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Thursday, Sep 18, 2014
Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Ruskin has a firehouse for the arts

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Looking for culture in Ruskin, I didn't expect to find Bruce Marsh, professor emeritus at USF and an artist with an international reputation, climbing out of the weeds behind the old firehouse.

I don't know what I expected. In recent years the closest I've come to "culture" in south Hillsborough County has been the Ruskin Drive-In Theater, one of the last bastions of popcorn, pizza and a good movie under the stars.

But Georgia Vahue, who I hadn't seen for years since the days of the Tampa Playmakers, called to say that there was indeed culture in Ruskin, and it was at an old firehouse just off Shell Point Road where she is the director.

v vI love the drive south on U.S. 41, maybe because it is such a mixed bag. You drive over Palm River and through Gibsonton, past Bullfrog Creek on out beyond the low mesas that are the dumping grounds of the phosphate mines, past the TECO smokestacks and down to Apollo Beach. South of Apollo Beach and the abandoned tomato packing plant are the "new" developments along the coastline, some abandoned during the recession but now coming back.

A few more miles and you're in Ruskin, which you might mistake for another dying community passed up by nearby Interstate 75.

In 2010, the Ruskin Community Development Foundation went to the county commission looking for help in using and renovating an old firehouse.

The firehouse sat on ground given to the county by the Ruskin Commongood Society, which came to Ruskin at the beginning of the 20th century to create an ideal society based on the thoughts of artist and philosopher John Ruskin. Like most such communities, it eventually disappeared into history.

With the county's help, though, a $160,000 renovation of the abandoned firehouse has recently transformed the firehouse into a 5,000-square-foot building that includes a 200-seat blackbox theater on 2 acres. The idea is to bring a variety of arts to the entire south county region.

v vBehind the building, I found Bruce Marsh along with a bunch of elementary-aged kids coming back from the pond where they were floating boats they had built.

Marsh, who now lives in Ruskin, for years led a strong University of South Florida arts program. You've probably seen his 40-foot long mural "Riverwall" at the entrance to the downtown Tampa Riverwalk at Channelside Drive and Meridian Avenue. I've long admired his work, especially his photographs and paintings of the Utah area.

He says he is retired but he has become an advocate for the environment in the area and now is working with students in the arts at the Firehouse Center.

This place is not the Straz Center or the Tampa Museum of Art, but the dozens of projects going on inside and around the Firehouse are what community art should be about and where you can open a door and find yourself with a world-class artist who just wants to make a difference.

With help, they are doing just that for the 120,000 people in the south county area.

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