Water born: Community Stepping Stones' "I Am River" mural project

Sulphur Springs students discover the Hillsborough 
through a unique arts project.

Somewhere between learning how to right an overturned canoe and conquering his concerns about alligators, 17-year-old Dilon Bristol picked up another concept on the Hillsborough River: inference. Like each of us, Bristol explained to me at HCC’s Ybor Arts Gallery last week, the river teems with activity that isn’t always apparent on its quiet surface. Listen, watch — and you just might glean a few insights into the life swirling in and around its waters.

Bristol is one of a dozen middle and high school students who attend Community Stepping Stones in Sulphur Springs, a neighborhood north of downtown Tampa that is one of the city’s poorest. While the Hillsborough River winds its way through Sulphur Springs and into the backyard (literally) of Community Stepping Stones’ campus, Bristol and most of his classmates had never explored the river by canoe. Until January, when they embarked on a six-month project called “I Am River.”

“The river became part of us, and we became part of it,” Bristol said.

The results of their enterprise — which comprised four canoe trips by the group and its instructors, and the subsequent creation of a collaborative photo essay, murals, ceramic sculptures and monologues — are on view through August 15 at the HCC Ybor School of Visual and Performing Arts Gallery. An opening reception on Thursday evening will include a spoken word performance by the students of the monologues, which they wrote under the tutelage of Powerstories Theatre, a Tampa organization that specializes in training non-professionals to write and perform true stories about their lives.

The backstory to the polished output of their activities is a boatload of learning, on topics from the technical aspects of digital photography to the science of tidal rivers, with plenty of river-induced self-reflection along the way.

“When they started out they were just like typical teens — they all brought their cell phones,” says Community Stepping Stones Director Sigrid Tidmore. “After a couple of trips, they started to get all quiet and pensive. They realized that they were going to be in a different world.”

The project’s end goal, however, extends beyond personal growth into entrepreneurship. The murals, which showcase flora and fauna of the Hillsborough as well as the Sulphur Springs water tower and youth canoeing, are intended as a business proposition. Visitors to the gallery will find them mounted to wooden stretchers like canvases; that’s because the images are painted onto a thin cloth called “parachute paper.” Some muralists prefer the method to direct painting because the cloth is portable, more weather-resistant, and easier to use with participants of varying skills (like the teens of Community Stepping Stones), who can simply paint color into an outline created by tracing a projected image onto the cloth. After winning a grant from the Children’s Board last year, Tidmore visited Philadelphia to learn about the method from the city’s famed Mural Arts Program.

The murals represent a distillation of much that the students learned during “I Am River”: how to identify the river’s plants and animals, take captivating photographs, transform them into illustrations using Photoshop, and paint the illustrations onto mural paper.

While the exhibition is up, Tidmore hopes to convince several corporate clients that their venue needs a CSS mural. Since the murals are relatively small — only 7 feet tall, or wide, at most — and able to be installed indoors or outdoors, they could appeal to individual collectors, too. The group already boasts a decade-long track record of mural-making. In 2007 and 2008, CSS students completed two 80-foot murals, “Exactly” and “You+Me+Community,” in Rowlett Park under the guidance of founder Ed Ross and artist Michael Parker. Two others are at the Sulphur Springs Theatre and Layla’s House, an early childhood center. With the smaller, portable murals — an initiative Tidmore calls Murals2Go — the group hopes to expand the market for its work.

If the project takes off, CSS may be able to fulfill its longtime goal of paying students to make art in a job apprenticeship program. Currently, its programs are provided free to students, who must apply for a spot, and fueled by grants, such as one from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program that helped fund “I Am River,” and Power2Give, the county’s crowd-funding platform for cultural nonprofits.

But regardless of whether the murals sell, Community Stepping Stones has still left its mark on a cohort of students who won’t soon forget their time on the Hillsborough.

“Since we have been on the river, we see how important it is to keep it safe and clean,” Bristol says.