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Innovative artist crafts three-dimensional paintings amid live music

Bean Spence works on a three-dimensional painting at the Crowbar in Ybor City. Spence incorporates recycled items into his artwork.


Bean Spence works on a three-dimensional painting at the Crowbar in Ybor City. Spence incorporates recycled items into his artwork.


Pop on a pair of Chromadepth 3-D paper glasses, kindly provided by the artist, and that already vivid seascape of bug-eyed reef fish he just painted becomes a scuba adventure. • Hang around while Bean Spence paints to live reggae at Crowbar in Ybor City, or to blues, bluegrass and Southern rock at outdoor music festivals throughout Florida, and discover yet another dimension to this self-taught artist from Seminole Heights. • "A lot of artists will put their earbuds in and zone out," says Jill Knowles, marketing manager for Surf Expo, a trade show that draws 15,000 manufacturers and retailers to Orlando twice a year. "Bean's a completely interactive artist. He's great fun."

The 10-foot lighthearted sunset mural Bean created during his first stint as Surf Expo's "special feature" in January hangs in the company's Atlanta headquarters. He's scheduled for an encore at September's show.

A gregarious, 35-year-old former electrician, Spence turned his eclectic brand of performance art into a full-time job about six years ago. For music gigs, he sets up near the stage, close to the band but entrenched in the audience. Tall and thin — he was a string bean of a kid, he says, hence the nickname — he's a presence in a crowd. His chest-length beard bristles with tiny detail brushes; the better to quickly locate one. Paint covers his clothes. As he creates, he chats with curious onlookers. He tells stories, working at a furious pace.

"He produces so much," says Marsha Holton, vendor coordinator for MagnoliaFest and Suwannee Springfest at the Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak. "He can whip out a painting in an hour."

Spence works almost completely with recycled materials. His canvasses are old windows, jalousie glass, doors, fence planks, ironing boards — anything that he can carve or paint.

"I get picture frames from yard sales, people's trash — it's crazy what people throw out," he says. "I find old windows when people are renovating their houses. Friends call me and say, 'I have this old tool-shed door,' or 'I have this armoire I'm getting rid of.' Yeah, I'll take it."

A history buff, he digs up antique bottles, buttons and broken whatnots at razed homes in his historic neighborhood and in decades-old Tampa trash piles. Many of his finds become part of his art, which includes studio pieces from collages to stage props.

He's been painting forever, he says, drawing from visions that keep his mind so busy, it's hard to sleep at night. Onlookers can view almost all of his work in two dimensions or three, a technique that involves shading and highlighting, contrasting colors and manipulating them to get the hue that makes everything pop.

Occasionally, he sneaks in a subtle black-light message — "Have a great day!" — for viewers to discover, someday, by chance.

"He can take anything and turn it into a piece of art," says Holton, who has booked Spence for festivals for years. "Bean's my favorite artist. I like him as a person. I like him as an artist. I like him as a family man."

Therein lies another dimension. Spence married Cori, an administrator with the Women, Infants and Children program, 11 years ago. They have two boys, 10-year-old Ethan and 8-year-old Shane, and for the past three years, Spence has been a stay-at-home dad. It's a job he cherishes.

"My father died when I was young," he says. "I didn't have a father figure to grow up with. I don't have many memories of him.

"I love that I get to spend more time with my sons. … I'm teaching them about art, nature, right and wrong."

And, adds Shane, air hockey.

Like many folk artists, Spence has never had a formal lesson. But is his work folk art?

Jeanine Taylor, who specializes in contemporary Southern folk art at Jeanine Taylor Folk Art Gallery in Sanford, says no. She hadn't heard of Spence, but offered a definition of folk art: compulsive urge to create (check); no formal training (check); uses whatever's available (check); works in isolation (un-check!).

True folk artists, it seems, aren't on the Internet. But a look at his work at elicited gasps of appreciation from Taylor.

"He is quite evolved!"

If one needs a label for Spence's work, Taylor suggests "outsider art," pieces created by artists with nontraditional philosophies and styles. Outsider art, like folk art, has extra value because it inspires others to experiment with new techniques and media, she says.

It comes as no surprise — Spence doesn't care about labels. He's grateful to make a living doing what he loves while making memories with his sons. He likes finding ways to make people cherish their cast-offs.

And bringing a few more smiles to the world? That's icing.

Penny Carnathan can be reached at

. if you go

Bean Spence performs

Blackwater Music Festival: Sept. 22-24; Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, 3076 95th Drive, Live Oak; (386) 364-1683; Tickets: Prices vary according to date purchased. Three-day festival with camping is $150 through Aug. 27; single-day tickets are $25 to $50

FolkFest St. Pete: Oct. 1-2; on Central Avenue between 11th and 13th streets; (727) 825-0515. For more information, go to

Magnolia Fest: Oct. 20-23; Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, 3076 95th Drive, Live Oak; (386) 364-1683. Tickets: Four-day festival with camping, $165 in advance; single day, $50 to $70; ages 12 and younger, free.

Innovative artist crafts three-dimensional paintings amid live music 08/18/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 18, 2011 4:30am]
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