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Tampa Bay visual arts spread the message to vote

The upcoming 2020 election is inspiring murals, exhibitions and yard signs across Tampa Bay.
Muralists James Harzell (left) and John Gascot, pose for a portrait in front of their mural located at 556 Central Avenue. Gascot, the principal artist, created all the characters with Harzell filling in background scenery and text, on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
Muralists James Harzell (left) and John Gascot, pose for a portrait in front of their mural located at 556 Central Avenue. Gascot, the principal artist, created all the characters with Harzell filling in background scenery and text, on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 22, 2020

In the pressure cooker that is 2020, political division in the United States is deepening even more with the upcoming presidential election.

But in the midst of all the noise is a nonpartisan message about the importance of voting.

And that message is being broadcast locally through the arts.

In August, a group of local artists and musicians came together to make Voice Your Vote, an original song and video promoting the importance of voting.

On the local visual arts scene, murals commissioned by the League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area, a group exhibition at Mize Gallery and yard signs designed by local artist Alli Arnold urge people to get out and vote.

‘Vote By Mail’ mural

Artist Jabari Reed poses for a portrait in front of a mural created in partnership with artist Derek Donnelly. The mural, located at the Enoch Davis Recreation Center on 18th Avenue S in St. Petersburg, supports the system of voting by mail.
Artist Jabari Reed poses for a portrait in front of a mural created in partnership with artist Derek Donnelly. The mural, located at the Enoch Davis Recreation Center on 18th Avenue S in St. Petersburg, supports the system of voting by mail. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The pandemic made the already important issue of voting by mail a top priority for the League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area. They launched an effort called “Democracy Starts at Home” that focused on low voter turnout, especially among registered voters in St. Petersburg. The message is that voting by mail is a safe, effective alternative to going to the polls.

Maryellen Gordon, co-chairwoman of the LWVSPA Voter Services Committee Leadership Team, came up with the idea to commission a mural as part of the league’s Engage St. Pete program using grant funds from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.

They reached out to prolific St. Petersburg muralist Derek Donnelly, who suggested they tap Jabari Reed, a young Black artist who lives in St. Petersburg.

Reed, who works under the moniker iBoms, had never painted a large-scale mural before, so Donnelly guided him to paint it on a stark white wall on the Enoch Davis Recreation Center (1111 18th Ave. S, St. Petersburg).

Derek Donnelly and Jabari Reed during the creation of the "Vote By Mail" mural on the Enoch Davis Recreation Center.
Derek Donnelly and Jabari Reed during the creation of the "Vote By Mail" mural on the Enoch Davis Recreation Center. [ Courtesy of Derek Donnelly ]

Vote By Mail depicts one of Reed’s signature cartoon childlike figures, with a globe for a head that Reed said symbolizes everyone. Making use of the architectural elements on the wall, the child reaches on his tiptoes on a railing, leaning his hand on a ledge to slip a ballot into a mailbox.

The mural is embedded with voting information, a time-lapse video of the painting process and a link to Reed’s body of work that is revealed on smartphones through the locally created app PixelStix.

Reed, 21, said that he’s been voting since he was legally eligible and that he tries to encourage friends to vote, although that can be an awkward conversation to initiate.

“I feel like once my group understands the system better, the more knowledgeable we will be,” he said.

He took the mural’s message to heart and said that he has already mailed in his own ballot.

‘Diversity in Democracy’ mural

Muralists James Hartzell, center, and John Gascot pose for a portrait in front of their mural at 556 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg. Gascot, the principal artist, created all the characters, with Hartzell filling in background scenery and text.
Muralists James Hartzell, center, and John Gascot pose for a portrait in front of their mural at 556 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg. Gascot, the principal artist, created all the characters, with Hartzell filling in background scenery and text. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The Vote By Mail mural sparked an idea for another one with Julia Sharp, operations director of the League of Women Voters of the St. Petersburg Area, for their Equality Voter’s campaign. The campaign seeks to engage and educate younger LGBTQ+ voters.

Sharp reached out to St. Petersburg artist John Gascot, and with a grant from the Plus Project, a subset of the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, the Diversity in Democracy mural was launched.

After a change in venue, a wall was secured at 556 Central Ave., donated by building owners Kevin and Mardi Bessolo. The mural was completed in early October.

