TAMPA — Lucy Sparrow sneaked a bite of real food as she manned one of the felt registers at Tampa Fresh Foods, her art installation composed of 50,000 handmade felt items in what is essentially a working grocery store.
The international artist is working at the installation, which is free to attend and runs through Feb. 20 at Water Street Tampa, for its duration. Many of the works are Tampa-centric, and all are for sale at the installation and on Sparrow’s website at sewyoursoul.co.uk. Items range from $10 into the hundreds.
Presented by the Vinik Family Foundation and Art Production Fund, Tampa Fresh Foods is Sparrow’s most ambitious installation to date. Part of the proceeds from the sales of the artwork goes to the Vinik Family Foundation, which will donate the money to the Tampa Arts Alliance and Feeding Tampa Bay.
For Sparrow, 35, who hails from the U.K., this has been more than two years in the making. She traveled to Tampa at the beginning of 2020 to get inspiration, visiting Publix and Whole Foods and absorbing the city’s culture. It took a solid two weeks to install.
Items ranging from produce to household cleaners to batteries start with Sparrow’s design, then are sewn by a small group of assistants and come back to the artist to be hand-painted and signed. The felt is organized by color in her studio in England, entire hallways full of the same color stacked in bins.
Dressed in a colorful uniform of a green skirt, orange sweater and yellow beret, Sparrow busied herself straightening shelves and answering questions on a recent visit to Tampa Fresh Foods. At one point, a line of guests formed to take a photo with the artist.
A man who purchased a Florida lobster was one of them. He told her he’d grown up catching them. When they posed with the felt crustacean, Sparrow playfully moved its legs.
Guests of a variety of ages filed into the space at the bottom of the Asher Residences at Water Street Tampa. They built felt Cuban sandwiches at the bar, and stepped into the humidor room for a Tampa cigar or a Hav-A-Tampa sign. Moving through the space feels very similar to a real grocery store experience, save for people taking selfies in the aisles. A perpetual crowd gathered at the seafood counter.
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Workers in bright yellow aprons assisted guests. Upbeat music piped from the speakers. Despite there being an abundance of backstock, some items were already sold out, including loaves of felt Cuban bread.
Sparrow makes a practice of creating felt environments, including delis, bodegas and pharmacies. As an internationally renowned artist, she’s shown them in London and at international art fairs, including Art Basel in Miami, where Jeff and Penny Vinik first saw her work.
The Viniks, who through their foundation in the past have brought The Beach Tampa and The Art of the Brick to Tampa audiences for free, started collecting Sparrow’s pieces. Penny had the idea to approach Sparrow about bringing an installation to Tampa.
Among her many installations, in 2016 Sparrow was commissioned by the BBC to re-create the Crown Jewels in honor of Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday. Her work has been shown in galleries across the world.
Sparrow was attracted to felt as a medium because she worked with it as a kid and just “never grew out of it.”
“It’s colorful and friendly. It exudes kindness, and simplicity and a feeling of (being) at ease” she said. “I think it’s very, very calming.”
Sparrow’s work focuses on positive mental health, creating safe environments where it’s “impossible to be unhappy.”
“Nostalgia is such a strong emotion. I love it,” she said. “That’s why a lot of the supermarkets I make still kind of hearken back to the ‘80s and ’90s. Obviously, I grew up in the ‘90s, so I remember bright colors. I remember when things still looked kind of a bit basic without all the technology.”
There is also a message of the importance of health, with personal care items represented. Fresh, non-processed foods, like Florida citrus and Cuban bread, are embellished with eyes, imbuing an anthropomorphic quality and a gentle reminder that they were once living.
During all of her installations, Sparrow keeps track of which items are most popular, so she creates 10 of some items and 100 of others. The Campbell’s Soup cans are among the most popular items; Sparrow thinks it’s because of the Andy Warhol connection. But she said it varies regionally, especially with candy.
School groups will visit Tampa Fresh Foods, something she finds important because it can be difficult to expose kids to art installations like this.
“I think it’s great that kids will hopefully really enjoy it,” she said. “And then in 10 years time, they’ll look back and be like, ‘I went to this amazing art installation.’ ”
Tampa Fresh Foods is open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily through Feb. 20. Free. Reservations are not being taken; limited numbers of guests will be allowed entry at a time and masks are required. Asher Residences at Water Street Tampa, 1050 Water St., Tampa.