“Don’t Come Back.”

Kirk Ke Wang’s Journey from China to the U.S. and the Tampa Bay Arts Community’s Journey to the Present

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. ŒæIn the äóÖ90s, he was part of a collective of young international artists that transformed the city. ŒæHe doesnäó»t see that kind of energy when he looks at the Tampa art scene today äóñ but heäó»s hoping to help bring it back.

I met Wang in his studio, located for more than 15 years on North Florida Avenue in Tampaäó»s Seminole Heights Neighborhood. ŒæOn the outside itäó»s all gray walls and barred windows, typical Tampa-Abandoned-Building Chic. ŒæInside, itäó»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. ŒæHeäó»s come by his caution honestly äóñ things may have calmed down lately, but for most of his time in Seminole Heights heäó»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. ŒæWang instinctively gave the guy a friendly äóìHi!äó and stuck out his hand to shake. The robber ran, Iäó»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. ŒæItäó»s a nightmarish scenario Wang now recounts with a sad lightheartedness.

Wang is round-faced and incessantly talkative, an exhausting whirlwind. ξIn this way, he reminds me of an old friend, also from Shanghai.

He came to Tampa from China on a rainbow bridge of talent. ŒæäóìIn the early days, the Chinese government didnäó»t want to let artists out of the country, because weäó»re troublemakers. ŒæIn 1984, there was a national art competition, like the Olympics for art.Œæ I won 3rd place.äó ŒæAmong other prizes, he was offered permission to participate in a cultural exchange, and money to support his work.

äóìI took the money and ran out of China. I was admitted to the Art Institute of Chicago, but I didnäó»t realize the tuition was so expensive. ŒæI was awarded a lot of money by the Ministry, but it wasnäó»t even enough for one semesteräó»s tuition. ŒæThen I met some faculty members at USF [including Diane Elmeer], and got to be friends with them.Œæ They said, äóÖWhy donäó»t you go to a state school? We can give you a tuition waiver.äó» ŒæSo thatäó»s how I came to Tampa, and finished graduate school here.äó

His Chinese prize had also included a guaranteed professorship in China when he graduated with an international M.F.A. äóñ but by that time things had changed. Œæ1989 saw the Tiananmen Square uprisings and Wang had started making politicized anti-war art in the U.S. ŒæWhen he called home to celebrate his graduation, his former colleagues had a simple warning: äóìDonäó»t come back. Youäó»re on the list.äó

If he had returned to China, Wang is convinced he would have become a political prisoner in the post-Tiananmen crackdown. ŒæäóìI didnäó»t go back to China until 7 years later, after I got my U.S. Citizenship, so I was protected.äó

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. ŒæThe space hadnäó»t been used in nearly a half-century: they found books from the cigar factoryäó»s readers and bathrooms in original 1930s condition. ŒæAfter cleaning the place up, they threw parties and shows and screened films. ŒæThe shifting group included Tony Palm, Brian Taylor, Kevin Taylor, A.A. Rucci, Thomas Schirtz, Kyle Barnette, and Jose Martin, who Wang describes as the äóìringleader.äó ŒæThey eventually started calling themselves, collectively, Titanic Anatomy.

Kirk remembers a purity to Titanic Anatomy. ŒæäóìThat group had no egos.Œæ We just wanted to hang around, we had common interests, and we needed a place. ŒæEvery week we would invite a group to share their work.Œæ Weäó»d hang together, go bowling, watch shows.äó ŒæThey also did serious work. ŒæFor 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. ŒæäóìThey were so proud of that,äó Wang says.

Titanic Anatomy wasnäó»t alone. ŒæThe Florida Center for Contemporary Art was another group of young artists doing big work, though they were more official and well-funded. ŒæäóìWe were close, youäó»d find members going to one anotheräó»s events. ŒæWeäó»d cross.äó ŒæThe young artists werenäó»t alone, either äóñ Wang recalls Theo Wujkick, maybe Tampaäó»s most respected resident artist and a USF art professor, as a constant presence. ŒæäóìHe was a professor when we were students, but he always hung out. äó

Eventually, Titanic Anatomy got kicked out of their space, largely because of their own success. ŒæAt the time, Ybor City was run-down and neglected. ŒæLike 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.Œæ äóìWe left that specific building by äó»94 or äó»95. Once the new mayor really made Ybor City like a tourist place that basically pushed all artists out.äó

Others in the group found a space north of Downtown Tampa, on Florida Avenue, not far from Wangäó»s current studio. ŒæBut by then Wang had been hired as an art professor at Eckerd College, and he drifted away from Titanic Anatomy. ŒæHe started to prioritize his own work and be more protective of his time. äóìA lot of the time in the early days, weäó»d just hang around.Œæ But now, party timeäó»s over.äó

Wang thinks that, compared to the old days, Tampa art is at a low ebb. ŒæäóìWe do have a fancy museum, but usually they donäó»t show local artists at all. ŒæI feel like weäó»re not as active in the last few years. Thatäó»s why Iäó»m sticking around here.äó ŒæHe thinks one of the big things missing is the kind of open, community space Titanic Anatomy helped create. ŒæäóìA studio space isnäó»t just for working.Œæ ŒæItäó»s for social networking.äó

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. ŒæäóìI feel all these things we did in the äóÖ90s have been hijacked by business ventures.Œæ I guess thatäó»s the way it is.äó

Wang also senses some deeper changes. ŒæäóìThe difference between now and then is, now everyone is so individual. ŒæI donäó»t know what caused it, economics, politics. Maybe at that time we still had a sense of the commune, from the äóÖ60s and äóÖ70s.Œæ Maybe our older peers had that kind of idealistic influence on us.äó

Wang seems ready to hand some of the idealism of his early days on to a new generation.


Reprinted from Art at Bay Magazine


Leave a Reply

Become a Creative Pinellas Supporter