Flamingo Toss,'' an iconic Florida flamingo tosses horseshoes on the outer wall of the Channelside Lofts.

“They wanted something fun, colorful, and very Florida,” she says. “That was the only limit they gave me.”

Farrell Scalise painted “Be Your Own Spotlight” as a message about life writ large on an outer wall of Farrell Scalise’s home. A small dog shows his inner courage as he howls and casts the shadow of a much larger wolf-like animal.

“There’s a big, bad wolf in all of us,” Farrell Scalise says. “It’s about having confidence.”

Derek Donnelly of Saint Paint Arts stands with his aquatic mural outside Greenroots Cafe in the Channel District.

Derek Donnelly

When Donnelly paints murals, he also looks forward to drawing an audience.

“It’s one of my favorite parts of the job, meeting them and talking with them,” says Donnelly, owner of the art gallery, Saint Paint Arts.

His gallery and studio are in Pinellas Park inside a storage container that is part of the Pinellas Arts Village. Donnelly got his start as a muralist, and an arts advocate, painting whimsical, humorous Florida tableaux on exterior walls of buildings in downtown St. Petersburg.

He is a founder of the mural trend in St. Petersburg’s arts districts. The Mural Art Tour and second Saturday Art Walk, supported by the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, are popular attractions for locals and tourists.

Art is a major reason for the rebirth of downtowns, Donnelly says.

People used to think of Florida as a place to visit for its sunny beaches, but “Now it’s to live in a creative environment. The reason they like moving here is [because] they’re seeing so much culture blooming here. There’s probably more opportunity than ever.”

Donnelly’s murals are in the downtown St. Petersburg area but also at Tropicana Field, the Sirata Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach, and at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. He also has murals in Miami’s Bird Road Art District and Wynwood Business Improvement District.
He shifted his eye toward Tampa in 2019 to receive grants from the Downtown Partnership and the CDCA for “Timeless Bay.” His underwater sea world with a pirate ship sailing above is at 1000 Channelside Drive, near The Florida Aquarium.

Painting on the side of a building often brings challenges as well as benefits from the architectural design elements.

For Donnelly, the Channelside Drive building provided clear dividing lines between underwater and above water.

“We either incorporate them into the design and celebrate the weird little pipelines or paint over them and make them blend in,” he says.

What he hopes is that his audience feels “like part of our experience. That’s what I try to produce, not just a big picture of art but an experience.”

The grants from the Downtown Partnership and the CDCA are helping unite creative communities across Tampa Bay, he says.

“I think what is unique and great about (a mural) – it’s for and about everyone in the community but no one can take it home,” Donnelly says. “It’s for everybody but nobody at the same time. It creates a sense of ownership for everyone. Everyone feels a connection to it.”

Tampa’s mural scene is not as far along as St. Petersburg's, which is spread throughout about 20 to 30 blocks, but Donnelly says, “Tampa has pockets of coolness. Geographically it’s set up differently and is much larger. Tampa has alternative things to offer.”

In high school, Donnelly painted and created sculptors.

“I was fortunate enough to be taught by amazing teachers,” he says. Still, he wasn’t sure he would make art his career. He attended the International Academy of Design and Technology in Tampa. Then, eight years ago, he became a muralist.

Donnelly bears witness to his creative mentor with a tattoo. A painter’s brush inked along his arm points its tip to the name of the artist known as Woo.

Woo, also remembered as the “fish guy,” died on Nov. 26, 2012.

“He was a big inspiration and had an open arms policy working with other artists,” Donnelly says.

Donnelly painted a giant blue portrait of Woo on a wall in an alley off Central Avenue in St. Pete. Over two weeks, more than 40 artists contributed to the mural. A celebration marked the mural’s completion and sparked strong emotions that brought the community together.

“It shows the power and love within the artist community,” says Donnelly. “It was a real turning point for the art scene in St. Pete and Tampa Bay.”

When he was growing up, downtown St. Pete had little to offer creatives, maybe Jannus Landing and the Pier. “There wasn’t a lot of culture,” he says.

Donnelly grew up enjoying family trips to Orlando theme parks, including Disney World.

“I liked its big, bold colors, the life colors,” he says. “It resonates with me. I like to see more of that.”

Mural art by Terry Klaaren, a Tampa Downtown Partnership Activation Art grant recipient.

Terry Klaaren

Klaaren is passionate about his love for murals.

His artwork, with the familiar KLAAREN signature, can be found throughout the Tampa Bay Area. He’s putting his heart and soul into a new mural at The Dance Project building on 12th Street in Tampa's Channel District.

Only partially completed, the mural is a tribute to his late wife, Dori Klaaren, artist, and musician and his soulmate of nearly 50 years. She died on New Year’s Eve in 2018, under tragic conditions.

“The first thing I have to do is anything in her memory to keep her close,” says Klaaren.

A plaque dedicates the mural to his wife’s memory. But the completed mural will be a tribute to “women in the arts.”

In the next weeks, Klaaren plans to add finishing touches to portraits of several artists including Luisa Meshekoff, co-founder of The Dance Project; Victoria Jorgensen, filmmaker; Susan Gott, glass artist; Belinda Womack, singer; Jann Childers, musician; and Lorrie Mason, silversmith and jewelry designer. Ceramic artist Anita Endico Long is assisting Klaaren.

Klaaren describes his painting style as “realistic impressionism.” He doesn’t consider himself a conceptual artist. “My inspiration comes from seeing things I want to recreate,” he says. “But all my heroes are impressionists. Realism is something I strive for.”

The Klaarens met when they were freelance artists fresh out of high school and college when the flower-power generation bloomed. Their art and zest for life took them on journeys around the country and the world.

“We traveled constantly getting commissions,” Klaaren says. “The idea was to do it while we were young.”

Klaaren recalls his wife as a “Joni Mitchell-style folk singer who later added rock and country. She just liked to play and hang out with good people.”

She painted, did calligraphy and graphic arts. At various times, he worked as a cartoonist and illustrator.

The couple also did carousel restorations, taking apart the ornate horses, repainting them and putting them together again.

Perhaps the most well-known of Klaaren’s creations is the Recyclosaurus at the entrance to the Museum of Science and Technology (MOSI), off Fowler Avenue in north Tampa.

For several years, Klaaren worked on large projects for Orlando area theme parks including Disney World. He would paint backdrops so big they had to be done on the floor.

It was good practice for murals. “It just blossomed,” he says.

They moved to Tampa in the 1970s where Dori Klaaren sometimes played with bands at Skipper’s Smokehouse.

Klaaren wanted to return to his first artistic love: murals. In the '90s, he said he was one of the few artists willing to paint murals.

His wife stepped into a new role. “She was my agent for 25 years,” he said. “She wanted to make a career for me.”

She was a great planner with a vision for the couple.

Among the projects is a series of travel books based on Klaaren’s journals and Dori Klaaren’s annotations, photos, and sketches. The couple had success with their first book, based on a trip to Colorado, titled “From the South to the Old West.”

They traveled to more than 30 national parks and took annual treks to Europe.

Klaaren is back from a recent trip to France, England, and Sweden -- a trip planned by Dori.

“The sun shown on me every day,” Klaaren says. “We had a very interesting life.”

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Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a freelance writer who lives in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa. She previously covered Tampa neighborhoods for more than 15 years as a reporter for The Tampa Tribune. She grew up in Georgia but headed north to earn a BA degree from Adelphi University in Garden City, NY. She backpacked through Europe before attending the University of Iowa's Creative Writers' Workshop for two years. She has a journalism degree from Georgia College. She likes writing, history, and movies.  
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