ST. PETERSBURG — Word spread quickly Monday night that artist Bill Correira, the gregarious gallery owner known simply as Woo, had died in his shop.
Some people heard through calls or texts or social media. Others who live and work around the artists' enclave in the 600 block of Central Avenue saw the ambulances pull up in front of Gallery Woo.
It didn't take long for a crowd to gather.
Woo, who suffered from brain cancer, was pronounced dead at the scene, witnesses said. He was 43.
Artists and friends left notes on the gallery's window and lit candles or left flowers on the sidewalk. They kept coming to honor and remember their friend on Tuesday.
"They're very tight-knit, and they took this really hard," said City Council member Leslie Curran, a close friend of Woo's. "There's only one Woo, and that's why you see the 600 block in the state that it is in today."
Neighbors mused about how they met Woo, a one-man welcoming committee even to potential competitors. One of those, Vision 47 gallery owner Victoria Arendt, emailed local artists several months ago from Los Angeles saying she was thinking about moving to St. Petersburg. Woo responded, then helped her make contacts in the local arts scene.
"If it wasn't for this guy helping me, I wouldn't have opened my little place," said Arendt, 47.
Woo's success in painting fish mirrored the resurgence of the 600 block itself, a beaten-down row of storefronts several years ago, many of them boarded up.
A renovation effort led by Curran, building owner Thomas Gaffney and others turned the block around. They held yard sales and filled trash containers. News got out that the city would like to repopulate the 600 block with art galleries, available at reduced rent prices.
More than 200 people applied for the spots. Approvals went to the artists who showed indications they might stick around, Curran said. One of those was Woo, who originally set up shop in the Crislip Arcade before moving to 689 Central Ave. and opening another gallery on Beach Drive.
Woo liked to paint fish: a moody grouper waiting for something smaller to gobble up; a school of tuna, their sides bright as silver; a mighty tarpon, fresh out of the water.
Clients ranged from Bohemian types to Charley Morgan, founder of Morgan Yachts, and former Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis.
Restaurateur Steve Westphal chose Woo's paintings to adorn the walls of his 400 Beach Drive Seafood & Tap House. Woo regularly entertained crowds by painting outside the restaurant on Fridays. "People would buy them right there," said Westphal, 53. "Everybody loved (Woo). Everybody."
Woo made even bigger waves by what he gave away. He frequently created paintings at fundraisers, including several for the Pier Aquarium. "He never said no to me," said Emily Stehle, the aquarium's spokeswoman. "His answer was always, 'Of course.' "
He was a fixture on the 600 block, and not just among artists. He popped next door to the Central Perks cafe daily. He ordered "Thanksgiving for everyday," turkey on a croissant with cranberry sauce and mayonnaise, and left with two orange Gatorades. He had a penchant for handing out nicknames.
"I was Big Fish," said John Beaton, 56, a large man who makes deliveries from the cafe on a motorized scooter.
Woo took visitors, among the most frequent a fellow artist he called "Filthy Tommy."
His own nickname came about from a single incident some years ago, when a female friend flashed her breasts at him from a car and yelled, "Woooo!"
William Scott Correira was born in Dartmouth, Mass., in 1969. His father, William Correira, was well known for scrimshaw art, such as engraving on whale's teeth or elephant tusks. The family moved to Florida when Bill was 7. He went to Northeast High, where he studied girls and beer. For 15 years he did graphic design work for an industrial company.
None of it satisfied him. He wanted to be a real artist. He showed some of his paintings to Curran, who owns the ARTicles Art Gallery. She agreed to display some of his fish paintings, which immediately sold.
Some friends think Woo knew his time was short. He got one wakeup call when his father died of cancer at 50.
Another came in 2007, when a seizure put him in the hospital — and in a coma — for 50 days. Doctors diagnosed brain cancer. Two years later, they removed his right frontal lobe, leaving 58 staples in his head.
They told him he might not be able to paint again. Instead, he stayed as prolific as ever — and got better.
"There was an aliveness to his paintings," Stehle said. "It seemed like there was more joy. More colors leapt out."
Friends say Woo had not been feeling well lately. They checked in with him at the gallery throughout Monday. Just after 5 p.m., the owners of Central Perks found him slumped in the back of the gallery and unresponsive. They called 911.
On Tuesday, Derek Donnelly, who owns Saint Paint Arts and Apparel, was spray-painting a wall in an alley near Gallery Woo as a crowd watched. In a week's time, with the help of other artists, it should be finished.
The mural will depict Woo, paintbrush outstretched, and fish all around.
"Like he is painting the town," Donnelly said.
Times staff writer Laura Morel contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.