1. Visual Arts

Gasparilla Festival showcases Tampa lawyer's art

Amy Leigh Carstensen of Tampa has shown her art, mostly abstract oils, at four Gasparilla festivals. 
Published Feb. 26, 2015

TAMPA — Five years ago, Amy Leigh Carstensen left a lucrative career with one of Florida's most prestigious law firms to paint a future on her own terms.

"I am doing two things I love," said Carstensen, now a full-time artist and part-time lawyer. "With a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work."

Call her gutsy or call her crazy, but the leap has earned her entry into the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts four times, including this weekend, where she'll exhibit with 235 artists culled from 1,000 fine arts and crafts applicants.

Her oil paintings will be seen by 100,000 viewers in Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park on Saturday and Sunday, where nearly $75,000 will be awarded in artists' prizes.

Painting relieved the tedium of law school, said Carstensen, 40, who graduated second in her class at Stetson University College of Law in 2005. Later, working in mergers and acquisitions at Carlton Fields, she always had a canvas — or two or three — in progress at home.

"I've dabbled all my life … photography, scrapbooking," she said. "A clay project in second or third grade started out to be a penguin and ended up a yellow, misshapen pot. Nothing like what I intended it to be.

"It won a blue ribbon and I became an artist by accident."

Browsing the 2009 Gasparilla arts festival, self-taught Carstensen chatted with Atlanta artist Daphne Covington. Their conversation and eventual friendship spurred the career shift.

One year later, the festival committee awarded Carstensen an emerging artist grant and she quit the firm.

"I've been very fortunate to have been accepted in some of the top shows," she said, listing as examples Sausalito, Calif.; Denver's Cherry Creek; the Plaza Art Fair in Kansas City, Mo.; and the Coconut Grove art festival.

"Daphne became a great mentor and travel buddy, teaching me the ins and outs of the art show circuit."

For the Gasparilla arts festival, a three-member jury selects the seasoned artists who pay to be in the show. The entire board votes on emerging artists, who receive about $250 and a free booth. With four appearances, Carstensen's work clearly has found favor with the organization.

"Many of my friends and board members have bought from Amy," said festival vice president Ashly Anderson, explaining the dual process of acceptance, pleased at the role the board played launching Carstensen as a professional artist who now supports them.

These days, Carstensen limits her practice to estate planning and business transactions from her South Tampa home law office/studio. A subspecialty in art law developed from helping friends with gallery contracts, intellectual property and copyright issues. In 2013, she started an online business, Smockingbird, designing and sewing dresses for little girls.

"I enjoy the intellectual stimulation of practicing law and I don't see myself ever putting that aside entirely," she said.

Unlike the law, her art is unpredictable and intuitive, mostly abstracts. She works mostly in oils, multiple layers painted wet-on-wet in a strong, vibrant palette.

"Unlike some people who know what they are going to paint, I don't," she said. "I turn off my mind and see what comes out of the paintbrush, as opposed to thinking or analyzing."

She also has won awards creating monotypes, painting with water-based ink on plexiglass. Paper is placed on top and run through an etching press. The pressure of the drum transfers the ink in the opposite order than it was painted.

"There are so many variables," she said. "It's always a surprise when you pull it off the press."

Along the way, Carstensen discovered the art of travel, spending as much as 20 weeks in transit to sell her work. After the Gasparilla show, she'll pack up the "beast," a GMC van, and drive 40 hours to the La Quinta art show in Palm Springs, Calif.

"I'm kind of a roadie now," she said. "My two dogs have seat belts and they pretty much go everywhere. It's not living the dream for everybody but I really enjoy it."

So, gutsy or crazy?

"A little of both," she said, "but mostly fortunate."

Contact Amy Scherzer at


  1. Art collector Stanton Storer talks about "Unbound," the exhibit of his art collection at the University of Tampa's Scarfone/Hartley Gallery. LUIS SANTANA  |  Times
    A new exhibition at the University of Tampa includes works from his extensive collection of renowned artists and locals.
  2. Chad Mize, left, and Jay Hoff in front of the "Pride and Love" mural they completed with LGBTQ youth this month as part of St. Petersburg mural fest Shine. Courtesy of Annie West Ellzey
    Shine is loaded with a wide range of events this year, including a street party at the Morean Arts Center.
  3. The new show called the Bourne Stuntacular will debut at Universal Studios Florida in the spring of 2020, the theme park has announced. AP (2015)
    The new show called the Bourne Stuntacular will debut at the Orlando theme park.
  4. Artist Jennifer Angus has created installations of exotic dried bugs for her exhibit "'The Grasshopper and the Ant' and Other Stories, as Told by Jennifer Angus" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. Courtesy of Jennifer Angus
    ‘The Grasshopper and the Ant,’ an exhibition made with dried insects, also opens. Plus, a roundup of exhibits and wearable art on display.
  5. Sari (detail). Bangaluru, Karnataka ca. 1867. Silk and metal-wrapped thread. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London Courtesy of the John and Mable Ringling Museum
    ‘The Fabric of India’ will appeal to both fashionistas and history buffs.
  6. Kierstyn Breaux pours some old fashioneds she helped craft as part of the PBR Whiskey launch event in Tampa on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. Daniel Figueroa IV
    From crafting cocktails with the spirit to designing the label, Tampa locals have been involved in launching the legendary brewery’s first spirit.
  7. Three of Nick Cave's Soundsuits. The artist will present a talk and lead a workshop in Tampa next week. Courtesy of Nick Cave
    Plus, new exhibits at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, Clyde Butcher’s Cuba and a new gallery in St. Petersburg.
  8. "Ordinary/Extraordinary: Assemblage in Three Parts," a trio of exhibitions at the Tampa Museum of Art, includes two master works from lauded artist Jean-Michel Basquiat at the Tampa Museum of Art. LUIS SANTANA  |  Times
    A powerful installation of works by artist Purvis Young and a showcase of Haitian Vodou flags correlate to Jean-Michel Basquiat’s two masterpieces. | Review
  9. Brooklyn-based artist AdamFu will paint two of his neon-inspired murals at Sparkman Wharf in Tampa, along with local artist Bask. Courtesy of AdamFu
    Florida CraftArt and Leslie Curran Gallery roll out new exhibitions, too.
  10. Visitor Sara Crigger of Nashville views the Dali masterwork painting "The Hallucinogenic Toreador" (1969-1970) this month with the aid of the Dali app on her smartphone. "Using this is like holding an art history class in your hand," Crigger said. The "Visual Magic: Masterworks in Augmented Reality" exhibit runs through Nov. 3 at the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
    With augmented reality, 19th century prints, bronzes and food photography, a well-rounded experience awaits.