As Lakeema Matthew painted with dark blue for the sky and with black for the birds flying upward, she talked about fallen soldier Army Cpl. Frank R. Gross, whose face will eventually grace the center of her current creation, two murals on the band shell at R.E. Olds Park.
Although he died before they met, she feels a kinship with Gross.
"Frankie is my buddy,'' said Matthew, 27, holding a paint brush in one hand while keeping her work hat steady from the wind with the other. "I learned Frankie's story earlier this year. He was an artist like me. He's out here with me every day.''
Reggae music floated across R.E. Olds Park and out over Tampa Bay as Matthew, who is being paid $14,000 for the project, kept an eye on rain clouds on the horizon. She painted, using brushes of all sizes and inviting passers-by to join her. After a seven-month delay while the city strengthened the band shell's facade, Matthew got the go-ahead at the beginning of August to begin her work. Once it is completed, visitors to the band shell will see one mural on the south side of the stage, saluting U.S. veterans, in particular Oldsmar's own service members, and another one on the north side, honoring Oldsmar's Centennial, with images representing both the past and the present.
To get started, Matthew, who holds an arts degree from the University of South Florida, first created images on her computer. She then got to work at the band shell, using chalk to grid on the walls, switching to No. 2 pencils when it was time to begin sketching. Finally, she began painting.
"It's going good now that it's rolling. Weather can be the big problem,'' she said. "So far, it's been mostly the two colors, blue and black, but I'm getting there. I'm planning on using yellows and oranges, too.''
Matthew is creating the mural paying homage to the military first. Gross, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2011, had studied digital design at Full Sail University near Orlando, and Matthew is incorporating one of Gross' creations that she received from his family. It is a portrait based on a 2010 photo of Gross during a surfing trip in Puerto Rico. Gross had used the photo as part of a graphic design, turning his outstretched arms into tree branches, leaves and birds ascending. Above it, Matthew will include an image of Gross in his uniform.
Toni Gross, Frankie's mother, was thrilled when she learned the city wanted to include her son's work.
"I think Lakeema is doing an amazing job, and I'm thankful to the city,'' said Gross, who is trying to keep the project a surprise for her husband, Frank Sr. "I know when he sees it, he will be very emotional. Frankie has been honored in other ways in the city, but to know so many people now and in the future will see his art in such a public place is an incredible honor.''
The other mural, expected to be started in two or three weeks, will include several images of Oldsmar, including a BMX rider flying through the air. Matthew will also include a depiction of the city's founder, Ransom E. Olds, in the center.
Former City Council member Linda Norris guided the city through the selection process. Norris first urged the council in 2010 to make public art more of a priority.
"This took years to get to this point,'' she said. "While I was on council, we had basically four different makeups of the council, and I realized trying to get all the members to agree on an art project is impossible. To see this now is a dream come true.''
Matthew said when the murals are done, those who visit the park will gain more of an understanding of Oldsmar, a city she describes as "small and quiet and filled with history.''
Matthew also described it as different from where she grew up in Hillsborough County.
"The first time I spoke to the City Council, I remember thinking that I was almost the only black person in the room. It wasn't a big deal, but it was kind of funny,'' she said. "This urban girl comes into this mostly white community, and here I'm able to help create history through art. I think it gives the city more props that they are open to changing it up, you know? I feel very welcome.''
Michael Parker is an artist and educator who has been a mentor for Matthew for more than a decade. He first met Matthew when she was a teenager, realizing her passion for art while attending Community Stepping Stones, a learning center in Sulphur Springs.
"Lakeema has been a hard worker, and actually is the only student who stuck around Community Stepping Stones and is now a teacher there,'' he said.
More recently, they worked together on the 2013 mural in Ybor City, American Journey, considered the largest mural in Florida. Not only did Matthew help paint the mural, but she served as a model for the project as well. Her face was used to depict Cuban freedom fighter Paulina Pedroso.
"I'm so proud of her, and I think her mural in Oldsmar is a great design, and she kept the integrity of the original image they gave her,'' Parker said. "She takes something that is solemn and sort of makes it something that the public will look at with pride and as a celebratory image.''
Matthew is already looking ahead.
"You know what is fun to think about? It is such an honor to know that this is happening while the city is turning 100, and in another 100 years, my name will be included as a person who helped paint the history on the centennial,'' she said. "That means so much to me.''
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.