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Muralist Derek Donnelly wants art scene changes

Bill DeYoung

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Derek Donnelly (and Syre Donnelly mural) behind Planet Retro Records. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

His place is assured in the big book of influential St. Petersburg artists, but Derek Donnelly – who’s painted many of the city’s eye-catching murals – has never been asked to do a wall for the yearly SHINE Mural Festival.

And that bugs him. Anyone who saw his social media posts in late September, ragging on the city’s “arts illuminati,” knew he meant business.

Donnelly, who subsequently removed the missives, admits he was already having a tough week – his mother was in the hospital.

He now thinks his rant, as he calls it, “was a little harsh.”

Still. A Pinellas native, Donnelly was part of the initial wave of artists who went public on the walls of an otherwise drab and virtually art-free downtown in the early 2010s.

It was easier in those days to make a living, he recalls – he operated the Saint Paint Art Shop on the 600 block of Central and did OK for himself. St. Pete was a lot cheaper. Along with his then partner-in-paint Sebastian Coolidge, Donnelly transformed one dingy façade after another into something creative and colorful, often for little or no pay. They were by no means the only aspiring muralists, but they were the most prolific. “It was a collective effort. We made our own market.”

The idea, he explains now, was simple: “I can’t tell you how many people who live in Pinellas Park probably have never walked into the Museum of Fine Arts. But you throw a big mural in the street, it shoves it in their face.

“We were trying to get our names out there, obviously, but also to make murals a thing in St. Pete.”

When the new St. Petersburg Arts Alliance began SHINE in 2014, Donnelly and Coolidge were excited. “We thought, awesome, now we’re going to get some support from the city. And obviously we’re going to be included.”

They weren’t included, and made their feelings known. “Some said we were outspoken,” Donnelly recalls. “We just questioned why – you guys finally have some money, and we’re not involved?”

His beef with SHINE – and with other arts entities – is that, in his view, they simply aren’t local enough.

SHINE, he believes, “wasn’t necessarily meant to support or elevate the local artists directly, but more of a tourism-based thing to bring people here from out of town. Which, for the record, I am all for. I think we should have international artists here to elevate the talent that we have. That’s me speaking as a citizen, not even as a muralist. It just makes sense.”

In 2018, Donnelly was asked to curate five “Open Call” walls, featuring local artists, for SHINE. He did, but he didn’t return the next year. And the festival’s national reputation kept growing.

“I really believe we should be elevating our own people more than we are,” Donnelly explains. “This year, they did a great job – they had four or five local artists.” And the artists, all of them, were paid more than last year, Donnelly adds.

“They’ve done it better this year than ever,” he says, although “I do still feel like there’s work that could be done.”

Following his recent tirade, he was invited to meet with Terry Marks, the Arts Alliance’s executive director, and others on the board. “They were very welcoming, receptive to what I had to say and understood my concerns,” Donnelly says. “I’m very optimistic about her leadership with the Arts Alliance.”

In a nutshell, Donnelly believes St. Petersburg’s arts community is being overseen and driven forward by those with little or no local connection or institutional memory. He worries about “corporatization.” He worries about local representation. He worries about money that isn’t “trickling down” to hard-working St. Pete artists, the backbone of this much vaunted “City of the Arts.”

“It grinds my gears. I was born and raised here. This is all I have. It’s been my passion for 12 years now … you’re never going to make everyone happy, for one, but I think making the right people and the right assets in your community happy is integral to growth.”

And, he insists, it’s not all about him. “I’ve built this awesome local career for myself without their direct support. Again, I do support SHINE – I support the idea of SHINE – I don’t think that the same three or four individuals should be making the calls and/or dictating the culture which happens to be my livelihood.”

He insists, also, that he is not trying to make enemies, especially out of like-minded creatives. Rather, he asks, “Structurally, what can we do better? And how can we better support our artists?”

