Their art is everywhere — a manatee sculpture in City Hall, mixed media mobiles in the community center and Whimzeyland, their multicolored house on Third Street with its collection of countless bowling balls. For more than two decades, Safety Harbor has been Kiaralinda and Todd Ramquist's canvas, and the couple is aiming to unveil their largest undertaking, the nonprofit Safety Harbor Art and Music Center, in less than two months.
"This is a big work, our life's work,'' Kiaralinda said.
The artists, who became best friends decades ago in seventh grade at Safety Harbor Middle while taking an art class together, are the masterminds behind the SHAMC (pronounced sham-see), the tall, mosaic building with mirrored panels emblazoned with flowers, cartoon figures and swirling words like "joy,'' and "love,'' at 706 Second St. N. It will be a place for artists — painters, musicians, poets, writers, dancers, sculptors — anyone in need of a creative space.
It's been four years since construction started on the SHAMC, modeled after the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore and designed by architect Grant Genova.
"It has taken us a long time, but this was the first time that we had to deal with City Hall and the engineering was challenging,'' Ramquist said. "We needed to work on meeting hurricane codes and permitting and that sort of thing. I don't think a building like this has ever been built in Pinellas County before.''
Construction costs have been about $300,000 with funding coming from a $50,000 Pepsi Refresh Project grant, and fundraisers like Picket the SHAMC (people bought fencing, decorated it and added it to the property), pop-up concerts with surprise musical guests and others, including the Safety Harbor SongFest slated for April 2 and 3. Last year 4,000 tickets were sold for the festival, and organizers are hoping that in its third year numbers will double with national acts like the country duo Love and Theft, cellist-songwriter Ben Sollee and bluesman Otis Taylor.
"Yes, (SongFest) is a fundraising mechanism for the center, and that's good,'' Ramquist said. "But we look at our primary goal as to bring great musicians and artists to Safety Harbor. I think it gets hard to do something creative when your goal is to make money.''
Along with putting the final touches on the SHAMC, including installing remaining mosaics and sheet metal and sprucing up the landscape, the duo is already preparing for the center's future. At the end of January, they travelled to Cuba to meet artists and evaluate the potential of a program inviting Cuban artists to Safety Harbor.
"We went there to look at the logistics of bringing Cuban artists to us and taking visual artists and musicians to Cuba, and we'll be able to do it through (the SHAMC),'' Ramquist said.
Although a grand opening has not been scheduled, with the predicted completion date around the end of March, Ramquist and Kiaralinda are hoping to host a gathering in the new center in conjunction with the Songfest.
City Manager Matt Spoor admits he has heard from some city residents who see the SHAMC only as a peculiar structure in downtown. "But from the city's standpoint, this is a private property and we look at building codes, setbacks and the type of materials they use,'' he said. "The aesthetics and artwork can be up for interpretation. They have been strong community partners and it has turned into a very artistic center and space.''
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.