Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights a hotbed of underground art

"A 1993 Mercedes-Benz is Filled With Sequins and Flipped Over onto its Roof by Millenials." It was created by artist Benjamin Zellmer Bellas and shown at Coco Hunday. Photo by William Douglas
"A 1993 Mercedes-Benz is Filled With Sequins and Flipped Over onto its Roof by Millenials." It was created by artist Benjamin Zellmer Bellas and shown at Coco Hunday. Photo by William Douglas
Published Dec. 12, 2017

The eight participants gathered in a garage in the Seminole Heights neighborhood and began lifting the Mercedes-Benz. It took a few tries, but soon they had flipped the vehicle onto its roof. It rested there, rocking, with sequins pouring out of the windows. The artists cheered.

The piece was aptly titled A 1993 Mercedes-Benz Is Filled With Sequins and Flipped Over Onto Its Roof by Millennials. It was created by artist Benjamin Zellmer Bellas, who traveled from Miami to this inconspicuous art space known as Coco Hunday.

The piece was highly conceptual, difficult to explain — and the kind of thing you could only do in someone's garage.

Coco Hunday is just one bright spot in a constellation of underground art spaces, grass roots galleries and studios across Tampa Heights and Seminole Heights. They may be hard to spot — certainly the garage on leafy W Thomas Street does not look like a hotbed of the avant-garde — but the community makes up for a lack of gloss and resources with close ties and do-it-yourself fervor.

About 3 miles south, on the opposite end of the Heights area, is Illsol Gallery. It is more recognizably an art gallery, with a storefront and works for sale. But it is just as typical of a Tampa art scene that prides itself on grit and eccentricity. Their most recent event? A show made up of velvet paintings, bathed in black lights.

Michelle Sawyer and Tony Krol co-own Illsol. The gallery also serves as their studio and storage space for the mural-painting business that sustains the gallery. Like many other Tampa artists, they have found work space and sales hard to come by. But that doesn't discourage Krol from working in the city that fuels his art practice.

"We look at this as investing in the community," Krol said.

Artists' efforts have molded Tampa neighborhoods in the past, in sometimes surprising places. Before its latest incarnation, the Channelside District was home to underground warehouse destination Artists Unlimited. To the east, Ybor City had a 1990s heyday, with the kind of spacious warehouses and lofts artists salivate over. Artist Brian Taylor spoke of it with awe.

"We had 10,000 square feet. ... If you could find the owner, you could have the space for peanuts," he said. "There was tobacco dust everywhere."

Galleries lined Seventh Avenue, and studio walks were common. But in the mid-1990s, he said, "Ybor City was instantly transformed into the party capital, and nobody could afford the rent anymore."

These days, he points to Nebraska and Florida avenues as the new stretch of possibility for artists.

"And it's improving," he said. "It's all coalescing."

Optimism was infectious during a studio and gallery tour in the fall, which revealed like-minded art spaces across the Heights neighborhoods. Some were public galleries, like Illsol, Red Door No. 5 and Tempus Projects. Some featured teaching spaces, like Phoenix Glass Studio. Several were in private residences, like the shed-cum-studio in Taylor's backyard. And others were an intriguing blend of the public and the private, like Coco Hunday and Dominique Labauvie's Bleu Acier.

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The tour connected artists who were unaware of each other but lived just a few blocks apart.

"We just need more of this," Taylor said, as new acquaintances filed past him to peer at his workspace and flip through his open sketchbooks. "More of what's going on right now."

When Edgar Sanchez Cumbas ponders the future, he thinks back to Gala Corina. Sitting in his pleasant Craftsman home in Seminole Heights, the artist described the roving arts festival, which had a nine-year run that ended in 2008. Owners would allow Gala Corina's organizers to take over the building — typically a large, unused historical space — and prepare it for the event. Eventually the owners began competing to be the next year's site.

"It happened organically," he said. "And now, man, the development of the city is happening so fast, I just wish (artists) could be a part of it. ... It is a matter of supporting the arts as they develop along with the city."

It's possible. Miami Beach, for example, now sports one of the most prestigious art fairs in the world, Art Basel, and the Wynwood neighborhood has changed from a former garment district into an art maven's playground.

Still, Sarah Howard of Tempus Projects warned against a process that tends to help development entities while pricing artists out of the very neighborhoods they've worked to renovate.

"A lot of times, developers have to pay an impact fee, if what they do affects the environment," she says. "What if they did the same for the arts? What if they made a space that helps an artist in residence?"

They are just ideas, for now, big-screen plans. There are plenty of smaller questions for Howard to deal with in the short term. Tempus Projects sent a handful of artists to Art Basel this week, including Neil Bender, whose intricate, comix-influenced series "Head Cream" is currently hanging in the gallery. Howard would love to be able to send even more artists, and grow the residency program, and maybe even hire a full-time employee. But for now she has learned to appreciate the area's small but tenacious community for what it is.

"This is the kind of town where you can do (anything) and people will come out and support you," Howard said.

Exhibit A was the small crowd of people filing in to a garage on a warm night to look at a '93 Mercedes, upside-down in a pile of glitter.

Contact James Chapin at