The Many Façades of Florida at Fairgrounds St. Pete

By Amanda Sieradzki

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I feel a bit off-kilter as I’m listening to the man in the pink vest give me his welcome spiel. The Factory building that houses the Fairgrounds St. Pete interactive exhibit is massive and I’m still trying to drink it all in. I’m told I can touch most things, but to not break anything – and please don’t try to touch or pull or yank anything that looks like it shouldn’t be touched, pulled or yanked. I nod. 

And of course, please take photos and tag @FairgroundsStPete on Instagram. 

A trippy road projected on the wall spirals like a ribbon. A green highway sign plastered with “Mermaid Star Motel” announces my first stop. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve entered a haunted house, but instead of being spooked, I’m ready to feel soaked in the kind of spirits that would yield a spring break-sized hangover.

In fact, I wonder if this is how my grandparents and parents must have felt driving down from snow-covered houses in the great, frozen north… the sheer anticipation of following the white rabbit south to a tropical wonderland.

I wasn’t prepared for how dark everything would be once inside, all windows to the outside tinted to a perpetual midnight. I’m immediately met with a motel room in Pepto-Bismol pink. There’s a bed and an open suitcase overflowing with floral printed garb. I figure you can touch, pull or yank on the rotary phone on the nightside table. It lights up and makes some pleasant beeps and blips.

All signs point to this being your prototypical picture of vacationland. The surreality sets in when I catch sight of a map on the wall referencing bits of news articles. Yarn is pinned between hurricanes, panthers, critters and question marks like a detective’s map. I feel behind, like I should have been solving a mystery from the moment I arrived. . .

photo by Amanda Sieradzki

How I ended up in St. Petersburg, Florida is less of a mystery. I’m a native, born of two transplants who were inspired by the sugar sand beaches and seashell kitsch that seems to be the gist of Fairground St. Pete’s “Instagrammable” charm. My parents were forever sunstruck by the fact that they could live the antithesis of the Midwest with a no-shoes, no-shirt, no-problem defiance.

I’ve always felt less enchanted by what they described as an honest-to-god fantasy come true. Maybe that’s why, when affronted with the Mermaid Star Motel’s sickly-sweet rooms, I am not instantly charmed. Instead, I’m given a sudden insurgence of nostalgia for something that may no longer exist here in sunny, sanitized St. Pete. I can’t put my finger on it but subconsciously add a piece of string on that detective’s map to a big question mark.

photo by Amanda Sieradzki

That tip of the tongue sensation returns when I walk up to the plastic-embalmed brochure cabinet in the hotel’s lobby and observe the stiff lobby attendant (also adorned in pink vest) who hovers by the guest book. I pick up brochures that advertise “Dino Domain” and “Florida Strawberry Soiree.” I page through a book on the coffee table with articles about a massive category five storm — Hurricane Felix — who has made landfall without warning.

My mind zips back to 2004 and the fear struck into my heart by hurricanes that arrived back to back to back to back. There is a mix of similar articles, both real and fabricated, about panther sightings, UFOs, Florida Men, and alligators on the loose, even one headlined “Break-In at the Mermaid Star Motel.” I am suspended somewhere between amused and perplexed by this alternate universe.

photo by Amanda Sieradzki

The next room has a pool projected on the ceiling, eyes blinking in bushes, and a stalking, pink Roseate Spoonbill in the corner. I take a seat in a white plastic pool chair and wonder, if I hadn’t grown up so over-chlorinated, would I still feel so strange in this half-dream state? I desperately wish there were QR codes by each of these art pieces and rooms. Without them, I am left wondering whose vision of Florida I’m experiencing.

My due diligence post-walk-through reveals that Aleisha Prather, Alex Kaufman and George Retkes are responsible for the Florida-themed kaleidoscope, aptly named Flora-Da-Scope, in the pool room. The upside-down pool, Dialogical Analogs in Chlorine is the work of Matthew Campbell. The pool reflects back the disorientation I feel.

photo courtesy of Fairgrounds St Pete

I exit, peek around the next corner and stumble headfirst into the gift shop. While that seems on brand with the cheeky humor of this place, it also feels like a rather serious revelation about the real work at play here. What is tackier than a Florida gift shop? Accidentally walking into the gift shop before the ride is over. I turn around, slightly embarrassed at my gaffe, and not to spoil whatever is next.

