“Don’t Come Back.”
Kirk Ke Wang moved to Tampa in the mid-1980s, he has a wife and a family and teaches at Eckerd College. But to get here he survived being blacklisted by the Communist Chinese government and roughing it in Seminole Heights before it was full of bike shops and craft breweries. In the ‘90s, he was part of a collective of young international artists that transformed the city. He doesn’t see that kind of energy when he looks at the Tampa art scene today – but he’s hoping to help bring it back.
I met Wang in his studio, located for more than 15 years on North Florida Avenue in Tampa’s Seminole Heights Neighborhood. On the outside it’s all gray walls and barred windows, typical Tampa-Abandoned-Building Chic. Inside, it’s bright and cluttered, with ceiling-high portraits of wolves, jars full of figurines and an eight foot statue of a Chinese guardian lion made out of hundreds of tiny squares of lime-green Styrofoam.
Kirk makes sure I parked my car in a safe place. He’s come by his caution honestly – things may have calmed down lately, but for most of his time in Seminole Heights he’s faced regular break-ins and thefts, including the heist of a trailer half-full of art from right in front of the studio.
Then there was the time he surprised a burglar who had stowed away in the space waiting for him to leave. Wang instinctively gave the guy a friendly “Hi!” and stuck out his hand to shake. The robber ran, I’m guessing, because he was sure Wang was dangerously nuts.
Finally, in 2005, tornadoes spawned by Hurricane Katrina ripped the roof off his studio, letting in rain that ruined almost all of the work he had created since 1985. It’s a nightmarish scenario Wang now recounts with a sad lightheartedness.
Wang is round-faced and incessantly talkative, an exhausting whirlwind. In this way, he reminds me of an old friend, also from Shanghai.
He came to Tampa from China on a rainbow bridge of talent. “In the early days, the Chinese government didn’t want to let artists out of the country, because we’re troublemakers. In 1984, there was a national art competition, like the Olympics for art. I won 3rd place.” Among other prizes, he was offered permission to participate in a cultural exchange, and money to support his work.
“I took the money and ran out of China. I was admitted to the Art Institute of Chicago, but I didn’t realize the tuition was so expensive. I was awarded a lot of money by the Ministry, but it wasn’t even enough for one semester’s tuition. Then I met some faculty members at USF [including Diane Elmeer], and got to be friends with them. They said, ‘Why don’t you go to a state school? We can give you a tuition waiver.’ So that’s how I came to Tampa, and finished graduate school here.”
His Chinese prize had also included a guaranteed professorship in China when he graduated with an international M.F.A. – but by that time things had changed. 1989 saw the Tiananmen Square uprisings and Wang had started making politicized anti-war art in the U.S. When he called home to celebrate his graduation, his former colleagues had a simple warning: “Don’t come back. You’re on the list.”
If he had returned to China, Wang is convinced he would have become a political prisoner in the post-Tiananmen crackdown. “I didn’t go back to China until 7 years later, after I got my U.S. Citizenship, so I was protected.”
Instead, he stayed in Tampa, joining with some of his former buddies from USF to rent collective studio space in Ybor City, in a former cigar factory at 3rd street and 22nd Avenue. The space hadn’t been used in nearly a half-century: they found books from the cigar factory’s readers and bathrooms in original 1930s condition. After cleaning the place up, they threw parties and shows and screened films. The shifting group included Tony Palm, Brian Taylor, Kevin Taylor, A.A. Rucci, Thomas Schirtz, Kyle Barnette, and Jose Martin, who Wang describes as the “ringleader.” They eventually started calling themselves, collectively, Titanic Anatomy.
Kirk remembers a purity to Titanic Anatomy. “That group had no egos. We just wanted to hang around, we had common interests, and we needed a place. Every week we would invite a group to share their work. We’d hang together, go bowling, watch shows.” They also did serious work. For instance, they got grants from a regional arts council to fund murals, but instead gave the materials and funds to homeless Tampans, who created the murals. “They were so proud of that,” Wang says.
Titanic Anatomy wasn’t alone. The Florida Center for Contemporary Art was another group of young artists doing big work, though they were more official and well-funded. “We were close, you’d find members going to one another’s events. We’d cross.” The young artists weren’t alone, either – Wang recalls Theo Wujkick, maybe Tampa’s most respected resident artist and a USF art professor, as a constant presence. “He was a professor when we were students, but he always hung out. ”
Eventually, Titanic Anatomy got kicked out of their space, largely because of their own success. At the time, Ybor City was run-down and neglected. Like many artists before them, Titanic Anatomy helped revitalize their area, raising property values and drawing in developers who eventually priced them out of the space. “We left that specific building by ’94 or ’95. Once the new mayor really made Ybor City like a tourist place that basically pushed all artists out.”
Others in the group found a space north of Downtown Tampa, on Florida Avenue, not far from Wang’s current studio. But by then Wang had been hired as an art professor at Eckerd College, and he drifted away from Titanic Anatomy. He started to prioritize his own work and be more protective of his time. “A lot of the time in the early days, we’d just hang around. But now, party time’s over.”
Wang thinks that, compared to the old days, Tampa art is at a low ebb. “We do have a fancy museum, but usually they don’t show local artists at all. I feel like we’re not as active in the last few years. That’s why I’m sticking around here.” He thinks one of the big things missing is the kind of open, community space Titanic Anatomy helped create. “A studio space isn’t just for working. It’s for social networking.”
Looking at the remade Ybor City, where he and his friends once ran like a crew of artistic savages, Wang seems melancholy, and maybe a little bitter, if always with a smile. “I feel all these things we did in the ‘90s have been hijacked by business ventures. I guess that’s the way it is.”
Wang also senses some deeper changes. “The difference between now and then is, now everyone is so individual. I don’t know what caused it, economics, politics. Maybe at that time we still had a sense of the commune, from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Maybe our older peers had that kind of idealistic influence on us.”
Wang seems ready to hand some of the idealism of his early days on to a new generation.
Reprinted from Art at Bay Magazine