Ricky Watts is painting a mural, in waves of yellow and orange and blue and purple, on one of the north walls of The Factory St. Pete. It’s the 12th mural project this year for the Northern California artist, part of a catching-up regimen after Covid cancelled all his jobs in 2020.
It’s also Watts’ fourth appearance at St. Petersburg’s SHINE Mural Festival. He was there at the very first one, in 2015, and wild horses, not to mention a pandemic, couldn’t keep him from coming back.
Back then, Watts remembers wistfully, “We were all just trying to figure it out as we went. It became this magical week, and I made so many great connections with the people that put it on, and the community. It was just so incredible to see how excited people were about this happening.”
Watts has nothing but effusive praise for the way SHINE treats its visiting artists. Not so long ago, he was working a festival in a midwestern city. Because they work outdoors in all weather, muralists need to stay hydrated.
This particular festival, however, had a one-person staff, and after his calls went unanswered, Watts walked half a mile, through unfamiliar territory, in search of a bottle of water.
SHINE director Jenee Priebe sees this as a cautionary tale – it’s the sort of thing that will never, ever happen at SHINE.
“We’re just in the streets, circling,” she says. “Anytime anybody needs anything, if we’re not there in five, 10 minutes, something’s wrong.”
Priebe and her army of volunteers are on call virtually 24/7 during SHINE (the 2021 edition began Oct. 15 and will wind up on the 24th). Whatever they require – water, food, paint, supplies, a little emotional support – a SHINE team member will provide it.
Detroit muralist Bakpak Durden arrived in the early evening of the first day to discover their assigned wall had not been “primed,” or made into the necessary blank canvas (this was due to a last-minute change of location).
Stylistically, Durden paints over black backgrounds. This wall, at The Bend on 1st Avenue N., was still white. And heavily tagged with local graffiti. Durden was cool about the snafu and even offered to paint the site as is.
Horrified, Priebe raced to Home Depot, just a few minutes before closing time, and bought the requisite amount of black paint needed to prime. The team spent the midnight hour, and much of the following morning, getting Durden’s wall ready.
Working Sunday afternoon, the visibly pleased artist described their work-in-progress. Durden had already sprayed a series of seemingly random words, in bright pink, on the fresh black background.
All part of the final mural. “Sometimes they come through, and sometimes I push them back so that you can’t see them,” the artist pointed out. “This time, either I’m gonna write something that’s in my heart or I’ll pick a song, whoever’s song I’m listening to, or poetry or something, and put it up there. And then I’ll cover it all up.”
Cover it up? “I know it’s there. And then, depending on where the sun is, and how the light hits, everyone can see it.”
Priebe began her tenure with SHINE back in 2016, the second year, as a volunteer. The only team member with a longer tenure is Kathryn Howd, who was on the original steering committee and has been, since Year One, the water, ice and food-delivery volunteer.
“It ends up being all day every day,” Howd explains during an infrequent break, “starting at about eight in the morning. I now have a commercial ice machine at my home, so I can get about 12 bags of ice. We go out and visit every wall. We deliver lunch, and then I start getting the calls: ‘So-and-so doesn’t have this,’ or somebody’s out of ice.”
Why does she do it? “It is so much fun, and it’s so great,” Howd says. “Bringing food and water to the artists, you get to know them, and you get to know their personalities. And they’re also super appreciative! You get to know these artists and then you’re part of this hugely bigger community.”
From the local and regional artists, to those with national (and international) resumes, to the director and her volunteers, everyone is working at 110 percent during SHINE week. “You need people like Kathryn, who are just there,” Priebe explains. “They clear their schedules for the full 10 days and they do what it takes to get people taken care of.”
Later Sunday afternoon, the official SHINE Bike Tour, led by affable Greg Stanek (who’s also been part of the family for years) stops by to chat with Tampa artist Jason Harvin, busily painting the facade of Rick Noll Properties, 1211 1st Avenue N., with bold geometric designs.
“Because my stuff is so clean,” he tells his visitors, “I have to know exact measurements. I spent almost the last three days going through with a red pencil and a 48-inch measuring stick. I go around and do all the lines by hand.”
Some muralists use Doodle Grid, a complex projection system, to get their early sketches on the big walls before they begin to paint.
Harvin begins with Adobe Illustrator … and a calculator. “It’s a little bit of addition, some division and multiplication,” he says. “Basic math.”
The visiting artists say they love it not only for the VIP treatment they receive, not only for the chance to be outdoors in Florida for a week, but because SHINE has become a prestige event, a reputation-builder.
Hawaiian-born Woes Martin is painting his signature angry pandas at 2343 Emerson Avenue S., across the parking lot from Bayboro Brewing. “Usually, after every mural festival, I’ll get clients,” he enthuses. “So it’s good for the career. It’s a big business card!
“And on top of that, I really love doing it.”