There is so much more to see. An infinity room of mirrors with coral centerpiece is Ballet of the Final Anthozoans, a mixed media work from Californian artist collective Overgrown’s Tina Piracci, KJ Wu, Adam Hutz and Barrak Darweesh. Several tiered strawberry cakes rendered tantalizingly in paint are artists Macy Higgins and Emiliano Settecasi’s folksy ode to Plant City’s most abundant crop in the Strawberry Room. 

I walk through a gator’s open maw – Alley Gator 3030 (AG3030) crafted by Joshua Hall and play an engaging game of hide-and-go-seek with CAT5 devised by Amsterdam’s Fernando Diaz. Waving my hand above a sensor, a flashlight’s circle appears on the wall mural, and I locate felines on four legs alongside CAT heavy equipment excavators on four wheels. Florida – the land perpetually under construction.

For a moment, there’s a departure from overt Sunshine State décor and design in Chris Parks’ Temple of Cosmic Balance installation. I interpret the cryptically painted mantra on the wall above this stained-glass altar as an apt warning and consolation, “Fear not, peace awaits you in the unknown…”

While these rooms are enjoyable, and clearly content-worthy, I don’t get that same emotional pinprick I felt back in the motel rooms until I step into the FLORIDARAMA dioramas. Walls lined with fish tanks, I’m suddenly back on a school trip to Boyd Hill Nature Preserve or pulled over at the Shell Factory and Nature Park.

Instead of tanks filled with turtles, snakes and creepy crawlies there are cockroaches playing cards thanks to Jonathan Schork’s The Vermin Bar & Grill, giant babydoll heads smiling atop tiny, muscular bodies in Mark Mitchell’s Fountain of Youth, and iconic buildings like Twistee Treat rendered in miniature by Ashley Cantero’s Drive-In.

A startling piece of reality is sandwiched between this whimsy as I stare at a wrecked boat covered in trash, sand, swirling wind and fire with the sign “The Sunshine State: 2050” tilted askance in Babs Reingold’s refreshingly and cruelly realistic The Last Sea: Diorama.

I want to stay with these tiny snapshots of Florida’s past, present and future forever. They are Floridians commenting on Florida — the spine-tingling Disneyfied veneer joyfully absent here.

I eventually pull myself away and meander around the large main room. A wrap-around widescreen plays an Everglades sunset on a loop. I’m struck by the thought that I’ve traveled many miles to this dark warehouse to witness this state’s outdoor beauty indoors and on a silver screen. Far removed and nestled in a jungle of concrete, surrounded by fake grass, each image is accompanied by birdsongs bleating through a distorted filter. It’s an off-putting valley of the uncanny moment.

Inside this space, a giant cupcake houses a control room with panther paws to touch and pull and yank in Eddie Lohmeyer’s Topographia Chlorophobia. I’m not certain there’s anything to control until two children run inside and start to hit the switches. A woman’s voice calls out, at random, “I like, unfortunate, beach parties, bright pink, strawberries, look out for, magical, delicious, panthers.”

Before departing this wonderland, I almost walk by what becomes my favorite nook in this entire exhibit. Air conditioning blasts out of a sliver cut into the drywall and a dish overhead amplifies sounds of cars on a roadway and ocean waves hitting cement pylons. Visually, it’s a forced perspective of a bridge underpass with a bright Tampa Bay skyline dazzling in the distance in A Mysterious Portal to the Bay created by Mike Hicks.
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A Mysterious Portal to the Bay, by Clearwater artist Mike Hicks

It’s faithful down to the Styrofoam trash floating at the base of a pillar. No fake day-glo façade here. A keyhole to breathe through.

