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‘The Right to Swim’ reimagines vintage Florida postcards at The Woodson in St. Petersburg

Vivia Barron paints Black families enjoying beaches and public parks.
Vivia Barron poses in front of her artwork in her exhibit, "The Right to Swim" at The Woodson African American Museum of Florida in St. Petersburg. The exhibition remains on view through July 15.
Vivia Barron poses in front of her artwork in her exhibit, "The Right to Swim" at The Woodson African American Museum of Florida in St. Petersburg. The exhibition remains on view through July 15. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]
Published Jun. 14|Updated Jun. 15

ST. PETERSBURG — The vibrant paintings are joyous: scenes of Black people frolicking and lounging at beaches and public parks in the style of vintage Florida postcards.

But those were not the images St. Petersburg-based artist Vivia Barron found in the vintage postcards she collects. Barron has collected antique photographs of African American people for 15 years, which led her to vintage Florida postcards.

She saw familiar images of white people on beaches, with umbrellas and palm trees. But Barron discovered other postcards in which Black people were caricatured in racist, horrifying ways, looking miserable. She couldn’t help but notice the disparity between the same messaging: Welcome to Florida.

With her exhibition “The Right to Swim,” on display at The Woodson African American Museum of Florida, Barron seeks to pay homage to the people pictured in those postcards by creating a different version of them.

Part of Vivia Barron's "The Right to Swim" exhibit at The Woodson African American Museum of Florida in St. Petersburg. "We don't see a lot of paintings of Black people in particular," Barron said. The exhibit runs through July 15.
Part of Vivia Barron's "The Right to Swim" exhibit at The Woodson African American Museum of Florida in St. Petersburg. "We don't see a lot of paintings of Black people in particular," Barron said. The exhibit runs through July 15. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

“I feel like obviously we all know everybody that came before me paid for the privilege of enjoying the life that I have now,” Barron said. “And so in a way I’m honoring these people that are in these cards during that time. Also for us in the present time, based on history, there’s this long, deep emotional connection, which is not good for us with the connection of the beach. Living in Florida and not being able to go to the beach.”

 Vivia Barron's painting "Spa Beach Under the Stars" is Barron's favorite of her exhibit "The Right to Swim" at The Woodson African American Museum of Florida in St. Petersburg, on view through July 15. "It's joy for me, and it's a happy feeling," she said. One of Barron's goals for the exhibit was to translate joy and happiness inside what she says is an often historically traumatizing history.
Vivia Barron's painting "Spa Beach Under the Stars" is Barron's favorite of her exhibit "The Right to Swim" at The Woodson African American Museum of Florida in St. Petersburg, on view through July 15. "It's joy for me, and it's a happy feeling," she said. One of Barron's goals for the exhibit was to translate joy and happiness inside what she says is an often historically traumatizing history. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

Barron is referring to St. Petersburg’s history of segregated beaches, particularly Spa Beach. Black people were banned from the beach and the Spa Pool. In 1955, physician Dr. Fred W. Alsup and others filed a lawsuit against the City of St. Petersburg to force integration of the beach and the pool, and in 1957 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Despite this, the city closed the beach and the pool several times in 1958 to stop Black people from going.

“I know how deeply embedded that psyche is in our culture,” she said.

Barron is from Jamaica, and was surprised when she moved to the United States and learned this history. She couldn’t imagine anyone telling her she couldn’t go to the beach. With her work, she wants to share the experiences she had growing up.

A closeup of the characters in "Jane and Leon #2," on display at St. Petersburg's The Woodson African American Museum of Florida, as part of Vivia Barron's "The Right to Swim" exhibit, on view through July 15.
A closeup of the characters in "Jane and Leon #2," on display at St. Petersburg's The Woodson African American Museum of Florida, as part of Vivia Barron's "The Right to Swim" exhibit, on view through July 15. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

“The work is kind of like saying to my community that this is here and is here for us,” she said. “And I’m trying to disarm, make it softer and show us there with the hopes of re-creating and redeveloping a relationship with dark side of history. ... This is my contribution to that part of history and to now as well, bridging some kind of gap. Healing some wounds.”

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The joyous nature of Black families in the colorful paintings is an important element, because of the lack of representation in that way.

“I wanted my daughter and all of our children to see us as a family at the beach, having that experience,” she said.

She incorporates sand from spots around St. Petersburg in some of the paintings. She leaves out facial features so that viewers can impart their own expressions and emotion.

A closeup of one of Vivia Barron's paintings on display at The Woodson African American Museum of Florida in St. Petersburg as part of "The Right to Swim" exhibit, on view through July 15. Barron incorporated sand from local St. Petersburg beaches in some of the paintings.
A closeup of one of Vivia Barron's paintings on display at The Woodson African American Museum of Florida in St. Petersburg as part of "The Right to Swim" exhibit, on view through July 15. Barron incorporated sand from local St. Petersburg beaches in some of the paintings. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

A piece from a new series she’s starting depicts a Black surfer. Barron was inspired by the book “AfroSurf,” which captures the surf culture in Africa.

Barron also has work in the “Journey to Emancipation” exhibition at The Studio@620 in St. Petersburg. The group exhibition was curated by Green Book of Tampa Bay and runs through June 30. Visit thestudioat620.org for information.

If you go

“The Right to Swim” remains on view through July 15. Free. Noon-5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday or by appointment. The Woodson African American Museum of Florida, 2240 Ninth Ave. S, St. Petersburg. 727-323-1104. woodsonmuseum.org.

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