It’s no secret that Tampa has struggled to build a cohesive, forward-moving art scene, especially one with sustained public support. But, thanks to factors like social media connecting more artists and audiences than ever before, and vocal backing from leaders like Mayor Jane Castor, it seems the stars are finally aligning for the arts to become a critical part of the city’s culture. On the following pages, four artists who work primarily in Tampa’s urban core reflect on their work and share their visions for the future development of the city’s art.
Muralist & Illustrator
If the ramen wall outside of Ichicoro in Seminole Heights appears anywhere on your Instagram feed, thank Tampa artist Jujmo (aka Cheryl Weber). She creates illustrations and murals all over town at places like Café Hey and Cass Street Deli inspired by her love of cartoons and anime.
Jujmo earned her BFA from the University of South Florida and says her instructors inspired her to pursue art in her post-grad life. “Most of our professors were constantly creating, so it was cool seeing a glimpse of their life and [have them] share their knowledge with us.”
As an artist who has worked on both sides of the bay, Jujmo says she would love to see Tampa’s art scene become a key piece of the city’s culture the way it has in St. Petersburg. More studios offering hands-on workshops and residencies for visiting artists to explore and create in Tampa are just a few ways to invest in art, she adds.
“Tampa is seeing our neighbors in St. Pete embracing their art community, and I think [Tampa] finally understands how much it brightens and diversifies neighborhoods. It benefits so many people in the community,” Jujmo says. “It brings everyone that much closer to one another.”
Muralists | Owners, Mergeculture Gallery
Though they’re known for large-scale public murals like the Tampa Heights community mural at the intersection of North Franklin Street and I-275 and For the Love of This City on Florida Avenue, Illsol (made up of husband-and-wife duo Michelle Sawyer and Tony Krol) have expanded their focus to start more conversations about art in Tampa. In 2017, they opened their Mergeculture gallery next to Café Hey on Franklin Street, where they showcase both local and national artists in themed shows throughout the year. Krol is also in the beginning stages of connecting more artists with businesses and institutions willing to invest in art and create collaborative, branded collections.
“My vision to grow this gallery is to create an elevated experience, but create it [using]the things that make Tampa unique, which we feel would make our gallery fit in,” Krol says. “Tampa’s weird. It’s a weird little city. We’re going to be like the weird little gallery having these conversations.”
Many of the conversations the duo are leading center around placement (where a piece is created or installed) and programming (events or interactive uses) of art. Krol and Sawyer are demonstrating the importance of these two factors through their nonprofit Art Up, formerly known as Heights Walls. They’ll be placing pieces from their collection in local restaurants like Rooster & the Till to create mini galleries and contracting with local business owners to use their building’s exterior walls as spaces for future murals. Krol says bringing together institutions like the Tampa Museum of Art with other gallery owners and independent artists to have these conversations surrounding placement and programming is what will ultimately bring Tampa’s art scene to the next level.
“That’s what’s going to succeed,” Krol adds. “Not just, ‘We’re going to paint all these [murals] with no strategy.’ Talking about programming and placement in a strategic way, that will bring Tampa where it should be within the arts.”
Taylor O. Thomas
In a light-filled studio tucked behind a gym next to the Tampa Theatre, Taylor O. Thomas lets the small, intimate details she absorbs from life in Tampa influence her work as a self-described gestural abstract painter.
“Things like cracks in architecture in Downtown Tampa or the weird palettes you see in all the houses around us, or even how someone might be walking… My brain kind of stores up all these gestures and forms,” Thomas says. “I come into the studio, and it’s not that I’m trying to replicate those things directly, but I’m trying to let them influence my making and trying to come up with new materials and resources to create different compositions with.”
Thomas got her MFA from the University of South Florida in 2016 and has had her work shown in galleries across the country, from San Francisco to New York City to here in Tampa. She says that, while there is now an increasingly bright spotlight on Tampa’s art and artists, the city has had to overcome the challenge of its creators being geographically spread out across the region — not a problem found in the artsier neighborhoods of cities like New York or Chicago where gallery after gallery lines the streets.
“Right now, the creativity [in Tampa] is dispersed. It’s hard to make those bridges between everything going on,” with independent artists and galleries and larger institutions like the Tampa Museum of Art and USF, Thomas says. “I think the more that dialogue is shared and collaborations are shared between the museum, USF, these galleries, and artists themselves, that’s when innovation starts to happen.”