I feel reprieve, and honestly relieved, that someone else has captured this state sans warped bubblegum fantasy. I’m endeared to this artist as he manages to recreate this area’s wacky, awful, wonderful je ne sais quoi in the same way that I understand it in my bones.

I don’t exit through the gift shop, but I also don’t realize I’ve made that mistake until I retrace my steps back out of the rabbit hole and onto the whirly road. The man in the pink vest asks what I’m doing back at the start.

Walking out the front doors, I fight the deflated, hoodwinked feeling that accompanies many a Florida roadside attraction. How are you supposed to feel after visiting a parody of a parody?

My mind hops on I-275 as it twists into I-75 and I-10 and SR-19 and Alligator Alley. Florida’s true peculiarities are disappearing. . . the Forgotten Coast washed out by hurricanes. Bright buildings shaped like oranges that once sold swampy charm by the scoopful. . . vacant.

Maybe Fairgrounds St. Pete will encourage us to go find them. To save them.

Hungover from my escape from reality, I’m off to find an ocean to sit by or a bridge to sit under.
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Explore Fairgrounds St. Pete at
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Explore the artists of Fairground St. Pete,
including many Creative Pinellas
Professional and Emerging Artists
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Fairgrounds Artists
Share the Ideas Behind their Work

Jane Bunker

Carnival by Jane Bunker, 36″x48″ Oil on Canvas

I was interested in participating in Fairgrounds probably for reasons quite different from the majority of the other artists. For the last three years I have worked together with the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum to raise money for college scholarships through the sale of my paintings. 

I hoped that having my work at Fairgrounds would provide more visibility for the scholarship project as well as offer a connection between Fairgrounds and the Woodson Museum.

I am very grateful to Fairgrounds for including my work – along with information about our project – even though it doesn’t relate directly to the wonderful, wacky, magical world they created. 

More of my paintings will be shown at the Chihuly Museum from January to March 2022. All of the money I receive from sales goes directly into the scholarship project.

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Saumitra Chandratreya

Consumed by Everglades

When I was thinking about the subject and theme for my diorama, I wanted to create a small world inside the confines of the given space. I usually work pretty large so working on a smaller scale and within the constraints was a challenge.

I wanted to utilize all sides of the diorama box.

I depict a scene in the future when we have left the Florida peninsula and the Everglades have taken over the state. The fauna has adopted our lifestyle and there are palm trees growing upside down in the sky. I show alligators carrying sugar packets which represents the presence of the sugar industry in the Everglades.

I want people to think about Florida’s wetlands. They are essential for our survival. We need to protect them with everything we can because if they are gone, our current environment is doomed.

I have created my diorama with mostly plastic objects that are readymade. It’s an on-the-nose discussion about material culture and capitalism.

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John Gascot

I created a diorama based on their storyline of the Mermaid’s Lair, as well as the theme of the urbanizing of nature.

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Alex Kaufman, Aleisha Prather and George Retkes

about the Flora-Da-Scope

The Flora-Da-Scope installed

Aleisha, George and I are all young artists who have a variety of skills and interests that we wanted to bring to the Fairgrounds initial open call.

We’ve all had experience with immersive art, with Aleisha running the Blueberry Patch in Gulfport, George making multiple installations for Hulaween, and myself visiting places like Santa Fe’s Meow Wolf and having interest in projection mapping and technically challenging art. 

The initial concept was simple — a large Florida-themed kaleidoscope!

View from the small end
View from the large end

The three of us had worked together at St. Pete’s MGA Sculpture Studio for years, making very large and complicated public art with sculptor Mark Aeling, so we were comfortable working on a larger scale and problem-solving along the way in our first collaboration.

The initial pitch was for a large conventional kaleidoscope, but we made several discoveries and went down a path of making something unique — a kaleidoscope in which the visual information wasn’t only on one end, but embedded at different depths throughout the length of the scope.

Half-scale sample

This creates distinctly unique visual properties and patterns, and by using side-lit acrylic, we achieved a neon-like effect. This was accomplished through cutting holes in our mirror, which we did with a waterjet machine (thanks to Mark Aeling and MGA’s waterjet cutter).

