Shortly after he arrived in Tampa to start the art department at the University of South Florida, Harrison Covington made headlines for clashing with local politicians.
It was 1962. He won a mural contest in which his work would be permanently displayed in the Hillsborough County courthouse. But several county commissioners decided the abstract painting was too far out for their tastes.
"The subject matter didn't disturb them," Covington said. "It was the style."
After all, what's so controversial about a historical rendering that portrayed early explorers and native Indians in Florida?
"It actually helped because most of the art community was outraged and mostly supportive," Covington said. "So, that introduced me to the community, strangely enough in a positive way. The commissioners took a beating over it because they reneged on a promise."
Forty years after his stormy introduction to the community, Covington is a retired dean emeritus of USF's College of Fine Arts, and his artwork is prominently displayed in public and private sites throughout Tampa Bay.
Covington, 79, is currently at work on an 8-foot sculpture that is planned for the county fire station under construction in Sun City Center.
"I never intended to go into teaching," Covington said. "All I ever wanted to do was be an artist for as long as I could remember. Teaching was a way to earn enough to eat before I could become established as an artist. But I have enjoyed teaching tremendously."
Covington is among the elite artists who have done better than make a living.
He has had more than 40 one-man gallery showings of his paintings. His work has been shown in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and numerous other museums around the country.
He commands as much as $15,000 for a painting and tens of thousands for his sculptures.
These days, he and his wife, Jane, live on a secluded acre of land on Lake Carroll where they raised their two sons, David and Lang. Their six grandchildren now romp and play in the Cracker-style playhouse they moved to the property, which belonged to his wife when she was a child.
Born in Plant City on April 12, 1924, Covington graduated from Plant City High School in 1942 and went immediately to the University of Florida for the summer session.
His education, however, was interrupted after his first semester when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps for World War II. Covington went into pilot training. He served in the Pacific as a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter pilot, flying 37 combat missions.
On one mission, he said his plane was shot up by antiaircraft fire over Japan.
"Smoke was billowing into the cockpit and it was over a three-hour flight back to Okinawa," said Covington, who was 21 at the time. "I managed to get the plane back to Okinawa. It was a frightening experience."
He got out of the service in 1946, went back to school and finished his bachelor's degree in art. Meanwhile, he'd started teaching at the University of Florida before he finished his degree there.
After teaching 13 years at the University of Florida, Covington said he was asked to come to the newly founded USF and start the art department.
"I would like to believe the work we were able to do at the university to forward the art scene in Tampa was an important contribution," Covington said, adding that the USF art department helped found the Tampa Museum of Art and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.
"Tampa was the largest city in the country without a real art museum at the time the university arrived," he said.
Over the years, Covington has painted the official portraits for all past presidents of USF, which hang in the USF library. He also did a bronze portrait bust of Dr. John Allen, which was given in a limited edition to large USF donors for a number of years.
Covington's work ranges from the highly abstract to the realistic.
Some visible examples include the 9-foot sculpture of a Shriner and a disabled child that stands in front of the Shriners International Headquarters on the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
He also did the 35-foot-high history of Florida sculpture in the St. Petersburg Municipal Garage.
He created the 6-foot-9 sculpture at the USF library featuring a three-dimensional rendering of Leonardo da Vinci's Proportions of Man; and the metal sculpture hanging in the foyer of USF's Sun Dome, a 12-foot figure suspended from a beam 30-feet-high, called Concentric Figures.
The ceremonial mace used to lead USF graduation ceremonies, made of intricately designed wood and gold and silver, also was Covington's.
He enjoys his retirement and relishes the accolades he has earned as dean emeritus and professor emeritus of USF's College of Fine Arts, and an honorary member of the USF Class of 1956. Still, Covington works every day, typically on several projects at a time.
The 8-foot firefighter sculpture he is doing now will weigh 1,500 to 2,000 pounds when finished. He started the project in January and expects it will take about four more months.
"I feel very fortunate because I've always known what I wanted to do and had the good fortune to have been able to do it," Covington said. "Everybody can't say that."
_ Tim Grant can be reached at (813) 269-5311 or at grantsptimes.com.
The Covington file
FULL NAME: Harrison Wall Covington
FAMILY: Wife of 56 years, Jane; two sons, David and Lang; and six grandchildren.
PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENTS: Winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in painting, starting and building the Art Department at the University of South Florida and serving as dean of the College of Fine Arts.
GREATEST CHALLENGE: Flying a wounded P-47 fighter plane from Japan to Okinawa after it was severely damaged by antiaircraft fire in World War II.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: The loss of funding for the USF Fine Arts Performance Hall with a monumental Picasso sculpture in the front.
ADVICE FOR YOUNG ARTS: Ask yourself if this is something you have to do. Create work to meet your own standards rather than trying to please others.
HIS HEROS: Ray Charles, Helen Keller and Lance Armstrong, people who succeed in spite of great difficulties.
LAST BOOK READ: Scandalmonger by William Safire.
FAVORITE QUOTE: "Ninety percent perspiration and 10 percent inspiration."