Artbook: A Tampa Bay artists' Who's Who

A new digital volume aims to bring the art scene to life on your iPad.

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Kevin Hohl and Sean Carey of HD Interactive have developed games for the XBox created graphics for Electronic Arts, the company that makes Madden NFL Football. They consulted on assisted on design and development of a web application for Tampa Bay Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact site. They’ve created apps for huge corporate clients like Siemens and Purina and the NFL.

But last November, in a parking lot at International Plaza, they came up with an idea to serve some lesser-known names:

Tampa Bay artists and the people who love them.

They’d already created a digital book for Creative Clay, the St. Pete arts center for persons with disabilities. Inspired, they started to brainstorm about what kind of publication they’d like to create for themselves.

“We had ideas from writing a Christmas story, Kevin’s idea, to folk music archives,” explains Carey. “Then we started thinking of all our friends that have all these art skills.

“It just culminated within 15 minutes of talking about it. All of Tampa Bay is so rich with all these museums and galleries, and the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily know about this either.”

On St. Patrick’s Day at [email protected] — less than four months after that epiphany — they’re launching Artbook Tampa Bay. The “digital coffeetable book” features 100 local artists and museums, ranging from glass master Duncan McClellan to the Dunedin Fine Art Center, from graffiti/graphics luminary Tes One to the Tampa Museum of Art.

HD Interactive is actually launching three different programs. Artbook Archive is an overarching application that functions as an entry point, and will be downloadable for free. Inside will be Artbook Tampa Bay, that will go on sale for $9.99. Artbook Archive Lite, available now, is a free sample version of the book featuring six artists as well as work from all 10 museums and galleries.

“By offering a free version, you increase downloads by the tens of thousands,” says Hohl.

The paid version will contain 700 digital pages of local art, photography and museum content — and that’s just the first volume. For now, the book is only available as an iPad app, but Hohl and Carey hope to expand to it to other application markets.

The technology is the same engine that powers the digital editions of Wired and National Geographic. Each artist gets a profile page with contact information and a digital portfolio, and readers can flip through the pages left and right.

“Once you find one you like, you can scroll up and down for bio information and see all of that particular artist’s work,” says Carey.

The pair sought advice from museum curators and artists to whittle down the book from an early incarnation, which contained 860 pieces of art, to a more reasonable size.

“We had a jury of six to eight jury members pick the best 700 pieces,” says Hohl. “We see this as a directory of Who’s Who.”

Each of the projects they’ve done for other clients has served as a stepping-stone to this project, say the HD Interactive team.

Out of a staff of 20, half worked on ArtBook, all while juggling at least 15 other projects.

“We’ve touched this every day we’ve had it,” Carey says.

A core group of 10 artists, all friends or friends of friends, helped spread the word. Among them was painter Bill Woo, a former graphic designer in the corporate world who started painting full-time six years ago. He now has his own studio gallery on the 600 Block, where he shows what he describes as a “a painterly version of realistic fish.”

Woo helped Hohl round up local artists, who submitted their work and personal info to a website, Eventually, submissions started coming in at about 25 a week, until the decision was made to limit the first volume to 100 artists and museums.

Artist meetups on Wednesdays at the popular 600 Block hangout Sake Bomb were an important resource. Local artists would crowd around Hohl’s iPad to see the latest build, and he’d take their input back to Carey. The original 10 artists who agreed to help did so without seeing anything from Hohl beforehand.

Copyright issues also had to be dealt with, even including the use of logos in Pop Art. “We did extensive research into copyright,” Hohl says, “and in the end, everyone who submitted gave us permission to use images they own.”

But the hardest part of developing a massive digital book from scratch? Deciding on categories.

“This took us quite a lot of time and many revisions,” Carey recalls. “We envisioned it with 10 to 15 categories. But it was really hard to categorize people in buckets.”

Classifying painters proved particularly problematic. The team spent hours, for instance, differentiating Impressionism from Pop Art.

“We were labeling them and we didn’t want to do that,” Hohl explains. “We wanted to present them.”

Then Sabrina Hughes, curatorial assistant at the Museum of Fine Arts, suggested they create one category for paintings and mixed media.

Now the interface is divided into just five categories; painting & mixed media, photography & digital media, drawing & printmaking, sculptures & installations, museums & galleries. The museums, in addition to those mentioned above, includes the Dali and the MFA in St. Petersburg, and the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts in downtown Tampa.

Carey and Hohl are eager to tell people about the project. At a recent [email protected] community event, Hohl commandeered the stage like a carnival barker, singing the praises of Artbook and brandishing his iPad like a pistol.

“He’s been busy five nights a week just showing off Artbook,” says Carey.

Granted, they have a lot of time and money riding on this project.

“It’s definitely a five-digit number,” Hohl says of money spent so far.

They’re hoping to at least break even, and regard the project as the blueprint for a larger vision.

“Eventually, we want to have Artbook San Francisco and others,” says Hohl. “We just hope people will buy the book. Buy the book. Buy the book!”

Carey sounds almost paternal when he talks about Artbook. “This is our own baby,” he says. “It’s not for a client and it really has a lot of meaning and purpose. It’s not just something fun. It’s going to make a difference for these artists and our community.”

The artists are not getting a cut of the proceeds. But Bill Woo says the real value of the project, for Tampa Bay as well as for the artists, is exposure.

“Exposure is key,” says Woo. “Artbook isn’t just exposure to artists, though. It reassures people that, ‘Hey, you should check out St. Petersburg’s art scene.”

The Artbook team will continue to throw gallery shows and invite all of the artists from each volume to show their work. Over 90 artists from the first book will showcase their work at the [email protected] launch party on the 17th.

And there are plenty more Tampa Bay artists to show.

“The second volume,” says Carey, “is already two-thirds done.”

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