Because text is a main element of the mural’s message, Gascot tapped fellow artist James Hartzell, who specializes in hand lettering, to render it. The phrases include “We Are St. Pete” and “I Vote," as well as type on the figures’ T-shirts. Hartzell created a font that is reminiscent of lettering from the 1960s and ’70s.

Gascot emphasized that the mural is nonpartisan and its purpose is simply to encourage people to vote. And while it was conceptualized to promote voting to the LGBTQ+ community, Gascot said that he wanted to highlight St. Petersburg’s diversity.

Among the characters are a drag queen, inspired by local performer Daphne Ferraro, and a guy wearing a Pride T-shirt. But the guy wearing the Go Rays T-shirt and the girl with pink hair aren’t necessarily “gay characters." A woman sitting on the end is based on a real person named Shirley that Gascot has painted in the past. He included her to incorporate a range of ages.

“They can be interpreted in different ways and hopefully you can see yourself in them. And if not, there’s a spot for you to get into the mural,” he said, referring to the blank space they left for people to take a selfie with. The words “I Vote” are in a conversation bubble above the pink, arched space.

Like Vote By Mail, voting information can be accessed through the Diversity in Democracy mural with the PixelStix app, embedded in the “I Vote" stickers the figures are wearing.

Rather than using the usual red and blue associated with elections, Gascot used a palette with all of the colors of the Pride rainbow flag, but in different tones and not in order.

Gascot said he chose that phrase “I Vote” rather than “I Voted” because it is timeless and he hopes the mural endures beyond the election. That was also the idea behind the phrase “We Are St. Pete.”

“I want this to be a mural for everybody,” he said. “I like to create work that’s accessible. There’s literally nothing about this mural that should be offensive to anybody.”

Hartzell also rendered a part of downtown St. Pete’s skyline, with Al Lang Stadium and the Dalí Museum, which he originally conceived as a banner for the Rowdies soccer team’s Pride Night festivities.

The artists said they received a lot of attention from people strolling and driving through downtown. They said people would stop and chat, not just about the mural, but also about voting.

“You get to know the neighborhood," Hartzell said. "Everything has been so tense so it’s great to get that feedback.” He said that people thanked them for including figures in the mural that they can see themselves in.

This isn’t the first mural with historical significance that Gascot and Hartzell have worked on. They both painted a letter in the Black Lives Matter mural in front of the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum in St. Petersburg.

Gascot said with the two murals he feels “engaged in history.”

“It feels so good to not be on the sidelines anymore, kind of passively watching and thinking that history is relegated to textbooks,” Hartzell said.

“Art for art’s sake is important, but art that is a vehicle for social change is very important," Gascot said. "We’re both very proud of that aspect.”

‘Vote’ exhibition at Mize Gallery

Artist Chad Mize peeks from behind doodle art created by him and featured on the front windows of the Mize Gallery, where the current exhibit is dedicated to voting, in St. Petersburg.
Artist Chad Mize peeks from behind doodle art created by him and featured on the front windows of the Mize Gallery, where the current exhibit is dedicated to voting, in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Artist and gallery owner Chad Mize made voting the theme of his October group art show. “Vote" is an invitational group show that opened Oct. 9 and runs through Election Day.

“I just felt like having a show about voting, and getting people to vote was a good thing,” he said. “I asked the artists not to be anti either party. I just wanted a positive concept of voting.”

The only stipulation was that each artist had to use the word “Vote” in their piece.

Mize doodled the word “Vote” in bubbly letters on the windows of Mize Gallery. He also did a series of paintings featuring the image of Twiggy that has become one of his signatures. She wears a mask — reminiscent of the ones Mize makes and sells — that says “vote.” The paintings are filled with intricate doodles.

Art by Chad Mize featured at his St. Petersburg gallery, Mize Gallery, as part of the current exhibit titled "Vote."
Art by Chad Mize featured at his St. Petersburg gallery, Mize Gallery, as part of the current exhibit titled "Vote." [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Jabari Reed, a.k.a. artist iBoms, who painted Vote By Mail, also has a piece in the show. Vote for Me depicts a headless female figure with a red elephant and a blue donkey, both inspired by Disney characters, hovering around her. The word “vote” is painted in graffiti lettering.

