If you’ve driven in Tampa’s West Shore area or by St. Petersburg’s police headquarters and children’s hospital, you might have noticed outdoor sculptures made largely of glass. They are the work of Catherine Woods, a St. Petersburg sculptor whose striking pieces of public art are found in cities throughout the United States, from Reno, Nevada, to Silver Spring, Maryland. She is currently at work on 16 glass murals for the new Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus shelters along First Avenues N and S.
Raised in Maryland, Woods worked as an art director for advertising agencies in Chicago and St. Louis before starting her own business more than two decades ago. She and the client — typically a government agency — agree on a concept, then she does drawings, makes models and works closely with fabricators in New Jersey or Germany to produce the final sculpture. We recently spoke with Woods at her St. Petersburg studio off 22nd Avenue N. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to switch careers?
Ad money is hard to walk away from but it is really hard work and wasn’t as rewarding as it was in the beginning. I had a chance to take my first three-week vacation, went to South Africa and realized there I wanted to make art full time. I came back and started saving up for a year and then I left my job in St. Louis.
How did you end up in St. Petersburg?
I wanted to be somewhere warm near water and my partner at the time and I did a tour of the country and liked St. Pete the best. It’s an amazing, beautiful place.
Why have you concentrated on glass rather than on painting or other types of art?
I like the color of glass and working with glass. I’ve done metal work and also tile work but glass and I just seem to get along really well.
Who comes up with the idea for the artwork?
Usually I respond to RFQs — request for qualifications — for public art projects around the country. They generally have an idea what they want — where to put it, if they want to represent the community and so on. I’m going to come up with better ideas because it’s what I do for a living, I’m good at it. (The PSTA) knew they wanted art in shelters and they wanted it to be a back panel, so that’s already a good fit.
I came up with the idea of two straight lines up First Avenue south and north. I wanted the panels to relate to each other and since St. Pete is such a big mural city I also wanted to incorporate elements from each neighborhood so the shelter would be like a welcoming front porch to the community. I took between 200 and 500 photographs per neighborhood and chose ones to incorporate. I took photos of a ton of houses. There’s a seahorse medallion from a house in Kenwood, there are elements from the high school. They’re very subtle. Someone observed that the incorporated photo elements are like “Easter eggs” for the viewer to discover.
How long does it take to make a piece?
It’s been maybe a year and a half since I got this assignment. It’s a very intimate relationship (with the fabricator), the samples go back and forth. When I get a glass sample, maybe the blue is not bright enough so we do an adjustment and go back and forth until it’s exactly right.
Are there challenges — and advantages — to working with public agencies?
There are a lot of meetings, and with this particular project, there were a lot of groups that were interested in it and wanted to see it along the way. That’s completely fine. I want people to feel happy with it from the beginning. Part of that is communication — if you don’t keep people in the loop that’s not going to go so well. I don’t want to jinx it but I’ve never had a problem with payments (from a public agency). I read horror stories about galleries closing and keeping artists’ work and not paying them. I have not run into that.
Public art sometimes faces criticism that the money would be better spent on basic needs like food and housing. Your response to that?
One thing I love about public art is that it is egalitarian. It’s not in museums, it’s coming to (people’s) everyday life. Having something that goes above construction grade, to do something more appealing, I think that’s good for everyday life. Airports are like mini galleries now in many places. I think the Tampa airport is wonderful.
Your previous studio was in the St. Petersburg Warehouse Arts District, which has become sort of a mecca for artists. Why did you move?
I like people, but when working on the concept, that’s really a drill-down time and I don’t need the interruption. If you’re around other people, they might have downtime and then they’ll come over and want to talk. I love sharing my ideas and getting feedback, I love socializing but not when I’m working.
What’s next after the bus shelter project?
This has been a lot of work, which is great. I think I’m ready to slow down for a few months and go back to the studio and do some exploration, I’d like to spend a few months not working, or working with smaller pieces of glass. I think slowing down and taking a break is good — you can come back with fresh ideas.