New St. Petersburg murals add more than color to the community

THE SHINE MURAL FESTIVAL WAS a wild success, TRANSFORMING downtown St. Petersburg into the epicenter of community and creativity.



The SHINE Mural Festival is officially over. Yet, it isn't. Seventeen new murals commissioned by festival organizers remain, joining other new, non-SHINE murals and dozens more preceding them. Collectively, they have begun to define visually the Central Avenue corridor and beyond.

That it happened is amazing given the six-month time frame in which it was planned (really short by event standards) and the inexperience of its primary organizer, Leon Bedore, better known as Tes One, an artist who has participated in mural festivals but never held a leadership role.

What Tes did have, though, was great connections in the art world and the help of John Collins, executive director of the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance, with his own connections to donors and decades of experience as an organizer. Add in $25,000 seed money from the city and, crucial to its success, professionals who provided free support such as marketing, businesses that donated everything from paint to lodging, and dozens of volunteers who fed, ferried and generally attended to the artists' needs.

"We had a few hiccups," Tes said. "But we had an amazing team that would go to Plan B or even Plan C."

The "hiccups" ran along these lines: Business owner agreed to a mural on an exterior wall without informing the owner of the building, who objected. Property owner agreed to a mural but artist needed to use property next door to paint it and that property owner objected. Property owner didn't like proposed design. As a result, the map of locations became a fluid document with changing venues. (The one you see here is our third iteration.)

Collins was the person who assisted with these issues and others, such as liability insurance. Though he is usually the calming element in debates, even he lost his patience when an owner was especially belligerent toward an artist who had shown up to paint a designated wall.

"I told the artist to leave and we'd find him another site," he said. "We weren't going to let the artists be treated that way. I told the property owner there were plenty of other walls. I think, when he saw how great the project was, he regretted it."

Tes was the curator, selecting the roster of artists and acting as their primary contact and coordinator. Both he and Collins spent the better part of two weeks, while the murals were being created, tearing from site to site dealing with anything that came up.

In the end, the festival was deemed a success on many levels.

"The moment I realized what it might mean was one evening when I walked into the alley behind the State Theatre," said Wayne Atherholt, director of cultural affairs for the city. "There was this crowd there, a microcosm of the community, taking pictures, interacting with the mural (which has a huge shark positioned so a person standing next to it looks as if his head is about to be bitten off). It had never been a place to hang out, this grubby alley. And there were young people, adults, grandparents with their grandkids."

He also saw a couple getting their engagement photo taken in front of another mural. Collins said someone inquired about renting the vacant lot next to yet another mural for a party.

Though the giant shark by Shark Toof has become by far the most popular for selfies, Tes made a point of gathering a diverse group of artists who would contribute a catalog of different styles from figurative to abstract, literal to graphic, something to appeal to every taste.

"Every style was unique," he said. "Every artist had a significant voice."

He wanted to showcase "the local artists so people will realize what talent we have here and add national, even international artists to show that our artists are on the same level."

He has said from the earliest days of the project that an important component was education, "conveying to the community that this is art. It's not signage, not graffiti. It was a huge task to get people to see the potential. It almost had to exist through demonstration to prove the project. Once we had a few pieces, the excitement started to build."

Murals, he believes, have a value beyond visual appeal.

"People go down streets they haven't been down before," he said. "They're being reintroduced to their neighborhoods."

He, Collins and Atherholt expect the festival to return in 2016.

"The city contributed $25,000 this year," Atherholt said. "We'll probably do that next year. I'll help John leverage that. He does a great job with private and in-kind donations."

Tes, who will return as curator, said the festival also created goodwill among the out-of-town artists.

"Our team did an excellent job of making them feel welcome. I don't think the artists were expecting that. They often don't get that level of graciousness."

As delighted as he is with the public response, he cautions that murals are rarely permanent installations. A recent example is the SHINE community mural at 1049 Central Ave. that aslready has been replaced with a new one.

"They're not meant to last forever. Some younger artists have a mind-set that they're sacred. If you want to put your work behind glass, maybe you're not cut out for public art. Enjoy it while it's here and look forward to the next one."

Now that his work with SHINE is over, he's back to (paid) work, collaborating with Bask, another prominent muralist, on a monumental work on the Poe Parking Garage in Tampa.

"I'm a full-time, self-employed artist. There were plenty of jobs I had to put on the table to focus on a project that didn't bring in any money. It was worth it."

Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.