Donnelly says he realizes he’s something of a burr under the SHINE saddle, but he believes whole-heartedly in his mission. “OK, we’re a melting pot, fine. But can someone from here make decisions at all? Because this is a very unique place. In the last 12 years, art has become a business. And I think it’s more than fair for me to feel like I deserve a seat at a table I helped build.

“My issues are far beyond me ever getting a wall. I never expect to get a wall with them. I don’t know if I would do it if they asked me, at this point. I probably would, to bury the hatchet. I’d love to work with these people again, in some capacity.

“But I don’t need to. I never needed to. And I drove myself crazy over the years feeling all weird about it.”

His studio and gallery, Donnelly Cove, is the anchor tenant at the Pinellas Arts Village, on Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park. The multi-artist community has a themed ArtWalk event every fourth Saturday.

He operates a nonprofit, Public Art Project, which raised money to help local artists during the dog days of the pandemic.

Coming Nov. 5 to the Wayward Goose: An exhibition of new Donnelly canvases, consisting of paintings featuring his 2-year-old son, Syre. He’s calling it Son-Shine.

Syre appears, in huge and cosmic fashion, on the back wall of Planet Retro Records, 226 Dr. MLK Jr. Street N.

Donnelly painted it last week, as SHINE was going on around him. Year after year, passers-by would see him painting somewhere and, inevitably, point to their SHINE maps and ask him which artist he was.

So he called his mini-event, at Planet Retro, Outshine.

He recruited three additional muralists: Hinson the Healer, R2 Romero and Artist Slim. “I don’t want to make them guilty by association, like it was some big ‘eff you’ from all of us to SHINE,” Donnelly smiles. “It was personally, with love, from Derek.”

Photo by Bill DeYoung.

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12 Comments

12 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Fred

    October 31, 2022at8:50 am

    It seems comments critical to Mr. Donnelly’s action have been removed and probably blocked from posting.

  2. Avatar

    Derek Donnelly

    October 28, 2022at5:26 pm

    Appreciate the support everyone! 😂
    ✌️❤️🦖 DD

  3. Avatar

    Mark Noll

    October 28, 2022at9:44 am

    Having read the article and comments and knowing Derek Donnelly personally , all I can say is that regardless of whether or not you agree with his methods you have to admire the fact that he sees something that he feels is wrong and he is taking action action. This is far more than I can say for many who sit back and complain without actually doing anything.
    We live in a community, no, we live in a country that is divided. It seems that this is true in the art community as well.
    Derek feels That there has been some injustice in the selection of artists for the shine murals . That is his opinion and as a muralist he probably has better understanding of that selection process than most of us. I myself cannot speak to this. BUt what I can say, is regardless of whether or not I agree with him, which I am not taking any sides on that issue, I think that Derek taking action is honorable. Perhaps there is a more political way to get things done.. But I think too many people Are concerned more with public perception than then doing what day feel is right . Political correctness seems to have gone far off the rails and people are so concerned about being offended.

    I don’t know of any rule, law, or Constitutional amendment that protects us from being offended .
    We need to get over ourselves and realize that people have different opinions and go about doing things differently than we would. No one should live their lives to please another. Derek is living his life how he feels is best. It seems already that in this process he has learned.

    Over the years I have seen Derek grow as an artist. Regardless of Shine, he ans his work is well known in st pete. Whether you agree with him or like his work is your issue, not his.

  4. Avatar

    Madonna H

    October 27, 2022at6:30 pm

    I’ve read this article I disagree with Richard T.
    I truly believe Derek
    cares about his community and is a phenomenal artist. In both cities there are many artist all with a different vision but I believe the his vision was as a whole ” Unite together within the Community and grow.” There are so many local artist. The talent is right here in our backyard why not let others in. What I disagree with is the name calling and the labeling (Thug, Punk, Narcisist). Seriously, come on. Why act like that? That’s childish
    I don’t blame him for being fired up. We all have done that a time or two about something. No one is perfect.
    Why not open the door.. to your local artist living right here in community.
    I’ve seen his work and it is phenomenal. I’ve met other artist in the Park as well. All great people. All with goals in mind. They all Love what they do, they want to make a living and while doing it… bring the community together.

