Standing 8 feet tall, everything about Hayley-Starr Maldonado's creation is a cartoonlike exaggeration of a person. • Its thin, fabric-draped body. Its big head with protruding yellow eyes. Its handlebar mustache covered in pink and blue polka dots. • Add a rainbow-hued halo and a pair of mechanical green angel wings, and it can be downright alarming. • Which is exactly what Maldonado, 13, of Gibsonton, was going for. As a giant puppet, her creation is meant to turn heads.
She and dozens of others built the surreal art pieces last week at a giant puppet making workshop held at the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin.
Maldonado's unique creation is just one example of what the area's newest cultural center is trying to achieve.
"We have the possibility to do something different here," said Dolores Coe, programming chairwoman. "To be up close and personal, to try new things, to offer new experiences."
Located in a former firehouse owned by the county, the cultural center has been churning out community events during the last few months while remodeling the venue to fit their needs. They expect to be fully operational by fall.
The giant puppet workshop was part of the cultural center's visit from its second artist-in-residence, Sara Peattie, a Boston puppeteer.
The plan is to bring four nonlocal artists, like Peattie, to teach or perform at the firehouse for a week at a time each year, Coe said.
It will also offer a variety of events, from speakers and art workshops to poetry, music and theater performances.
The building, vacated when another fire station was built nearby, is owned by the county and being leased to the cultural center for a nominal fee.
The county is paying for the renovations, which include bringing the building up to code, closing off the garage and adding air-conditioning. The project's estimated cost is about $140,000.
Eventually, the board will take full possession of the building. But first, the county will require the board to prove its financial viability and show it can cover operating costs, said board member Sandy Council.
That accountability is something the county is not taking lightly after the misspending of a portion of $35,000 of public funding on the Regent, an event center in Riverview, last year.
After the debacle, the county placed more stringent guidelines and additional oversight on community requests for county funding.
The deal with the Firehouse Cultural Center reflects that, said County Commissioner Sandy Murman.
"They'll have to provide accountability to us," she said. "Once we can see that they have consistently performed and can operate the center on their own, without any assistance, then we'll talk about relinquishing the building to them."
And as a recent addition to the cultural center's board, Murman will be on hand to offer any help needed.
"I really like how this center turned out," Murman said. "It has grown from a small sea of people wanting to do something for the arts into a really good community center that really wants to serve the community."
Despite its rural location, the cultural center won't be an island when it comes to art.
The board has already forged partnerships with several Tampa Bay entities, including the Tampa Museum of Art, the University of South Florida, Hillsborough County Schools and the Ruskin Library.
"(The library) has money for summer programs for children but not the space. So we'll provide the space," Coe said. Hundreds of children have already attended events there, including magic shows in June.
The cultural center received a $60,000 programming grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Sun City Center to kick start its offerings.
The board plans to cover operating costs, which it expects will average $150,000 a year, with the money brought in from membership fees, donations, workshops and events.
Art Keeble, executive director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, said he has already noticed an impact on the community.
"There is incredible interest down there in having cultural programs and activities," he said. "So far, all of the events have been extremely well attended and received."
There's even hope it could change the community in other ways.
"We see this as a cornerstone to the redevelopment of downtown," Council said. "To have that ripple effect."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2442.