Vignettes Of Tampa: Casting Light On The City's Deepest Roots

Telling the story of Tampa visually is no easy task. For glass artist Susan Gott, it means weaving historical objects and events into Vignettes of Tampa, three 8.5-foot-tall vertical panels, each encasing a series of six colorful, tactile cast-glass tiles mixing an eclectic assortment of images of water, architecture and cultural diversity reflecting the city's rich history.

Gott's work will soon be installed as part of the Zack Street Promenade of the Arts project, a large-scale effort to make Downtown Tampa more inviting to pedestrians by integrating additional public art. Visitors got a first look at the Vignettes of Tampa tiles during a sneak preview in July at Gott's Phoenix Glass Studio and Gallery in Seminole Heights.

The first phase of the Zack Street project is scheduled to be unveiled later this fall.

Getting Started

Responding to a call out to artists by the City of Tampa, Gott submitted a proposal over a year and a half ago. By January 2012, she began creating the outdoor architectural panel system using her signature cast-glass design after brainstorming with colleague and landscape architect Phil Graham to develop the concept: using cast-glass and tiles to create historically based imagery of Tampa depicting actual artifacts and the stories behind them.

"At first, we started with ideas of flora and fauna, but as the project gained momentum, it became more object-based using both contemporary and historical objects that had a tactile reference," Gott says.

To gather historical objects to inspire each tile's design, Gott spent several months visiting area museums and meeting with curators at institutions such as the Tampa Bay History Center and Henry B. Plant Museum. Her goal? To fully understand the background and significance of the objects being chosen, and to ensure the safety of the items during the casting process.

Robin Nigh, manager of the Arts Program Division for the City of Tampa, says the Vignettes of Tampa panels will be installed on the south side of Zack Street between Ashley Drive and Tampa Street and believes Gott's attention to detail will compel pedestrians to stop and take notice.

"The work is just beautiful. She really has captured the spirit of Tampa and they're quite enveloping," Nigh says. "You cannot help but want to reach out and put your hands on the tiles."

A City And Its Imagery

A glass artist for more than 30 years with work displayed in galleries across the world, Gott immersed herself in the process of deciding what each tile would represent and the objects used to help tell the story. In one panel of Vignettes of Tampa, she covers everything from Ybor City's flourishing cigar industry and historical Tampa Theatre to the University of Tampa's trademark minarets and Gasparilla celebrations with coins, beads and a key to the City.

Another panel recognizes the steady presence of recreational sports, the legend of Jose Gaspar and the Platt Street Bridge.

A third panel features tiles honoring the city’s Spanish influence, early Native American roots, the Port of Tampa and the Jackson Rooming House at 851 Zack Street, renowned for being the city's only room and board hotel available to notable African American performers, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles, who visited Tampa during the 1940s and 1950s.

A theme that weaves throughout all three panels is the impact of local waterways.

"What ties the community together is the Hillsborough River and Tampa Bay. That's what makes this place special. That's why people came here," Gott says.

The Casting Process

Gott works with a team, as many as three others at one time, throughout the casting process. After tiles of plywood and wax or plywood and plaster are created to serve as molds, she prepares a box of casting sand and presses carefully either the tile or the object itself into the sand. When lifted out of the sand, glass heated in a furnace up to 2,300 degrees is poured into the resulting sand mold. After a week of cooling, the piece is removed from the sand for grinding and polishing to smooth and refine surfaces. The tiles are then glued into position within the panels.

Each panel weighs about 300 pounds and will be installed using an overhead crane system with a screen connecting each panel to each other. They will be positioned to be backlit by natural sunlight during the day and feature recessed lighting at their feet to provide illumination by night.

Public Art's Role

Gott felt glass would be the ideal medium for the public art piece, with its ability to capture an object and its reflection in a recognizable material.

"The Zack Street piece is telling a story. This is a public piece, something that is supposed to engage people in conversation about where they live or where they're visiting."

For phase two of the Promenade of the Arts project, Nigh notes that Gott is slated to work on another piece more focused on native plants and wildlife. For now, Nigh is pleased with the final results and looks forward to the formal roll-out.

"Two years ago, we called out to artists and wanted to focus more on the community," she says. "Public art is inseparable from a community, and like architecture, it not only enhances curb appeal but speaks to our identity and who we are."

Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer living in the 'burbs of Tampa with her husband and her assistant, a 14-year-old dachshund-Chihuahua. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Chris Kuhn.

Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer, editor and blogger who resides in the northern ‘burbs of Tampa with her husband and a rambunctious Shih Tzu. She is a frequent contributor to area print and online publications and previously served as editor for a local women’s publication. A graduate of Florida State University, Chris has been published nationally and written two books, her most recent, an anthology celebrating public art as a central focal point for storytelling across various Florida communities, including Tampa. When she is not writing, Chris loves checking out art, movies and museums, and discovering new Thai restaurants.