Jabari Reed, a.k.a. iBoms' painting "Vote for Me" is on display in "Vote" at Mize Gallery in St. Petersburg through Nov. 3.
Jabari Reed, a.k.a. iBoms' painting "Vote for Me" is on display in "Vote" at Mize Gallery in St. Petersburg through Nov. 3. [ Courtesy of Chad Mize ]

Reed said that he wanted to portray the dilemma of the importance of voting being overshadowed by the distraction of the political parties.

“The two figures are like the good angel and the bad angel on your shoulders saying ‘Vote for me,’” he said. “It’s overwhelming.”

On a bright blue wall in the gallery, Reed’s painting is flanked by a pair of mixed media works by Elena Ohlander that depict Harajuku-style girls. One wears donkey earrings, the other wears elephant earrings, one for each political party.

One of a pair of Elena Ohlander's mixed media pieces on display in "Vote" at Mize Gallery in St. Petersburg through Nov. 3.
One of a pair of Elena Ohlander's mixed media pieces on display in "Vote" at Mize Gallery in St. Petersburg through Nov. 3. [ Courtesy of Chad Mize ]
One of a pair of Elena Ohlander's mixed media pieces on display in "Vote" at Mize Gallery in St. Petersburg through Nov. 3.
One of a pair of Elena Ohlander's mixed media pieces on display in "Vote" at Mize Gallery in St. Petersburg through Nov. 3. [ Courtesy of Chad Mize ]

While keeping his artworks nonpartisan, Steve Madden roasts America’s political system with two works. In Dear Citizens, a disheveled, beat-up Uncle Sam is inserting a ballot into a box that says “Please.” Pull a lever and his arm drops the ballot into the box. His face is a door that opens to a movable wheel of different faces and a mirror.

A piece by artist Steve Madden is featured at Mize Gallery in St. Petersburg as part of the current "Vote" exhibit.
A piece by artist Steve Madden is featured at Mize Gallery in St. Petersburg as part of the current "Vote" exhibit. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Do Your Doody is done in the style of an editorial cartoon. It depicts Uncle Sam on the toilet while Ernie the Eagle barges in on him, telling him to “dump the electoral college, too.”

Mize has been expressive about his political opinions in the past. He created a piece about Barack Obama that was included in a national exhibition in 2008 called “Manifest Hope.” He was a supporter of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and did a series of stickers and other merchandise based on him.

He also made a number of tongue-in-cheek designs disparaging Donald Trump. But he doesn’t do that anymore.

“I felt like I was preaching to the choir,” he said. “It wasn’t helpful and after a year I got it out of my system.”

He said he wanted to put on “Vote” because he knows a lot of people who don’t vote because they say they’re not political.

“But we live in a country where we have the right to vote, so we should do it. It’s important that we have a voice.”

“Vote” is on display through Nov. 3. It’s open to the public 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays. There is a limit of six people in the gallery at a time. Masks are required. 689 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg. chadmize.com.

Alli Arnold’s ‘Vote’ yard signs

Artist Alli Arnold poses with 2-year-old Honey in front of her St. Petersburg house, with nonpartisan yard signs she created that encourage people to go out and vote.
Artist Alli Arnold poses with 2-year-old Honey in front of her St. Petersburg house, with nonpartisan yard signs she created that encourage people to go out and vote. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Like most people lately, the election was on St. Petersburg artist Alli Arnold’s mind. So she made an illustration of her trademark Alli Bear character holding a flag that reads “Vote.”

Her friend John Ruzecki of Florida State Graphics print shop offered to make yard signs of her design. So she put them for sale on her Etsy page and the first batch of 20 immediately sold out, going to other cities including Brooklyn, Seattle and San Francisco. People took pictures of the signs and shared them on Arnold’s social media.

Arnold said she had considered making a sign about her candidate of choice but decided that it was more important to spread the message of how important it is to vote.

“Most election imagery is stark, masculine and scary,” she said. “I intentionally used a nonthreatening figure who is honoring her right to vote. It’s fun, but it’s also a privilege and honor to wave that flag.”

Artist Alli Arnold poses with 2-year-old Honey in front of her St. Petersburg house, with nonpartisan yard signs she created that encourage people to go out and vote.
Artist Alli Arnold poses with 2-year-old Honey in front of her St. Petersburg house, with nonpartisan yard signs she created that encourage people to go out and vote. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The signs are $25 and are available on Arnold’s Etsy page at etsy.com/shop/AlliArnoldPortraits. Arnold will personally deliver the orders within St. Petersburg.