December 11, 2019 | By Laura Kepner
Once a Cozy Town,
Safety Harbor is Now a Hub for the Arts
Ten years ago, Safety Harbor, a five-square-mile city on the west shore of Tampa Bay, attracted more crickets than people, or so it seemed. Today, it’s a vibrant destination teeming with murals, sculptures, award-winning restaurants, open mics, art-centric events, classes and live music — all within a walkable mile.
Spanish moss drapes the city’s proud tree canopies and public art is around every corner. Clayton Swartz’s sculpture, #BradyStrong, was installed two weeks ago at the Community Center, honoring local business owner and youth basketball supporter Brady Fisher. The city’s newest park on the first block of Main Street just debuted a sculpture called Heart of the Community by Gus and Lina Ocamposilva, honoring beloved local philanthropist George Wiess. These two sculptures are the newest additions to a wide array that make visiting the parks worth your time.
The Chamber of Commerce celebrates Safety Harbor’s rich history with a mural of the native Tocobaga, Odet Philippe and several Spanish explorers. There are many other murals throughout town, too, from Wildside, a 15-artist sprayed collaboration along the train tracks, to brightly painted animals on a restaurant, to a heart-wave amongst hibiscus and a guitar on the dry cleaners, to a giant octopus on the side of a Main Street bar.
Safety Harbor wasn’t always so hip. Not long ago, poverty shadowed this small town’s charm. It took decades to recover. Some residents claim it was art that saved the city.
In the late 1990s, a small group of volunteers created the Third Friday Music Series to attract visitors to struggling downtown businesses. The event has grown and now attracts thousands of people annually.
Later, a Public Art Committee was formed. Residents started visiting the downtown corridor and frequenting parks. Safety Harbor became known as the best kept secret in Pinellas County.
The attraction to Safety Harbor arts also grew because of Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda, who live in Whimzeyland, also known as the Bowling Ball House. The artist couple have turned a 1920s cottage into the Safety Harbor Art and Music Center. They, along with program director Heather Richardson, have helped bring artists into Safety Harbor from all over the country, Japan, Europe and Canada.
“I feel like SHAMc is a stimulus for bringing art into the community,” Richardson says. “But not just in Safety Harbor. We share the arts with other communities, too. We have even brought artists to Panama and Costa Rica for special projects.”
Richardson worked with art teachers in Pinellas County schools, teaching students to work together to create a mosaic — a piece that will provide a legacy to the school and beautify their campus. She also brings artists to SHAMc and engages art in her community through a program she named ArtReach.
“We work with kids who attend the Mattie Williams Neighborhood Family Center’s after school program, we offer SHAMc art camps in the summer and we recently started a kids’ writing club called Tell Me Something Good. We have ceramics classes, writing workshops, mosaic classes and a lot more. We also visit a memory care unit to share weekly music and art experiences.”
SHAMc is the staging center for an event organized by local artist Tanja Vidovic. She is currently getting ready for Safety Harbor’s third Art Walk, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on December 14.
“It’s a way of supporting local businesses and celebrating local artists,” Vidovic says. ‘We have 50 local artists. We had 500 people through the first Art Walk and the second was in July so we got about 150.
“We have live artists, too. We have between 10 and 20 live artists from poets on typewriters to chalk art painters on the sidewalks. We want to include all the arts and for people to see that art is a process and should be celebrated.”
Vidovic wanted to include local businesses instead of hosting in traditional gallery spaces. “I wanted to hang pieces where you wouldn’t normally see local art. And this is celebrating both local business and artists of all ages, styles and experiences. It’s your neighbors’ work being hung, your family’s.”
There is plenty of art to appreciate outdoors as well. Safety Harbor’s Public Art Committee works with an annual budget to bring public art to the city. The committee has approved funding for murals, sculptures and mosaics, rainy day sidewalk poetry and more.
“The City is committed. Every year there are funds put aside for art,” says committee president Susan Zinkel.
The Public Art Committee handles three city galleries to showcase artists’ work — the museum, the library and City Hall. Any artist is welcome to submit an application and have work up for sale.
After the new year, the committee plans to announce a call to artists for a sculpture or set of sculptures for the park. They have a $75,000 budget for the project.
Several shops and galleries are scattered throughout the downtown corridor, including the world-renowned Syd Entel Galleries and Susan Benjamin Glass in the center of town. Walk around the corner and the Harbour Arts Studio artists will gladly show their works.
But that’s not even enough art for this town. Since 2009, Stacy Roth and Bobbie Wheeler have facilitated one of the largest festivals of the year — the Bloom n Chalkfest.
“I believe we started with 40 artists,” Wheeler recalls. “In our first year we hired an artist from Orlando, Leigh Alfredson, to teach the art of street painting to some of our local artists.” The event now attracts almost 25,000 visitors.
Bloom n Chalkfest is scheduled for March 21-22, 2020. Over the years, it has been a catalyst for many forms of art.
“It has attracted street painters, muralists, sand sculptors, ice sculptors, sign painters and other amazing creative artists from all over the country and several continents,” Wheeler says. “Many of the artists are known throughout the world for their 3-D street paintings, interactive murals and vertical panels.
“The Safety Harbor Museum and Cultural Center had a vision in 2009 to tie the 400 years of street painting to the artist flavor of Safety Harbor. It seems to be a great fit for our community and it’s definitely worth a visit.”