Years ago, green benches brought St. Petersburg seniors together. Recently, two seniors from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg found a new platform to stir conversation and bring people together.
Handmade, hand-painted rope swings.
They're getting noticed all around Tampa Bay, sometimes in unexpected places.
What started as an environmental design project has beckoned people of all ages to gather and talk, sit, swing and have fun, thanks to the creativity and ingenuity of Reuben Pressman and Hunter Payne.
"We were amazed at how magnetic a little swing hanging was," Payne said. "As soon as we tied the knot, people approached the swings and started talking to each other and sharing experiences."
The first swing showed up on the USF campus. When that sparked attention and brought people together, Pressman and Payne hung one in North Straub Park. That pushed Swings into motion.
Now 114 hang from trees, from piers, from billboards, at Studio@620 and almost anywhere imaginable. The co-founders hang swings without asking permission, but also get asked to hang them. The most visible of those is in the open space at the FreeFall Theatre at 6099 Central Ave.
"We think of the guys at Swings as kindred spirits," said FreeFall executive director Emilie Kuperman. "Having a swing is another thing that attracts the community to a beautiful outdoor space."
Since then, what Pressman and Payne call their spontaneous community building organization has morphed into a community building phenomenon. Swings won the 10/100/1000 Challenge (which stands for 10 ideas, 100 days, $1,000) for the best idea to make living better in Tampa Bay. The $1,000 grant last April from the awards, put on by Creative Tampa Bay and Creative Loafing, helped launch Swings as an organization. What Payne and Pressman do has been compared to other art installations, but they say the major difference is the possibility for interaction.
The two had been digging into their own pockets for the $5 to $10 needed to make and hang each swing. The $1,000 helped to buy more supplies.
Next they invited the community to paint and hang the swings. That's how the free Let's Paint Swings events began at the Saturday Morning Market and other community events.
People of all ages chose the wood and painted a message or picture on the board. Some hung their own swings. Some left them to be hung. In all, Swings now has 1,028 ready to go.
"The greatest reward is the entire process coming together, from painting to discovering a spot to hang, and finally watching a huge group of people swinging and connecting," Pressman said.
There is no way to know if a swing will stay put or be cut down, unless someone requests a permanent installation. But that doesn't deter Pressman and Payne. They hang swings wherever they feel one is needed.
"Our favorite thing to hear is, 'Hey, you can't just do that!' " Payne said. "We hear it quite often at many Swings locations."
The two guys scope out areas that look to them as if they need to have a swing — parks and trees near the bay, but also billboards, cranes, under piers and from an overpass walkway across the interstate.
"It's as simple as following our guts," Pressman said. "We lose sleep at night when we walk past a spot that clearly needs a swing."
What's next for Swings is a three-part project called Let's Share Swings. Co-founders will streamline the process so other cities can adopt the Swings idea. They'll partner with more local nonprofit organizations. And they'll engage the community in the swing-hanging process with videos, flash mobs, and pickup and dropoff locations around the city for boards and rope.
Pressman and Payne have known each other for eight years and live together and have no plans to stop their current projects. Payne, who was a graphic design major, recently changed paths to become what he calls "a full-time thingmaker and artist." Pressman recently graduated with a major in entrepreneurship and a minor in leadership.
"It's a simple idea that doesn't take much," Pressman said. "Anyone can start and continue to make things like this happen. It's as simple as trying it out, seeing what happens, challenging assumptions, and understanding that failing is part of the learning process."
They have ambitious visions.
"We think it would be fun to hang a swing in the White House," Pressman said. "We've also been offered a $1,000 donation for a picture of Rick Scott swinging on one."