SULPHUR SPRINGS — Machines roar, construction workers walk about, dust flies and the sun beats down mercilessly. All the while, the resident artist busily paints waterbirds.
Longtime local artist John Gurbacs, commissioned by the city of Tampa to beautify a bland new water pumping station building next to the Sulphur Springs Pool, has been painting for the last two months while a construction crew wraps up work on the grounds.
Gurbacs sensed at first that his hard-hatted colleagues viewed him as "a wuss or something.''
"But then they see me going up on the scaffolding and stuff,'' he says, and they decided, "Oh, he's okay.''
Now, he gets regular appraisals from the brawny critics.
"You can't beat that. That's quality work,'' says worker Keith Edwards, 26, of Tampa.
"This building was ugly. Now, it's a work of art,'' says John Resh, emphasizing the compliment for dramatic effect and grinning at Gurbacs.
Resh, a 57-year-old pipe worker from Gainesville, snaps pictures with his phone to keep his artist girlfriend updated on the progress.
Gurbacs, 64, lives in Sulphur Springs and has worked full-time as an artist since the 1980s. He has paintings in the Tampa Museum of Art, Gulf Coast Museum, USF Contemporary Art Museum and corporate offices of Tampa Electric Co. and Holland & Knight law firm.
His proposal to re-create part of the Hillsborough River ecosystem on the building, which is near the river, won the $20,000 contract from the city. Herons, manatees, a roseate spoonbill and other Hillsborough River fauna are taking shape amid the flora on the pump station walls.
The pump station was an ideal candidate for Gurbacs' brush because it is so visible to motorists on Nebraska Avenue and patrons of the swimming pool, says Robin Nigh, manager of the city's Art Programs Division. A similar beauty treatment by artist Michael Parker will soon start on Adamo Drive, where the backs of ugly warehouses will get a mural with an Ybor City theme.
Gurbacs' design for the pump station was chosen, Nigh says, because it wraps around the whole building and has an environmental, educational appeal.
"It seems to soften the building.''
Gurbacs, 64, has loved painting all his life. He loved to draw as a little boy in his native Hungary. He jokes that his relatives showered him with positive reinforcement just to keep him sitting still.
His family escaped the Soviet-bloc country during the popular uprising in 1956. As an 8-year-old, he looked out his window to see Russian tanks set ablaze and the charred corpses of their crews. "I can close my eyes and see stuff.''
He and hopes to finish the mural by the middle of March.
At first, climbing up and down scaffolding all day took its toll on him. It surprised Gurbacs, who swims laps and lifts weights to stay in shape.
"I could hardly walk to my car. I'm thinking, this is crazy. I'm too old for this.''
He eventually adjusted, and now he's just one of the guys on the construction site — the one in charge of the water birds.
Philip Morgan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.