This week’s cold snap is trying hard to mess with Laura Spencer’s Lealman District mural project.
Yet the artist, St. Pete born and bred, continues to bundle up, nearly every morning, to spend the daylight hours perched atop a rented green lift, making Garden Variety come to colorful life on the corrugated façade of Mother Kombucha’s 1,700-square-foot 28th Street warehouse.
“It’s a big project for a little small potato like me,” laughs the heavily-layered muralist.
Her hope is that the expansive project will be wrapped up like a Christmas present by the end of the month. “Like any good artist, it’s not done until somebody tells me to set my pencil down,” Spencer says.
Garden Variety was commissioned by Creative Pinellas, in association with the Lealman Community Redevelopment Area (CRA), part of a project designed to “foster community beautification projects that engage the community and represent the rich culture and environment” of this small section of unincorporated Pinellas County.
“When the Call to Artists came out,” Spencer explains, “I saw it and I said ‘I gotta get this project.’ Lealman is where I grew up, and there weren’t a lot of opportunities for me as a kid to see art in my own neighborhood. You had to go to downtown St. Pete or other places. And when I was little kid, there was arguably nothing going on in downtown. It was an absolute ghost town.”
Spencer, who has a BFA in Illustration from Ringling College of Art + Design, is an illustrator and graphic designer by profession, although her creative heart is directing her to paint more, and sit at the computer less. “There are still a couple of design clients I take care of,” she says. “And right now I’m trying to move into a place where I can make my own art and sort of establish myself and my work.”
Last year was a tough one – her father passed away, and her mother endured a lengthy illness (she’s better now, thanks).
Those and other factors left young Laura at a crossroads. “I had that existential crisis that a lot of artists do: What are you doing? Are you going to work for yourself, or are you going to take the safe route, the consistent-pay route?
“Which is a totally viable and admirable position to be in, but I figured, what better time than now to at least try?”
She took out a small business loan and declared herself, at last, a full-time artist. “I bought my creative freedom, in a way.”
The bright spot, 2021-wise, was that Spencer got tapped by the city’s SHINE Mural Festival to contribute a piece (at Absolutely Beautiful Flowers, 3000 Central).
“This new mural, and the mural I did for SHINE, fall in line with the aesthetic I’m trying to pursue and grow – doing a lot of floral stuff,” she explains. “I’m always heavily researched. As an illustrator I always like to have some context, some meaning and some narrative. Whether my viewer knows it or not, I’m trying to pull those threads through.
“I’m trying to establish a body of work that I can stand behind, that’s also a happy marriage between what I want to do and what the artist, or organization, is seeking.”
The Mother Kombucha piece is a cornucopia of native edible Florida vegetation, including plants and flowers. “It features nine or 10 different native Florida plants and pollinators,” Spencer proudly explains, “everything from sea grapes to cocoa plums to native blueberries and wild coffee. Prickly pear to passion flower. It was a way that we could celebrate edible native stuff that you can grow in your garden today – sustainable permaculture.
“It fell directly in line with their aesthetic, and their mission of wholesome, organic, natural ways to celebrate health, wellness – and the community.”
Spencer was the recipient of a Creative Pinellas Emerging Artist Grant in 2019; her mentor, Chad Mize, advised her on the wisdom of creating a recognizable brand, to go with her distinctive style.
Her artist friends have a nickname for her: Critter. That morphed into the name she uses as an alias and a calling card, Miss Crit.
Should things not work out, she says, she sees jobs all the time for graphic designers and art directors and illustrators. That loan’s going to have to be paid back at some point, of course. “If push comes to shove, I can get a job somewhere, you know?”
Well, that’s for the future to decide. “The rest of my year is already pretty full,” she says. “I’ve got a few other mural projects, and a solo show that’ll be opening in June at the Wayward Goose … so I’ve got to get started on some paintings for that!”
As she puts the finishing touches on Garden Variety, Spencer is thinking about the future. “Some days I fantasize that maybe I should be a postal worker and get a pension,” she muses, “and paint on the side.
“But every day I put on the brave face for myself. Every day I wake up, and I’m making that choice. And I realize it’s a conscious decision, to pursue being an artist and doing this full time.”