In what was once an industrial laundry house, Mark Aeling is putting the final touches on a towering likeness of Abraham Lincoln, top hat and all.
Elsewhere in the artist’s workshop, you’ll find a life-sized version of a gopher tortoise, a hand with splayed fingers that will soon model jewelry for HSN and a the drying cast of a monster truck hood.
“We really do a wide range of stuff everything from concrete and plaster to bronze and fiberglass,” Aeling said.
The need for cheap, large spaces drove Aeling, along with a growing number of artists, to St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District, which covers a large area that runs from First Avenue North to Sixth Avenue South and 14th to 28th streets.
The workspaces, which often double as galleries, are scattered among a hodge-podge of junkyards, manufacturers and vacant lots in a rough, industrial part of South St. Petersburg.
As word of the emerging arts district spreads, though, the artists here are faced with the challenge of ensuring they don’t become victims of their own success as the public – and, potentially, developers discover the area’s potential.
Over the past decade, ceramic artists, glassblowers, painters and metal workers have been snapping up large, lofty spaces and setting up shop here.
The transformation started with St. Petersburg Clay Company, a pottery and ceramics collective that moved into the Historic Seaboard Coastline Freight Depot in 2000 with Highwater Clays.
Established artists followed. Stone sculptor Eric Higgs moved here from San Francisco in 2002. Aeling moved here from St. Louis in 2005. Glass artist Duncan McClellan came from Tampa in 2010.
As better-known artists set up shop here, momentum grew, the neighborhood’s cheap rents and close-knit artistic community drew dozens more.
The number of artists working – and, in some cases, living in the gritty area now stands at about 200 – and more are coming.
In a city that’s perennially recognized as an arts hub, thanks to big draws such as the Dali Museum and Museum of Fine Arts downtown, the Warehouse Arts District is promoted as a second-day destination. In recent months, the arts district has been drawing tourists and locals through events such as today’s Second Saturday Art Walk and trolley tour, which bring in hundreds of people.
Once just a handful of disconnected artists working independently of one another, the Warehouse Arts District is starting to develop its own culture, too, amid the barbed wire and piles of old appliances visible from the street.
“Artists tend to want to be around other artists,” said Elizabeth Brincklow, St. Petersburg’s arts and international relations manager. “The exploration and cultivation of ideas is bringing these artists together.”
A concentration of creative people can, as Brincklow puts it, “elevate” an area. On the other hand, that sort of elevation can eventually lead to expensive condominiums and retail spaces pricing out the artists, as happened in Santa Fe, N.M., and Charleston, S.C. she said.
Retail has already starting trickling into the neighborhood.
There’s a small gym across from Charlie and Nancy Parkers’ ceramic studio on Sixth Avenue South, and a small coffee shop appears to be going in at the end of the block. There’s also a small restaurant in the old train station on Fifth Avenue South and 22nd Street.
“The more people moving in, the more interest it’s going to bring into this area,” said David Walker, who owns Zen Glass.
The well-known glass studio moved a few doors down from the Parkers nearly two years ago.
“I don’t think the area is saturated yet by any means,” Walker said. “There are still a lot of buildings and it’s still pretty spread out.”
Artists entrenched in the area say they hope it stays pretty much as-is.
“This is it, I think,” Charlie Parker said. “There may be some more artists moving in, maybe a coffee shop. But I don’t think we’ll see candy shops and flower shops going in. Not in my lifetime.”
A big reason Parker doubts the neighborhood will become like the New Orleans Arts District, a once-blighted area now lined with upscale restaurants and museums, is the area’s layout. Most arts districts are compact and have a centerpiece property to draw in visitors. St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts District is more spread-out, and while some studios are clustered together, you’d have to drive – or take the trolley – to hit them all, especially because the neighborhood continues to be unsafe, especially at night.
Even so, artists are trying to prevent workspaces from becoming too expensive. About two years ago, Aeling and others formed a board of directors and have since applied for nonprofit status. While the Warehouse Arts District functions primarily as a marketing vehicle for member artists and galleries, it also hopes to eventually apply for federal grant dollars to secure affordable spaces.
“It’s hard to stop the march of time and pace of growth, but keeping it in check a little bit is always a good idea,” Aeling said.
While the art district’s reputation continues to grow, there’s still a need to find buyers for artists’ work – not just gallery-browsers.
“The downside is that it’s very difficult as an artist to make a living here,” Aeling said. “We need to educate people more on the importance of buying local art, and that takes time.”
Hoping to attract more buyers, the Warehouse Arts District Association has been holding trolley tours the second Saturday of each month since November. People can park at any of the stops and hop on the trolley, which will take them to about two dozen studios where art is made and sold. The event has become so popular that the association now rents two of the city’s trolleys, and a third one loops through the downtown arts district.
The aim is to get word out about the Warehouse Arts district but also to give artists more exposure and a chance to sell their work.
The visibility is paying off.
“[The art walk] has helped tremendously,” said Nancy Parker “Each turnout since has gotten better and better and better.”
The increased visibility is fueling investment in the neighborhood. McClellan, for example, recently built a world-class glass studio on his property. That space, which added on to a large gallery space that was built from an old fish packing plant, opened in January.