For a patron of Tampa's visual arts community, Bubba Ellis is decidedly unassuming. In quintessential Floridian business casual — a crisp, tangerine shirt and pants — he sips café con leche at Fourth of July Café in West Tampa, his youthful face lighting up with enthusiasm each time an acquaintance approaches to shake his hand.
Ellis, 52, says that the time-warped café, with its antique tin ceiling tiles and simple wooden chairs, is his usual morning stop. On this particular day, he's turned up a bit later than usual to meet with me and Maida Millan, an artist who rents space for her photography studio in the building Ellis' family owns. The former Santaella Cigar Factory on North Armenia, where the Ellis and VanPelt families run two small businesses (office furniture and restaurant supplies) on the lower floors, is also known as Gallery 1906. For nearly a decade, the factory has served — on its second and third floors — as hub for studios of about two dozen fine and commercial artists, the site of memorable art parties and general creative camaraderie.
After leasing studios for years, the Ellises and VanPelts decided in January to shoot for something more ambitious with the space. They contacted Millan for guidance, and the idea of a community arts center — the West Tampa Center for the Arts (WTCA) — was born. The down-to-earth Ellis and his family are the Medici of West Tampa, Millan says, invoking the powerful Italian family that commissioned many great artworks of the Renaissance. Without all that nasty poisoning, she adds teasingly.
The WTCA effort is a family affair, with Ellises and VanPelts populating the organization's board of directors, but one of a decidedly more middle-class bent than the Medici. After Bubba's nephew J.D. Ellis initiated the original conversation with Millan, the family hired her as executive director of the new project (a role that she says comes with a small stipend). As a former director of Artists Unlimited in the Channel District, Millan was full of ambitious ideas: community partnerships, offering classes, promoting resident artists at no charge. In turn, the families agreed to donate a large classroom (roughly three times the size of smaller studio spaces in the building) for WTCA activities.
What none of them expected was resistance — and for a short time a few of the building's resident artists were quite troubled about the changes afoot, despite Millan's assurances that their studios were not in danger. The main calling cards of Gallery 1906 — its resident artists and their open-studio parties — will stay in place; the transition to WTCA will simply add new endeavors to the mix. Just in time for this weekend's gala opening, any remaining resistance appears to have dissolved.
On Friday, the wraps come off a transition that's been in the works since January. The title of the WTCA's first show, Nueva Evolucion, echoes the theme of rebirth. Millan convinced curator Tracy Midulla Reller, an HCC Ybor City art professor and member of the art artist collective — which leases one of the building's studios as a gallery — to jury the show. From about 200 submissions (from resident and nonresident artists), Midulla culled around 70 of the best works: a wide array of paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, kinetic art and more, which will hang in the former cigar factory's public spaces (mostly hallways and landings). A looping reel of video art pieces will play in the large classroom.
And, in classic 1906 style, the building's talented resident artists will open the doors to their studios. (Keep an eye peeled for residents including Millan, Debra Jo Radke, Marie Yoho Dorsey, Mark Cannariato — a USF grad student and personal favorite — Linda Chaney, Alex Torres, Laszlo Horvath and others.)
Visitors will also find evidence of Millan's first victory in forming community partnerships on the building's second floor landing: The space now serves as the Open Door Gallery of VSA Arts of Florida, showcasing artwork by disabled adults and children with help from a state grant.
With jazz by foxy chanteuse Denise Moore and her band Then Some, appetizers and a donation bar, Nueva Evolucion promises to be a good time. Ellis and Millan hope it will be the beginning of many more great things from the WTCA, which plans four more exhibits before March, a slate of art classes (tentatively planned for later this fall), and hopes of beginning a community outreach with at-risk kids. Much hinges on the successes of the application for nonprofit status Millan filed earlier this year and on Nueva Evolucion as a fundraiser.
Don't be surprised to see members of the Ellis and VanPelt families on Friday night, taking a break from business on the lower floors of the factory. They're living proof that you don't have to be a Medici to support a renaissance.
It's hard to believe, but Ybor City's Brad Cooper Gallery celebrates 23 years of fine-art exhibitions this year. On Sat., Sept. 29, they open an exhibit of Seattle-based artist Eric Montoya's paintings with a reception from 3-5 p.m. Montoya has shown with the gallery before, and if you've seen his work once, you can't easily forget it. His dramatic close-up views of women's faces blend seamlessly into a landscape or cluster of objects (birds, flowers, plants) — a face composed of a bouquet of lilies, for example. The intense, idealized faces add a sense of psychological weight to the portraits. Some are downright Hitchcockian.
Also this weekend, St. Petersburg's Creative Clay launches an ambitious event it hopes will become an annual tradition. Folkfest 2007, a celebration of folk, outsider and visionary art, music and performance, will take over Central Avenue between 11th and 13th streets on Saturday and Sunday. Peruse a variety of art offerings, partake in food from local vendors, and listen in on two days' worth of musical performances (concluding with a multiperformer tribute to Bob Dylan at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday — check out creativeclay.org for the complete schedule). Because of recent state budget cuts, the event will serve as a crucial fundraiser for Creative Clay, as worthy an organization as they come.
Speaking of good causes, the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts holds its first annual Photo Mojo! fundraiser and auction on Thurs., Sept. 27, at Neiman Marcus at International Plaza. (Tickets are $50 in advance, $60 at the door.) The auction features Florida nature photography by Clyde Butcher, Connie Bransilver, Carlton Ward Jr. and more. As a reminder of the exciting new resource FMoPA has brought to downtown Tampa, stop by their brand-spanking new gallery space at 200 N. Tampa Street (as of last Tuesday night, the floors were still unfinished) — it's fabulous. To christen the space, FMoPA has installed their most interesting and ambitious exhibition in a while. The Cuba-themed show features works by Miami artist Maria Martinez-Cañas, Tampa's own David Audet and Butcher. I urge you to go see it.