Vince Pompei and Melissa Schultz’s Terror Tent is more than a haunted attraction; it’s a work of art. The two artists moved to Pinellas Park in 2015, back when the city first hatched plans to redevelop the area. City Council members Mike Gustafson, Rick Butler and Patti Johnson approached Pompei at the Mainsail Art Festival.
“They asked me if I’d come rent one of their places and help start the changing the neighborhood,” says Pompei, “They’ve done a great job. It’s really come a long way, in five or six years. Besides me, they’ve got all these other artists here. It’s really turned around the neighborhood.”
Pompei and Schultz were among the first artists to settle in what is now Pinellas Arts Village, Pinellas Park’s nascent “creative district.”
“I don’t know that it was initially their idea to become an arts thing,” says Pompei. “Part of the redevelopment thing I thought was fun was to make these crazy junk sculptures and put them out by the road. It was part of what I did here to make this an art area. Schwartz put his sculptures out there at night, like me. We were both doing that. Then Derek Donnelly came up and started doing the murals here and all the other stuff. It kind of started to grow. From those junk sculptures into nice public art around here.”
Eventually, people started to notice.
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“One to six cars a week would pull up in here and say, ‘What do you do here? What is this place?’ Because it’s just so weird looking. They’re curious. Like 80,000 people a day drive past. Eventually, they just take a Saturday off, come down and say, ‘What is this?’ And two people in a row said, ‘What do you do here? Make monsters?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I guess I do.’”
Pompei Monster Factory was born.
In truth, Pompei makes a lot more than just monsters, but you can see from his work that he has kind of a dark sense of humor. He tells me how one of his works is actually sort of a murder mystery story. The characters are all a little off-looking, or abstract, so you might not notice at first that something’s run amok in this work of art. One of the characters has been murdered. The others look on in horror.
In another Pompei sculpture, the artist recreated an entire bar scene out of his friends’ drunk stories. Though this bar’s patrons are made of cups and spoons, you can still tell they’re having a riotous good time.
“With sculpture, I was trying to see how you show different emotions,” says Pompei. Most of the stuff he makes is out of cups and spoons, old junk and stuff like that. Pompei tries to get those to look like a person with emotions.
“Where you can get the feeling that it has a smile or it’s happy or drunk or whatever — that’s hard to do,” he added. “Doing something that was fun and creepy was another challenge, another expression, another range of things to do. The best stories always have some dark elements to them.”
Pompei and Schultz started building Terror Tent in February 2018. The circus-style tent behind Pompei Studio looks a lot like a fireworks tent you see in parking lots around July 4. This tent, however, is surrounded by murals from Donnelly, Robert Riedel, Sebastien Coolidge and Zulu Painter. Inside, Pompei and Schultz created a horror-themed art installation.
The husband-and-wife duo started with a walk-through installation similar to a standard haunted house, but when you spend most of the year creating enough creepy paintings, sculptures and custom animatronics start to fill the circus tent. You don’t want people so scared they run past the details, so Pompei decided to turn it into a ride.
Using his experience in construction, Pompei ran a rail through the installation. Now a small, speed-controlled cart delivers you through the tent, stopping at individual installations along the way. My favorites are a creepy parlor scene, an animated skeleton band (who doesn’t want to see a skeleton play the banjo?), and the cluster of creepy clowns staring me down when I turn a corner.
I’ll admit I was a little skeptical when I first walked up to this artist’s junkyard in Pinellas Park, but if you’re making art out of junk, you kind of have to keep a lot of junk around. Once I saw the products of Pompei’s creative tinkering, it all made sense. With enough time, effort and creativity, anything can be made beautiful or funny or drunk or creepy, even a heaping pile of junk in a once-neglected neighborhood.