The bay area’s public art community is reeling from the April 13 death of Tampa-based mural artist Matt Callahan. Investigators still don’t know how he received the head injury that left him clinging to life in the middle of the night, on his back in a weedy Gandy Boulevard median. Foul play, they say, has not been ruled out.
His friends and fellow artists remember the 40-year-old Tallahassee native as one of the most naturally talented painters – and giving collaborators – the area has ever known.
“When artists work together, there’s an unexplained bond that happens,” says Bekky Beukes, president of the Ybor Art Association. “You’re going through a creative process and really, nobody quite understands that – and that’s why you connect so authentically with other artists. We’re going through those motions together. So he had a very unique friendship with most of us. We all adored him, and he adored everyone – artists and non-artists. That was just Matt.”
Callahan was known for both realist depictions and abstract murals, as well as the distinctive graphic and illustrative commercial work he did for restaurants, hotels, breweries, bakeries and bowling alleys across Florida and as far away as Disneyland in Southern California.
One of his best-known local murals, a stunning, bright picture-postcard called “St. Tampasburg,” was a collaboration with fellow artist Angela Delaplane, whom Callahan called his “art wife.”
“St. Tampasburg was the first project Matt and I painted together, in 2015 during the first year of the SHINE mural festival,” Delaplane says. “We wanted to celebrate bridging the gap between Tampa and St. Petersburg, and bringing the artists communities together. We both being Tampa artists both had done a lot of work in the St. Pete area; Matt in particular had done a significant amount of outdoor murals there.”
The mural takes up the back wall of the Lure, a sushi restaurant on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.
Callahan graduated from the Atlanta College of Art, with a degree in Illustration, in 2001. He’d formed his company, Man Made Murals, when he returned to Tampa.
“Technically, he was the most incredible artist we all knew,” said Leon Bedore (aka Tes One), one of the organizers of SHINE. “And I know some very detail-oriented, very photo-realistic painters. Matt was at the top of that list.
“He could render anything. If he saw something, he would turn that into a mural and it would blow your mind. You could be one inch away, or 20 feet away, and it’s impressive no matter how you see it.”
Although Callahan participated in every SHINE-related event, he was never officially on the roster. He was, Bedore explains, always there offering moral support, sage advice and a helping hand.
“He had been in contact with me when I was about to do my first mural in St. Pete,” says Beukes. “He knew that I was nervous about it. And without any kind of prompting, he was reaching out to me frequently, making sure that I was feeling confident, offering all kinds of advice.
“And he showed up with enough tools for myself and him, in case I didn’t have what I needed. He was more than happy to share tricks of the trade that he’d acquired over the years that he’d been doing this. He took time out from what he was doing, just to help me learn something new.”
Muralist Derek Donnelly says Callahan’s death is “the biggest loss for the up-and-coming art community, the new generation of artists in the Tampa Bay area. This was a guy who had a lot going on in his life, professionally, and was already living his own dreams – but he’d take the time to help people.
“When I started six or seven years ago, he took me under his wing a little bit, and gave me advice about the experience he’d had working for people. I hate the term ‘commercial artist, but some people definitely did more commercial work. But I think he was, hands down, the best artist that I’ve ever known. When it came to technical skill, and people skills. He was one of the best I ever met.”
Donnelly recalls the day Callahan invited him out to a commercial piece he was working on. “It was on the side of The Avenue, the burger place downtown. He painted a little clip art burger, which they wanted – I’m sure he wanted to do something real glorious and detailed like he does – but he painted the burger.
“I walked up on the project and looked at the wood grain behind the burger; I thought it was just paneling or something. And it turned out that Matt had painted every single wood grain by hand, with a tiny little brush.”
- The Callahan family has scheduled a memorial for 2 p.m. Saturday, April 21 at 16351 Whiddon Ave., Cedar Key. According to the event page on Facebook: “All of Matt’s friends are invited to attend and share memories of this very talented artist and sweet son, brother, husband, father and friend to everyone.” Details are here.