When a fiberglass elephant arrived at artist Jules Burt's Plant City home last month, Burt went to work turning the unusual canvas into colorful pop art. First, she added big eyes and full red lips. Then came the beauty marks and earrings, the fake eyelashes and dazzling dress. "She's a diva," Burt said of the finished work, which will help greet visitors in town for the Republican National Convention next month.
From now until the RNC, dozens of elephants will pop up at places including the airport and Channelside for Herd About Tampa Bay, a project presented by the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Committee and the Outdoor Arts Foundation (OAF).
Everyone from GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney to television's Jon Stewart will likely see the four-by-four sculptures, which OAF designed to hang on interior and exterior walls. Stylized by local painters and mixed-media artists, each pachyderm uniquely represents the bay area and showcases the growing local arts community, OAF director Jay Goulde said.
"For a week, the focus of the nation is going to be on Tampa Bay," Goulde said. "It is important to exhibit the talents of our local artists, and the businesses and individuals that support them."
Each sculpture is sponsored by a person or business at a cost of $2,000, which includes the artist fee. With sponsorships still available, Goulde hopes to see about 30 elephants completed come mid August. Sponsors can either keep or donate their elephant following the Convention, Goulde said.
Burt spent 92 hours painting her first elephant, sponsored by JCON Commercial, and just started work on a second to debut at Tampa International Airport. The work-in-progress, sponsored by the National Watermelon Promotion Board, will look like a giant fruit.
While the elephant is a symbol of the Republican party, art transcends politics, Burt said.
"I don't care if it's politicians or people at the mall," she said. "A lot of people don't know a lot about art. This is a great way to show them."
Davis Islands artist Eileen Goldenberg also partnered with OAF to help bring awareness to the arts.
"Public art is really important and there is not enough of it in Tampa yet, but we're getting there," she said. "A temporary project like this helps encourage that."
Goldenberg previously participated in similar OAF projects, painting manatees and turtles that appeared in public venues. For this venture, she transformed her elephant into a cheerful welcome to Tampa Bay. Sponsored by a Virginia-based couple, it will also appear at the airport.
"It's my signature style, covered in hearts and flowers, happy and welcoming," Goldenberg said. "It's always very exciting to know that people from all over are seeing your art as opposed to just locally."
Welder Nancy Cutler said Herd About Tampa Bay is great exposure for new artists like herself. Her husband sponsored her participation in the project and she works out of her garage in Lutz. As she puts the finishing touches on her elephant, she wonders how people will react to the piece. She imagines pleased smiles and quizzical looks.
"It is completely different than any of them you'll see, maybe a little too different for some people," Cutler said. "I molded steel onto the fiberglass, then I used blown rubber tires to fill the negative space. I didn't paint it at all."
Goulde said no one elephant will resemble another. Artists used everything from mosaic tiles to mirrors to adorn their sculptures. Old newspaper clippings will cover an elephant sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times.
To date, only one elephant has hit the streets. In late June, printer Carl Cowden III unveiled his tribute to Tampa, featuring images of Busch Gardens, University of Tampa and an Ybor City street car. The mural-style work hangs at Tampa Bay & Company's visitor center at Channelside. This week, at least two more elephants will go on display.
"They'll sort of trickle out as the artists are finished with them," Goulde said.
Rather than wait until August to show off her elephant diva, Jules Burt takes the sculpture around town with her. She took it took the pool and to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino. Onlookers especially love the elephant's hooves, painted crimson to resemble designer Christian Louboutin's famous red-bottomed heels.
"My pieces are like my kids and I'm a proud mama," Burt said. "I'll do anything I can do to bring people closer to art."
To sponsor an elephant or for more information regarding Herd About Tampa Bay, call Jay Goulde at (727) 954-4025 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah Whitman can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2439.