Celebrating Lea Umberger’s Creative Work

A Constantly Creative Life

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As we celebrate this year shifting into a new start, Creative Pinellas is remembering and missing the amazing and creative Lea Umberger, who sadly passed away this spring after battling cancer.

Lea served as the Arts Project Manager for Creative Pinellas – organizing a series of wonderful murals on the Pinellas Trail, in St. Pete’s Lealman neighborhood and around the county, and she was instrumental in getting our signal box wrap project off the ground.

Lea Umberger with Beth Warmash’s School of Fish mural at Sutherland Elementary School in Palm Harbor

Lea came to that role as an all-around artist herself – a gifted set designer who created ingenious and inventive worlds onstage and on film and TV sets, with her interior design business. . . and at every opportunity, in her home, for her friends and family.

“Unexpected art found in these kids’ snack leftovers”

Lea was chosen as a Creative Pinellas 2020 Professional Artist and used that grant as seed money for a project that, as ever, she put her heart and soul into – producing the recent Emmy award-winning documentary, Little Satchmo, shown on PBS and at national and international film festivals.

“Watching and listening to the PBS Reel South Special Preview!” of Little Satchmo

As you see from the photos she shared on social media for Lea Umberger Designs, Lea celebrated every holiday with gusto – and found so many ways throughout each year to share her creative verve with family and friends, just for the joy of making art.

“The closest I might get to making snowmen in Florida!”
“a sneak peek at Sleepy Hollow Halloween”

So as we celebrate the exits, entrances and scene transitions of the year, we celebrate the lasting resonance of Lea Umberger’s creative heart.

The 2017 TheatreUSF British International Theatre Production of Sophocles’ Antigone, directed by Eduard Lewis with set design by Lea Umberger – images courtesy of the University of South Florida School of Theatre and Dance
Antigone at USF
Antigone at USF. The bare trees haunting the background were actual fallen trees from land owned by a friend of Lea’s.

Lea and I worked together on at least a dozen theater productions. All of them made better by her artistry. I was made a better artist and person through our friendship and collaboration.

Lea was able to do more with less than anyone I know, and she joyfully worked harder than anyone. I have incredible memories of each of our collaborations. Most of them involve Lea going above and beyond the job of designer.

The first time we worked together she was designing the costumes for Taming of the Shrew that we did at my College Summer Theater in 2000. In our first phone call when we were getting to know each other by talking about the play, I mentioned the scene between Kate and Petruchio when they are traveling to the wedding. It is the scene where they travel and come to an understanding of what it means to support each other, to be a team.

And Lea said, they should ride a tandem bicycle (a bicycle built for two). It seems simple but it was such a perfect way to model their relationship… and model the growth of the relationship, in a physical gesture, through the playing of one scene.

The American Soldier, a solo show directed by Padriac Lillis with set design by Lea Umberger

Lea designed sets and costumes for multiple productions I directed. For this show I believe she was only designing costumes. However, it was never about just one aspect of the show for Lea – it was always about the whole. And how to elevate the world.

And she did, in all of our collaborations.

– Padriac Lillis, The Farm Theater


One of Lea’s costume designs in action, at the USF School of Theatre and Dance
Stop Kiss at TheatreUSF, directed by Dora Arreola with set design by Lea Umberger

I was lucky enough to work with Lea on several productions. Her work, like all great designers, was a kind of magic.

Antigone at USF

One play was set in a school. I was in the back of the theater working on sound while Lea built and painted the set. A sheet of plywood was stood up and fastened into place to be the wall of the school.

“A little math, a little design…..just the beginning!”

It was unfinished wood – it looked nothing at all like a school. Then, she sat and started painting. With remarkable speed but great care she first painted the wood white, and then by hand added lines and curves in darker color. One by one, bricks appeared in the wood.

Raising my head from my laptop, I came to believe that the surface was wood on the left and aged white brick on the right. When she was done, I was looking at the front of a school and I couldn’t remember what the bare wood looked like.

– Matt Cowley

Images courtesy of the University of South Florida School of Theatre and Dance

I had the privilege of workshopping The Burlesque Astronomy Play with Lea’s design students at the USF School of Theatre and Dance in 2017, thanks to her kind invitation to work on this emerging script as a classroom project. USF is where Lea earned her BA in Theatre Design in 1998, before an MFA in Set and Costume Design at NYU’s world-renowned Tisch School of the Arts.

Lea’s students read the script with such keen eyes and creative ideas, drew sketches of the imagined stage set – and contributed thoughtful, character-based design ideas that became lasting elements in the script.

Set design for The Burlesque Astronomy Play by Sarah York, in Lea Umberger’s design class at USF 2017

Lea clearly taught them well. And her own questions, observations, her ideas and humor made that process one of the most enjoyable, special and meaningful experiences I’ve had in theatre.

– Sheila Cowley

“The start of something fun coming to life, well coming to the stage dot dot dot”
“Extra special project in progress! Spending my weekend with a bunch of super heroes!”

“Installation of Super Hero Room complete… @marissarissalyn found some cool stuff to make my nephew’s kid room dreams come true!” (his name is hidden in the windows of the cityscape)
Meet a few of the newest characters I have added to the list of “people” I know a little better after working on a show about them! Marian Anderson, Mary Church Terrell, Albert Einstein and Abraham Flexner. Costume design sketches for @floridastudiotheatre current production of “My Lord, What A Night” in Sarasota! Director: Kate Alexander Costume Shop Manager: Mari Taylor Floyd Draper: April Andrew Carswell”
“My first laundromat design! Pretty excited to show you this transformed space on Busch Blvd in Tampa. Worked with the team from Suncoast Laundry, who did the installation and Margeaux Klein painting the mural I designed throughout the whole back wall of the space. Alpha Omega Machining,LLC designed and created the coin machine signs! A little paint, some pallet wood, corrugated aluminum and some well placed faux plants went a long way to modernize and brighten the space up. Who says laundry has to be dull!”
“This was a favorite back in September 2009! Rethinking this day care space into an art room fit for kids and teens! Installation with some pretty cool co-workers from HSN Cares crew = One heck of a rewarding transformation in so many ways!”
“Letters are on their way to Santa!”
“And how could I forget to include this beauty… everyone needs a Fairy God Mother this shiny! Costume design for Cinderella at @floridastudiotheatre. This was also one of my first costume design sketches done with a digital tablet that I purchased as part of my Professional Artist Grant from Creative Pinellas in 2020!”
Prince Charming, Casual
“Ok, geometry teachers….. Thank you for all those measurement formulas you drilled into my brain! Came in handy today at work.”
“Something’s in the works……
Reveal later this week!
#stikwood project
“Beginning to look like Christmas”

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