Transforming Tampa Bay: WADA world

St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District is making creative connections.

St. Pete’s Warehouse Arts District is a treasure trove of creative connectivity. If you haven’t discovered this juicy mix of studios, galleries and murals, treat yourself to a trip — sort of a visual staycation.

Just blocks south of Central Avenue’s buzz, on 22nd Street, the Morean Center for Clay is your first stop. The carefully preserved Historic Seaboard Train Station, a red brick classic from 1926, is now a mecca for ceramic artists, offering classes, artists-in-residence programs, kilns and gallery space. It’s a “haven for pottery enthusiasts.”

In 2015, Beth Morean donated the station to the not-for-profit that runs the programs and oversees the building. The large exhibition space is full of tempting objects for sale, varying widely in style, scale and price. The adjacent work area hums with artists and students focused on their projects.

And there’s a restaurant on the premises, too: the CA Cafe, which serves tasty homemade soups, salads, sandwiches and desserts. During a recent lunch, the clientele was a wonderful cross-section of ceramic artists, government employees, neighborhood residents and businesspeople.

A scant two blocks away, at 24th Street and Emerson Avenue, is Duncan McClellan’s arts oasis. This abandoned industrial area was mostly below the radar of redevelopment when the talented and hardworking glass artist opened his live/work space there in 2010. He had tried for years to secure a historic building in north Ybor City to no avail, thanks to the intransigence of Tampa’s government bureaucracy.

Savvy St. Pete bureaucrats, on the other hand, welcomed him warmly. McClellan purchased an abandoned Tasti-Lee tomato-packing plant and transformed the empty space into an elegant, well-appointed gallery representing over 50 international glass artists — a visual feast of glass sculpture, objects and jewelry.

Ever inventive, he built patios and gardens and a hot shop, too. McClellan realized that educating students about glass-making would be a boon to the area and initiated a program, the DMG School Project, through which thousands of students visit the hot shop and learn the process of glass-blowing.  Additionally, he developed a mobile hot shop to visit schools where transportation was unavailable. He also offers artists’ residencies, classes for the public in glass-blowing and etching, lectures and demonstrations.

A very social person, McClellan immediately began hosting openings and jazz concerts at his space. By inviting arts lovers to an area almost completely unknown to them, he opened new horizons to artists on the lookout for studio space. 

His initiative in locating an art facility in this unlikely place sparked a group of artists to organize the nonprofit Warehouse Arts District Association (WADA) in 2011, and three years later the group had raised enough funds to purchase an old 2.7-acre industrial site, just around the corner from McClellan’s complex. Tired of the sad tradition of artists discovering and popularizing an area only to be priced out by developers, their goal is to transform 50,000 square feet of six abandoned buildings along the Pinellas Trail into affordable working spaces, classrooms, galleries and performance spaces.

So far the group has raised over $500,000, with a goal of $3.2 million by 2017. The proposed ArtsXchange (AX) buildings will house these studios, which will be between 100-400 square feet each. Already there are several studios, exhibition and class spaces operating on the campus.

The Soft Water Laundry site houses working space for seven, including painters, sculptors, clay and graphic artists. They’ve also offered weekly live model classes for several years, priced at $7 every Tuesday from 6:30-9 p.m. and attracting artists from Dunedin to Sarasota.

Mark Aeling’s MGA Sculpture Studio enjoys site-specific commissions from throughout the country in a broad range of materials and styles. Works from this studio grace the Sundial retail complex, the Florida Aquarium and a host of homes. Aeling, a district pioneer in his own right, is president of the Warehouse Arts District Association board of directors.

During the Shine Mural Program last year, Carrie Jadus painted two joyful murals that tip folks off to the idea that this is a special area: “Tesla” and “Little Miss Sisyphus” grace the Genius Central building, which is adjacent to the Pinellas Trail. Jadus, whose studio is at Soft Water, is enthusiastic about the collaborative spirit at WADA.

“Four years ago when we started opening our studios no one wanted to drive here, so we artists each paid $50/month to pay for rubber-wheeled trolleys to bring people here. After one year, sponsors started picking up the tab because they recognized the value that this monthly arts event, Second Saturday Art Walks, brings to the community.”

Six months ago, WADA hired Mary Jane Park, a 30-year Tampa Bay Times veteran writer and editor, to promote the area. Her goal is to raise money for WADA projects and to introduce collectors, artists and visitors to the abundant creativity residing in this unlikely location. 

“Once people find this place,” she vows, “they’re hooked!”

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