There’s strength in numbers, of course, which is a cornerstone reason for the existence of the St. Pete Women’s Collective. “When we collect our voices together,” says president and co-founder Ashley Sweet, “our perspective becomes more legitimate.”
In its two years of existence, the nonprofit has hosted more than 40 events, exploring community, social and legal issues, making connections, jump-starting conversations, challenging the status quo and more, all from a female perspective. The buzzwords are empowerment, education and creativity.
“I’ve been in feminist activism and community organizing for about 10 years,” says Sweet, who’s a licensed mental health counselor – her specialty is working with survivors of sexual assault and trauma -and the director of research for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida.
“And I started to notice, over time, how many really powerful, strong women there were in St. Petersburg. Who were really shaping what the transformation was.”
The Collective has a particular interest in art, and artists, and the power of creativity to embolden and elucidate what’s inside.
The group has leased a building at 244 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N., and will introduce it Thursday with a ribbon-cutting event. Called Venus, it’s intended as an incubator, a “safe space” for artists – and others – to create, converse, collaborate, explore, expand and otherwise be themselves.
The former tattoo parlor – leased to the Collective by the Barlas family, which also owns neighboring Coney Island Grill – includes five artist studios, a library, meeting spaces and an office. Each walled studio contains two woman artists.
Venus was born of a genuine need, according to Mitzi Gordon, another co-founder. When the co-ed Bloom Collective closed in 2016, several of the women artists hoped to create something from its ashes – another collective space, but without the competitive, sometimes awkwardly sexualized atmosphere. Bloom, she explains, “was a group of mostly male painters who were making the decisions about what it was going to be.
“That’s a real experience that several of us had, in different spaces here. Where, as individuals, we’re objectified by other artists, or treated in ways that made us feel uncomfortable. Or where our work as artists was not taken seriously by people of other genders. Or our voices being not necessarily heard or appreciated in a group setting.”
At that moment arrived Ashley Sweet with her blueprint for the Women’s Collective. As the new group coalesced, they insisted that all the decisions would be made by women. “The experience of being a woman in America is different from being a man in America,” says Sweet. “At the very base level, we can talk about safety, power and autonomy.”
Gordon, a longtime journalist, a passionate community activist and a self-described arts organizer (she’s a big part of Carmada, the art-car fleet organization, and the brains behind the Bluebird Books Bus, among other enterprises) brought a vision that perfectly complemented that a Sweet and the other co-founders.
“As an arts organizer, I see myself as someone who’s just connected the dots, finding resources, opportunities and talent and bringing them together whenever I could,” she says.
For the first two years, the artists worked out of a house in Historic Kenwood.
Venus will serve as a meeting space, a space to share skills and learn, and a space to create, she explains. There’ll be workshops, presentations and performances, too.
“When you’re a woman artist, you’re already being undervalued, or you’re being sexualized so you’re not being taken seriously,” observes Sweet. “And so having these platforms that are accessible to these different types of people is critical. Where else is that happening in the city? Where else is that happening in Tampa Bay? I haven’t seen it.
Adds Gordon: “And it’s not just about having the studios. If all we needed was studio space, there are places where we could go. For us, yes, it’s about creativity, but it’s about so much more.”
The plan, they say, is to introduce memberships – not just for artists, but for anyone who’s interested in what the Women’s Collective is working towards.
The first curated art show, Visions of Venus, will be introduced at Saturday’s grand opening party, from 6 to 9 p.m. Participating artists include Ashlea Highfill, Ashley Cantero, Ashley Sweet, Bailey Gumienny, Betsy Alvarez, Brooklyn, Catherine Bruger, Cecilia Lueza, Chanel Fernandez, Courtney Hartle, Emily Stone, Evan Neidich, Heather Comparetto, Jeannette St. Amour, Jodi Chemes, Jujmo, Karen Schremmer, Karli Schneider, Kimberly Ortega Leon, KT, Liv Scully, Marium Rana, Mitzi Gordon, Nick Allen, Noelle Stillman, Rosalie Smith, Sakina Manji, Teresa Navajo and Tiffany Elliott.
A critical component of the Venus manifesto, Gordon insists, is to not be exclusionary. “I have male friends who have asked ‘Is it OK?’’ she says. “We’re always trying to put forth the message that yes, we are open and inclusive. It elevates women, it celebrates women – we’re open to all female-identifying people, allies of all genders. Cool people are cool, you know? Cool dudes are cool.”
According to Sweet, the focus is on collaboration instead of competition. “We hold these feminist, ethical frameworks: Equality and equity,” she says. “And that everybody has a place at the table. You’re valued.”