Have you seen Joe Testa-Secca?
He’s outside the library, on campus, in the gallery. He’s at the restaurant, in the living room, upstairs at the bar.
Testa-Secca died peacefully at 94 on Feb. 20. But if you look around Tampa, you’ll see him.
The prolific and versatile artist was among the people who introduced contemporary art to Tampa Bay, helped build the University of Tampa’s arts program and gallery, created works of art that still hang in hundreds of homes around the country and made art that’s become part of the city.
It started in the early 1950s when the Tampa native found work in the Navy as a medical illustrator. There, after a heavy lamp hit him in the side of the head, the wound refused to heal. The surgeon with whom Testa-Secca worked discovered malignant melanoma and attempted what was then a pretty radical surgery by removing Testa-Secca’s right ear.
He returned home to Tampa, son Patrick Testa-Secca said, in a time when “people probably weren’t as polite. That injury back then would have destroyed most people. He didn’t let that destroy him.”
His father found purpose in art. After going back to school, Testa-Secca painted, sketched, took on commissions and started teaching at the University of Tampa.
“He became a cornerstone for the arts when the Ybor art culture was just starting to grow,” said Jocelyn Boigenzahn, UT’s director of college galleries and a lecturer.
In 1959, Testa-Secca got a commission to create pieces for the outer walls of two buildings on the University of South Florida, Tampa campus.
“The fact that they were including public art integrated into the surfaces of buildings was really kind of pivotal and pioneering for the establishment of public art on campus,” said Sarah Howard, curator of public art and social practice at USF.
Testa-Secca’s work in glass mosaic and bas-relief set the tone for what was to come on the campus, Howard said.
“This was groundbreaking at the time.”
Testa-Secca found his biggest supporter and best friend in his wife, Rosalie Valenti, whom he married in 1960. By the mid-1970s, he worked with his colleagues to open a gallery space on UT’s campus. And he taught more than just art.
Jack King, now a professor emeritus of art at UT, started there as a student. He found a place where his professors taught him about the world itself. Testa-Secca and colleague Harold Nosti “taught me more about life at the coffee machine than probably in class.”
Testa-Secca encouraged his students and young artists to make art and share it, said Patrick Testa-Secca. It was something his father did quite well.
“He had a pace that was crazy.”
Testa-Secca worked from a home studio in Temple Terrace, producing enough work most years for a one-man show. When daughter Maria Dietz was a little older, she asked her dad why he’d never created any portraits. That year, he surprised her with her portrait. It still hangs in her living room.
Testa-Secca decorated his daughter’s 6-foot wedding cake and always arranged the family’s food to look like a masterpiece.
“He made everything beautiful,” Dietz said.
He did that for Tampa, too.
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Here’s where you can see some of Testa-Secca’s work:
Name: Forum I, glass mosaic
Location: John and Grace Allen Welcome Center, University of South Florida, Tampa
Name: Forum II, cement bas-relief
Location: Chemistry Auditorium, University of South Florida, Tampa
Name: Stained glass
Date: Created 1962-63 for Jesuit High School’s Chapel of the Holy Cross. Later relocated to Casa Santo Stefano restaurant.
Location: Casa Santo Stefano, Tampa
Name: Symbols of Mankind, stone and ceramic mosaic
Date: 1969, restored in 1995, reconfigured in 2014
Location: Robert W. Saunders Public Library, Tampa
Name: Spectrum II, acrylic on canvas
Location: Ferman Center for the Arts, University of Tampa
Name: Winged Duo, print from acrylic on canvas
Location: John F. Germany Public Library, Tampa
Name: Thumbprint, silk screen
Location: Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, Tarpon Springs, not currently on display
Name: Stained glass
Date: Created 1962-63 for Jesuit High School’s Chapel of the Holy Cross. Later relocated to Santo’s Drinkeria.
Location: Santo’s Drinkeria, Tampa
Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
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