A Conversation with Art Critic and Local Historian Luis Gottardi
The man who inspired local historian Luis Gottardi to document the local visual art scenes for the past seven years quietly died of cancer more than a year ago. His name was Malcolm Johnson and his following story is tragic.
Malcolm had been documenting the St. Pete arts scene for more than forty years. He attended events at the original Beaux Arts building in Pinellas Park where his friend, the late Tom Reese, hosted open mics and film screenings; Jim Morrison did spoken word there before the building burned down and the coffee house reopened downtown.
“And the worst of it—he, who lived in a shitty little trailer in Seminole and was so broke as he couldn’t even turn on the air conditioning—he paid a climate-controlled air conditioned space to keep his pictures, his negatives, in,” Luis said. “And for when he died, he had told me he was going to give me the key to that space so I could rescue his shit. He died. He never got to give me the key. He died. Nobody pays the rent and the contents were thrown away.”
Though Luis has a sense of avenging Malcolm’s efforts, he is ultimately doing this for himself in the sense that he is part of a larger community. He wanted to fill what he saw as a hole. Who was documenting the art shows as thoroughly as possible, week after week, year after year?
Eva Avenue: How seriously do you take the Tampa Bay art scene?
Luis Gottardi: In the context of the art world at large, I take it seriously, but lets face it, its very, very small and impoverished. How seriously do I take it in my own life? As seriously as breathing.
That’s beautiful. Why?
Well, art is certainly one of the things that make us human, and I take it very seriously as to my own humanity and just as much as how it humanizes others.
Like how it humanized George Bush when he took up painting?
Oh, I think even “W” has become a cooler guy once he began knocking out paintings. He’s improved, he looks happier. Though anyone would look happier leaving the oval office.
So you were saying how it humanizes others...
Yes, and God knows Tampa needs a lot of humanizing!
What’s your favorite thing about St. Pete’s art scenes?
Seeing the growth. Seeing its emergence. These things will continue – you continue emerging and you die when you stop, but it’s really progressed rapidly. Much more rapidly than, say, condos downtown, and I think it has changed the city. And for everybody, not just the people who show up for Second Saturday. Even the people who go to bars that have art hanging in them—you know, like Bar 548 or the Bends—I think their lives are improved, they become better human beings by coming in contact with the art. The art has its way with you.
“I already had the blog,” Luis said about his website, Art Taco. “But Malcolm’s documentation was not a blog. What I’m doing now is more immersive and intensive. And from talking to him I shifted my emphasis quite a bit.”
People weren’t photographing the interviews?
“They were photographing the artists but there was little on the shows themselves. And let me tell you, I could write a book from the parts I haven’t written about St. Pete. Which is what Danny (editor of Creative Pinellas’ Our Journal) wants.”
Seven years ago, things started moving out of the molasses, and Luis was there to write about it on his blog Art Taco, as well as through his personal Facebook page, and—dating back decades in his private archives—he has also been documenting with thousands of rolls of film, pictures on memory cards and a hoarding of local art purchases that fill his garage and are his best-kept secret.
If people knew whose art he bought, he worries it could create a new shape around him, new types of judgments. He likes to remain as under the radar as possible. It’s all second nature—he’s been showing up to artist’s parties with his mom since he was four in Havana, Cuba.
“I was blessed with a mom who was a long-time ballerina in the Ballet National de Cuba, and she was a total art addict so I got taken to everything when I was four or five,” he said. “My father didn’t go to these things unless he had to, so I became mom’s date to all art events.”
Living in Tampa since 1971, he has seen the crests and folds of the visual art scene as its members created something from nothing in packs of communities over the decades, serving as the glue that, in its own way, held humanity together along the shores of the Tampa Bay.
“I don’t want to forget this group of artists in Ybor in the ’70s—there were some notable people in there like Rosenquist, who was good friends with Theo Wujik and he was known to knock back a few in Ybor,” Luis said. “They were like the Irish monks in the Dark Ages, they kind of kept it alive. It was even obviously more impoverished than it is now.”
“Poverty. With minimal-to-no budget to speak of, they did festivals, they did shows, they secured spaces. There was a couple of co-ops that went up and there used to be tiny unassuming galleries on 7th avenue,” Luis said. “You have basically a polarity, between USF and, say, HCC Ybor. They’re kind of polar but they’re still a very heavy academic axis in the arts in Tampa. In St. Pete, that axis is more tenuous.”
He says Mayor Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg just announced the City is going to have 10,000 more people in one year.
“St. Pete is changing fast and the arts are changing with it,” Gottardi said. “Whereas the emphasis has been very heavily local up to now, that’s going to change. That will cease to be as prominent as it has been and the same influx of people is going to bring in artists that are not local.”
However, it’s not just about a personal photojournalism quest for Gottardi. His love of art photography came first. He recalls his string of inspirations being the gear itself, different cameras he received, and certain experiences along the way. For example, there was his lesbian girlfriend so many decades ago who gifted him the camera her father wore around his neck as he died. He reads the cameras themselves as if they were like people with insights and quirks. He shoots from the hip with a quick eye, having poured through LIFE and National Geographic. Luis’s early spark with photography started when his father, at the time working as the Minister of Architecture for the Cuban government, took his first Leica he ever owned and gave it to Luis at the age of five.
“I took a picture at one of the the construction sites where one of his buildings was going up on a mound of sand in the strong Cuban sun and it just looked like a dream pyramid,” he said. “It was just sitting there glistening in the sun. I remember that was the first picture I ever took.”
Catch Luis every Second Saturday at any gallery in St. Pete – he visits them all, camera in hand, and never stays long enough for anyone’s satisfaction but he is on a mission.