During this afternoon’s meeting, St. Petersburg City Council approved a new site for Janet Echelman’s controversial floating sculpture – at the Pier approach, instead of nearby Spa Beach Park – and Mark Aeling believes it’s time to widen the dialogue about St. Pete and public art.
“Every time a public art call comes up, there’s always this percentage of the populace that questions why public funds are going towards art,” says the noted sculptor, president of the Warehouse Arts District Association. “‘Why are our tax dollars being wasted?’ is the general tone of that comment.”
In mid-July, Council voted against putting up the massive Echelman piece on an open stretch of grass on the Pier’s north side, after complaints that it would somehow spoil the view of the waterfront.
And the conversation – the search for compromise – started all over again.
“What we want to talk about is just the importance of art in the community, and why public art matters, and what difference it makes,” Aeling explains. “The crux of it is this notion that art is nourishment for the soul.”
Historically, he adds, “Art tends to be the first thing that people do when their base necessities are met. And it’s as important to communities as the base necessities are.”
Jadus is a St. Petersburg native with very clear memories of the previous pier – the so-called “inverted pyramid” – as something that always said “St. Pete” to her. “You couldn’t really call it public art,” she says, but for her, it was an integral part of family strolls by the water. “I think the Echelman piece, whether you like it or don’t like it, is going to give that waterfront area personality and soul. There might be people that would prefer to look at something else. But I think that it’s going to affect you in a way that gives you an experience.”
For Aeling, the $2.8 Echelman project – funded by city government and private investors – is part of a bigger picture. “It’s a huge asset for the community,” he explains, “and it represents a public/private partnership that I think is really positive for the City of St. Petersburg. It shows some serious initiative in that they take the arts seriously.”
Love at first sight (twice)
Born in Colorado, Aeling was living in St. Louis in 2005 when he fell in love with St. Petersburg, and decided to move his studio here.
He was among the founders of the Warehouse Arts District, which took over the 55,000-square-foot Soft Water Laundry compound on three acres of the city’s south side, cleaned it up and divided it into artists’ studios. Centrally located is the Arts Xchange, a meeting, exhibition and classroom space.
“During Phase One we built 28 studios, and they were all rented before we had them done,” he says. “And there’s a long waiting list right now. We could quadruple the amount of square footage we have.”
In the planning and fundraising stages is Phase Two, which will add an education center, classrooms, a professional dance floor and more. The proposed budget also includes “campus” improvements – filling in the parking lot potholes, painting a bit and removing the rusty chain-link border fences.
And putting up new signs. “Nobody knows we’re here,” he laughs.
“Back when I first got here, I didn’t want anyone to know I was here. We kept it closed up.”
Now, of course, “it’s become much more popular, but there’s still a huge percentage of the bay area that doesn’t know that the Arts Xchange is here.”
Aeling, a master sculptor with an international reputation, has the anchor spot – 4,000 square feet – for his MGA Studios. He chose the space because of its high ceilings and wide doors – many of his sculptures are extremely large.
He’s currently at work on a stainless steel sculpture, 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide, for the exterior of the city’s new police building. For the lobby, he’s creating a 30-foot eagle’s wing made of oxidized aluminum.
“When Mark and I first met, I was looking for a bigger space,” says Jadus. “I was working on a commission for Weedon Island, which was huge. I couldn’t even fit it in my old space.”
Together, they renovated another 4,000 square feet of Soft Water, and turned it into space for five artists (including Jadus herself) and a gallery.
They had just begun dating at the time. “We decided to test our relationship and form a business partnership,” Aeling says with a smile.
Aeling and Jadus got married last year. “One of the keys, for us, is recognizing that this is a business,” he points out. “And everybody’s got a different formula for this.
“Being creative and being talented is a baseline. But success is based on your ability to treat it like a business. And run it like a business. I call it the penance – you have to do the bookkeeping. You have to do the marketing, and the sales, and all of those things that are necessary parts of having a successful entity.”
While the studios are generally open for friends, family, art fans, thrill-seekers and the curious – especially so during the monthly meet-and-greet Art Walks – Jadus says there’s something special about the camaraderie between creative types.
“There’s definitely a benefit for artists working together in the same area,” she explains. “Because you’re constantly bouncing creative ideas off of each other.
“There are personalities, so people don’t always get along, but at Soft Water we have a great group of artists. We visit, exchange ideas and give each other feedback. Being alone, being isolated, it’s just not as enriching of an experience.”
‘Because of the arts’
From small communities, big communities grow.
“The city has put on this hat of being an arts city,” Aeling believes. “And I think to a large degree, they’re riding on the arts community – there’s still work to be done. The success of the arts here is because of the arts community, not necessarily because of the city’s attitude towards it.”
The Echelman sculpture, he says, is big step in the right direction.
“Why is St. Pete thriving right now? I think you could say that, to a large degree, it’s thriving because of the arts, and because of the arts community.
“There are some really important things that the arts bring to a community – including economic resource. Dollars that go into the arts return investment. So why not spend money on the arts?”
Jadus, whose vivid, impressionistic paintings commissioned by St. Pete Preservation and Movies in the Park are among the biggest-selling poster reproductions in local history, is known for, among other things, the 2015 mural of scientist Nikola Tesla at 2232 5th Ave. S.
At one point, the business owner considered painting over the mural. But a massive outpouring of support, via social media, put a stop to that.
“I had done bigger art in the studio, but because it’s outside, everyone can see it, it was amazing to me how much it affected people,” Jadus says. “It has a huge effect. It becomes a part of their everyday experience. Public art does that.
“I don’t think that some people are present enough to actually realize that they’re being affected by it. I think that’s sometimes why people don’t appreciate it. Regardless of whether they appreciate it or not, it allows them to engage in their environment.”
“The Importance of Public Art (And Supporting Local Artists”: Mark Aeling and Carrie Jadus
At 8 a.m. Friday, Aug. 3 at the Oxford Exchange (Café con Tampa)