The Art at the Top of the Stairs

ArtSpace is a top stop in St. Pete's gallery walk.

click to enlarge REVEALING: Rebecca Skelton exposes the female form in "Veils."- - Courtesy Of The Artist
Courtesy Of The Artist
REVEALING: Rebecca Skelton exposes the female form in "Veils."-

Ask folks on either side of the Bay whether Tampa or St. Pete enjoys the better visual arts scene, and you'll likely get plenty of disagreement. As a Tampa native (more or less), I'm inclined to point out the pockets of bubbling activity in Ybor City, West Tampa, at USF — and even the occasional gurgle from downtown. But just when I'm ready to give T-town the nod, I head to St. Pete's Second Saturday Gallery Walk and change my mind.

On every second Saturday of the month, visitors can stroll in downtown St. Petersburg from the Arts Center to the [email protected] to Florida Craftsmen Gallery and smaller venues in between and on the fringes — all clustered in a walkable 10-block rectangle. Galleries remain open late enough (9 p.m.) that there's plenty of time to play. Check out the latest exhibits, mingle with fellow art lovers, and grab a bite to eat. No car required.

One less-than-obvious venue is always a hit. Tucked away on the second floor of Florida Craftsmen Gallery's Central Avenue building, ArtSpace houses 18 artists' studios. Sometimes marked with a sandwich board near the building's Fifth Street entrance, the joint can be hard to spot, but for those in the know, it's a hidden treasure.

This weekend, there's more reason than ever to swing by. Two of the space's long-time tenants, Rebecca Skelton and Joe Walles, have solo shows in the building's common areas, in addition to the already diverse sampling of painting, mixed media, sculpture, photography and more on view inside each artist's individual nook.

ArtSpace's beginnings go back two decades as the brainchild of Bill Killingsworth, a grant writer and consultant for the Salvador Dalí Museum, and his life partner, artist Mary Klein. The owner of a building in downtown St. Pete approached them for help finding artist-occupants, both to cut the cost of insuring an unoccupied building and raise the space's profile.

Killingsworth and Klein, along with a few other artists, set up shop, but the building sold shortly after. But the couple, who liked having large, urban studios, reasoned that St. Pete had enough successful artists to warrant leasing a space and renting out individual studios. The venture — ArtSpace — wouldn't provide the pair with a financial windfall, but it wasn't exactly charity, either.

Ten years ago, they moved from another downtown building to be Florida Craftsmen Gallery's upstairs neighbor. Killingsworth helped FCG write a grant for enough money to buy the property; now both groups have a stable home. Several ArtSpace denizens sell and exhibit work downstairs (and a few teach classes at the Arts Center), but art lovers shouldn't use that as an excuse to bypass their studios.

Upstairs, behind the scenes, the artwork lends itself to a different experience. Enjoy the freedom to roam (respectfully) in and out of each artist's room, explore caches of new and old work, and linger in conversation. Don't be surprised to find a plate of cookies on a table in the kitchen.

The first space past the door belongs to Betsy Orbe Lester, a 15-year studio resident. Her richly symbolic works in mixed media — often incorporating toys or silhouettes of childlike figures — invite a moment of contemplation and set the bar high for the rest of the artists. Paula Allen, who just moved into a room one door down, covers tiny, box-like canvases with cartoonish, character-driven narratives in bright, pop-art colors.

Venture deeper in and you'll find treasures like C. Wade Brickhouse's carefully crafted paper sculptures or Klein's spacious central studio, where light streams in from one of the coveted windows overlooking the street below; her dainty cloisonné paintings decorate the walls.

This month, in the common areas — two lobby "galleries" near the elevator on the first and second floors — view work by two of the space's most engaging inhabitants: Joseph Walles, a photographer with an eye for street life, and his wife Rebecca Skelton, an artist of many talents whose figure drawings, copper sculptures, jewelry and paintings fill her studio almost to the point of bursting. The couple also helps manage ArtSpace, which runs more like a co-op than a rental community, with artists chipping in to buy shared advertising and engaging in friendly-but-rigorous critiques of each other's work.

Walles, a St. Petersburg Times photo editor, holds tightly to the tenets of street photography established by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Documenting life as he sees it with artful panache, Walles rarely crops his black-and-white images. Photoshop, needless to say, is strictly verboten. Prints are made the old-fashioned way, with paper and chemicals, right in his studio. (To get a real eyeful of the venerable tradition he's working from, head down to the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota to check out In Our Time: The World As Seen By Magnum Photographers.)

Walles, who often offers visitors a beer from a cooler in his sink during Gallery Walk, will happily spin tales about the shots that line his studio walls, many of them captured on vacations with Skelton in New York and Paris. A sly sense of humor — as well as an eye for dynamic compositions — is the unifying theme. Two young women, waiting outside a bar in Manhattan, turn sadistic-yet-seductive glances on the camera. In one Paris shot, a young man tugs on his distraught girlfriend's arm; the image's title, "French Diplomacy," says it all. Another, capturing a kiss in Montmartre, evokes Doisneau's famous image, but you can bet this one wasn't staged.

Where her husband displays the curiosity of a cosmopolitan explorer, Skelton turns the lens inside, quietly plumbing symbols and the subconscious in her work. Copper sculptures of female forms reveal changing bodies and, sometimes, unraveling lives. In one painting, a woman sits astride a galloping horse — whether she's leading or being led to her destination is deliciously indeterminable. Stacks of simple figure drawings, many done quickly in 20 minutes, communicate volumes through subtleties in gesture and posture.

Skelton's latest body of work hangs in the first-floor lobby, a series of paintings based on a single composition, repeated. (She refers to the series as a "rondo," or a musical round.) On each canvas, three columns sit rooted in the lower left corner. In each column, a portrait — usually, but not always, a realistic likeness of a woman — stands for a stage in life: youth, middle and old age; the progression of pregnancy and the three Fates of Greek mythology, who spin, weave and cut the thread of life. Skelton's fine touch with the brush and organic color palette render the subject primal and insightful rather than morbid.

Each of ArtSpace's artists invites entry into a unique aesthetic world. For a single stop on the Gallery Walk, that's a lot of bang for your proverbial buck. Now go grab a slice of pizza, and head to the next exhibit.

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