  5. Avatar

    Richard T

    October 27, 2022at7:49 am

    I read this several times. It appears that Derek lives in some delusionary world where he created the “Art Scene” in St Pete.

    He says SHINE, “wasn’t necessarily meant to support or elevate the local artists directly, but more of a tourism-based thing to bring people here from out of town. Which, for the record, I am all for. I think we should have international artists here to elevate the talent that we have. That’s me speaking as a citizen, not even as a muralist. It just makes sense.”

    OK he is all for bringing in new talent and he realizes it wasn’t meant to support or elevate local artists. His words!! yet he also worries about money that isn’t “trickling down” to hard-working St. Pete artists, the backbone of this much vaunted “City of the Arts.” Does he not see the conflict in his statements?

    “Following his recent tirade, he was invited to meet with Terry Marks, the Arts Alliance’s executive director, and others on the board. “They were very welcoming, receptive to what I had to say and understood my concerns,” Donnelly says. “I’m very optimistic about her leadership with the Arts Alliance.” Then he states “Again, I do support SHINE – I support the idea of SHINE – I don’t think that the same three or four individuals should be making the calls and/or dictating the culture which happens to be my livelihood.”

    This man is a living breathing contradiction of his own words. I won’t say thoughts, because he doesn’t appear to have any beyond his delusions that he created the Art Scene in St Pete.

    He ranted about the ARts aliance illuminati . disparaged them, even seemed to threaten them in his posts on facebook, and then says he is optimistic about their leadership. Is he a member I wonder? Probably not.

    “In the last 12 years, art has become a business. And I think it’s more than fair for me to feel like I deserve a seat at a table I helped build.” Derek seems to think Art as business started when he arrived on the scene. Artists have been thriving here for decades. Murals are somewhat new and Shine has helped bring in talent from all over the globe. Derek and Sebastian had tons of murals when Shine started. Most mediocre. I do like the Poseidon Mural he did recently in Tampa. the rest of his work lacks dimension.

    Over the years Derek has called out people on Facebook for disagreeing with him, even threatening physical violence. He stalked one person and barged in on camera to their business calling him out and threatening him for selling photos of murals. The guy was clearly wrong, but that is the thug type mentality that SHIME obviously wants to distance themselves from.

    His list of threats stretches for years. He seems to think being a thug is cool. One year Creative Loafing even gave him a “Art Thug” award.

    This punk, because that is all he is, should stay in Pinellas Park.

    This ARticle is a shame. He is not to be glorified. Bad behavior should have consequences and he doesn’t seem to like them. He is blaming everyone else for his behavior and actions. Sound Familiar? That is the symptom of a Narcisist.

  6. Avatar

    Sarah Stone

    October 26, 2022at10:22 pm

    He is an antagonist. He seems to think the world of art revolves around him. His work is mediocre, flat and derivative. Let’s paint another gecko or sea turtle.

    He painted a huge penis on the back of the Craftart building disguised as a jellyfish with a brain. Jelly fish don’t have brains and the inuendo to the other male brain is plain to see but surprisingly still stands

    He expects the people he constantly pisses off with his false accusations to kowtow to him. ROFL
    Shine is about bringing in new artists to the scene. Maybe if he stopped bullying everyone they might take him seriously instead of looking at him like the thug he portrays.

  7. Avatar

    Velva Lee Heraty

    October 26, 2022at4:47 pm

    Derek and I sing the same song. I remember clearly when and why the art scene in St. Pete turned sour for local artists. I am an art lover and curated ten local art exhibits, the largest being “Sitting Pretty” at the St. Pete Pier. I encouraged and cultivated local artists, often recruiting new to exhibiting talent. There was push-back. That always amazed me.No money ever changed hands with me but the % of sales was high. Glad to do it. I moved on to write my book but looking back always causes a cringe.

  8. Avatar

    Kristin

    October 26, 2022at1:44 pm

    Derek is super talented and a gift to st Pete. I am sad that the local artists do not feel like “they have a seat at the table they built”.

