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South Tampa artist's photos conjure spa decadence

John Canning spent a year on the 58 images for Grand Beauty Spa. He wanted to tell the story of a woman’s experience there.

John Canning

John Canning spent a year on the 58 images for Grand Beauty Spa. He wanted to tell the story of a woman’s experience there.

SOUTH TAMPA — John Canning looked around his 1920s bungalow and found the perfect place to tell a visual story: an open window with white curtains blowing, a sun-warmed corner, a rattan chair in front of a bare wall.

The setting was among many in Canning's home used for one of his most memorable projects.

Last year, the 40-year-old painter and photographer was commissioned by the owner of the Grand Beauty Spa to create 58 visual images to decorate the spa inside an elegantly renovated old house at 2717 W Kennedy Blvd.

Canning is known for his colorful depictions of buildings and scenes in the Caribbean islands, where he is represented by galleries and has an international clientele. But he decided to take a different tack for the spa project.

He hired a versatile fashion model and shot black and white photographs in different rooms of his vintage bungalow.

The project was a yearlong effort. Canning shot a series of large-format, highly feminine photographs that he printed himself, then painted over with thin washes of paint.

"I used overlays of washes and then hand-tinted with sepia," explained Canning, who was trying to achieve a subtle, early Hollywood movie look in his artwork.

Using century-old furniture belonging to his great-grandparents, as well as his home's architecturally distinct nooks and crannies, he shot the same model in such different "high fashion" poses "that no one can tell it's the same woman," he said. "She's very chameleonlike, perfect in every way."

His goal was to create a series of images that visitors to the spa can follow from room to room, "telling the story of a woman's experience at the spa."

Carmen Lee-Sargeant, who owns the Grand Beauty Spa, spent nearly 2 1/2 years renovating the building, a rambling 1917 house that was once owned by baseball great Dizzy Dean and was in later years occupied by the gallery Artsiphartsi.

Despite well-intentioned advice to tear it down, she preserved the structure, becoming a pioneer in the beautification of Kennedy Boulevard. Large-scale original artwork was high on her list of what was needed to make the interior truly unique.

"I am in love with all of John's stuff," said Lee-Sargeant, who first became familiar with Canning when he displayed his work in art shows at her other South Tampa spa, Posh.

At the Grand, the sophisticated interior was designed to look "airy, clean and minimalist, yet still comfortable," Lee-Sargeant said.

Canning's artwork ranges from 8 by 10 inches to 30 by 40 inches. The pedicure room features abstract images of the model's legs and feet as if she were floating. For the women's locker room, he created images of the model preparing to go out for the evening and studying her reflection in an antique silver mirror. For the salon areas, he chose close-up images of lips, hair and chin.

Canning, who studied architecture in college, has worked a variety of jobs over the years in advertising and printing and says that both his education and career training influence his work as an artist. He also collects old mirrors and antique furniture, all of which came in handy during his photo shoots.

"The model and I really collaborated, and she also brought her own props and collection of vintage clothes," said Canning, who used only natural light and spread the shoots out over several seasons to capture the subtle differences in light. For softness, he incorporated old fabrics like antique bridal tulle. "I used layers and layers for that vintage movie star look," he explained.

Canning grew up in South Tampa, spent lots of time at his grandmother's house in Seminole Heights and attended Tampa Catholic school. He jokes that he likes to work "under the radar," never soliciting commissions, but rather taking what comes his way by referral or word of mouth. His images throughout the spa have already attracted the attention of some celebrity clients who want similar pictures of themselves to give to husbands or boyfriends.

"My work is 100 percent tasteful and celebrates the essence of body and form," Canning said.

He typically has clients come to his South Tampa bungalow, where he shoots the photos much in the same way he did for the spa, using natural light and interesting architectural features of his house as a backdrop.

Women who commission Canning to take their pictures are all ages and body types, he says, but end up looking really beautiful in the photos. "I capture them in a true, natural way and in a vintage style," he says.

To learn more about Canning, go to his Web site at or e-mail

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at

South Tampa artist's photos conjure spa decadence 05/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2008 4:44am]
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