  9. Avatar

    Brandy Stark

    October 26, 2022at11:02 am

    This is also been my beef with creative Pinellas. I have literally been a showing artist here since 1997. I have gotten a couple of the St Pete Arts Alliance awards for which I’m grateful but I have yet to crack the creative Pinellas matrix to get in. I’m not seen as an emerging artist nor as an established artist by them year after year after year.

    I have applied so many times that the computer will sometimes automatically fill in information for me.

    I’ve won awards, I am an academic and I teach the next generation about the value of the humanities, I have been a local Arts news reporter for years, writing for everything from the St Petersburg times to the Northeast Journal, and I am still made to feel like a non-entity here. And if you speak out then you are a problem.

    I will grant that Barbara of creative Pinellas, the woman who heads the organization, personally came down to meet with me about this last year. And I am internally grateful for that because it did give me a fresh perspective. My paperwork is good and I always pass the basic level to be reviewed, but apparently it’s my multi award-winning art that isn’t passing muster.

    And while they do offer critiques, I’ve been told everything from my art selection is to broad to my art selection is to narrow to they don’t like my photography, even though I’ve won awards for my photography in addition to the wire metal sculpture.

    It’s very frustrating. I’ve been working hard here for 25 years, I have literally shown in thousands of art shows but I am still feeling like I’m a bit of a persona non grata.

    And our local scene is getting worse because I am watching artists simply run from one show to another to another to another to drop off and then there are pick up days in which they run from one show to another to another to another to pick up any unsold work. The art scene is already semi chaotic but now you mix in all of these businesses that want to host art, you add into the chaos, and then you put all of that pressure onto the artist who has to maintain everything that they’re doing, and it becomes a system of semi chaotic mixed in with extreme chaos in trying to do all of this.

    Even our local media is not super supportive of local artists. I have intentionally created an Arts Roundup in the Northeast Journal specifically to highlight the offbeat and smaller events that are going on. Artists are so stretched that I can’t get them to submit. And when I try to submit my events to larger media they’re ignored.

    I was recently told that they simply have so many events that they have to choose from that mine didn’t make it in but this one publication posted on the Medicare open enrollment. As a local event. Which is getting National publicity and is on television and just about every other media source out there right now. So how does that outweigh my charity themed art show that has a quirky theme of pugs as a local event?

    I really feel like if you’re not a big boy in this town you never will be.

    Don’t get me wrong that I’m always grateful for everything that the Arts organizations are doing because they are also trying to organize chaos. And I have been fortunate to have been selected a few times by our local organizations. But I just feel like I can’t break out of that to get to a higher level. I actually quit my full-time job to dedicate more time to the Arts because I feel so passionately about it. But as I have said to others, I may be passionately in love with the Arts but I’m not sure that they are in love with me.

    In the end I have come to realize that the only thing I can do is the best that I can do and to help the artist that I can help and to try and spread whatever support I can to those who need it. I cannot control the outside circles but it would be nice if those outside circles helped to support me.

    And us. I’m not the only artist out there who’s frustrated and exhausted.

  10. Avatar

    Fred

    October 26, 2022at10:44 am

    Didn’t the vitale bros and Chad Mize not only create the mural scene but also the entire art boom?

  11. Avatar

    Andrew Orr

    October 26, 2022at10:12 am

    If you want another somewhat-outsider opinion of the local art scene Bill, you need to track down Don Kobasky. He is an exceptionally-talented painter with very very strong views on the subject. Good luck tracking him down. Try http://www.kobasky.com for starters.

  12. Avatar

    Tracey R Kern

    October 26, 2022at9:24 am

    Good for you Derek. St Pete claims to be “artist friendly” and supportive of local artist but that has never been true. The art game in st pete is all about who do you know and how much money do they have. The local aspiring artist can only get so get far. Ive lived here since 1979. Ive seen a lot of changes and improvements and I see a lot of the same. Way to go Derek and friends.

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