Acrylic in place

All of this is a little hard to explain in words — it really needs to be seen in person to be appreciated. The final piece ended up weighing 500 lbs with over 200 individually programmable LEDs to control the acrylic shapes.

George Retkes welding

We want people who experience the Flora-Da-Scope to be immersed in something completely unique and be taken away into a little neon universe that makes you wonder, how did they make that?

Our hope is that everyone enjoys our work, knowing that it supported three young, up-and-coming artists in the St. Pete arts scene.

– Alex Kaufman

Follow us on our respective Instagrams to see what we’re up to


Cecilia Lueza

Ballad of the Blue Mermaid

I have always been fascinated by the ocean and especially one of its most magical and elusive creatures, mermaids. So for me, this project presented a unique opportunity to create a one of a kind piece in the captivating Art Nouveau style of Alphonse Mucha, whom I admire greatly.

I wanted to convey the mysticism of the mermaid along with Florida’s natural beauty. By creating artwork in this particular style my intention is to take the viewer on a visual journey into a different era.

A second project I created for Fairgrounds is a series of Florida birds to be placed in different areas around the complex.

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Mark Mitchell

Conceptual Pop Painter and Multimedia Artist Mark Mitchell shares the inspiration behind his satirical Flori-drama, Fountain of Youth.

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Iona Parris

The Seashell Queen

Working with Fairgrounds St Pete has been an amazing journey. They saw me on Instagram and contacted me at a time where I was really trying to get my footing in the art world and to be looked at as a serious (but fun) artist. They’ve treated me not only like an artist but also a vibe and lifestyle. They’ve never stifled my creative process and only encouraged me to make what I like.

Most people tend to look at seashell art as novelty items that should be sold on the beach, but Fairgrounds St Pete has put my shell artwork in their installation to be admired and loved. 

When creating my seashell crowns, jeweled seashells and seashell earrings I’m inspired by a lot of things, mostly elegance and opulence. . . and anything over the top!

I was inspired by how elegant the British royal family is, so when I’m picking out my jewels for my seashells art I tend to go with the ones that exude the most elegance. I’m also inspired by the Kardashian family and how opulent a lifestyle that they live, so when I’m choosing colors I choose the most opulent colors.

And when it comes to being over the top my family is Caribbean and we love a beautiful carnival parade which is GRAND with beautiful sparkly costumes, beautiful colors and everything is very dramatic – so I like to make over the top seashell designs. 

I hope when people check out the Mermaid Dressing Room that they feel like they’re under the sea. I hope they feel like an underwater king and queen. There are mirrors in there and you can see yourself as a mermaid or octopus – I think that’s really cool!

I feel like it’s not any regular mermaid dressing room. From the sparkly seashell walls, the glittery vanity desk, beautiful art and of course the mermaid hair, you feel like you stepped into the room of an underwater sea palace.

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Ari Robinson

Mystic Reef is a site-specific installation created for Fairgrounds’ Floridarama exhibit.

The goal was to create a transcendent structure cascading from wall to ceiling that recalls coral reefs and underwater landscapes. This work references both familiar terrain as well as magical and unknown landscapes of mythical underwater worlds. 

Bringing reminiscent feelings of natural forms, the fascination of the sea and vibrant color, my work can be seen as both irregular and ordered – with a sense of pattern and chaos that exist together creating an abstract space reminiscent of the world around us.

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When viewers look at my work, my greatest hope is they leave inspired, with a rush of imagination – and most of all, simply happier.

Working with Fairgrounds St. Pete was a dream collaboration as their goal for their artist-created immersive experience of weird, wacky, wonderful Florida seemed to fit seamlessly with my aesthetic and the meaning behind my work.

You can also purchase one of my exclusive to Fairgrounds, Fairground Logo Mermaid Stars in their gift shop.

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Adela Salas

I created a Floridarama for Fairgrounds St Pete. My piece shows an aquatic forest scene.

I was inspired by our surroundings and the mermaid mythology in Florida. Mermaids are ethereal. Like a sparkling apparition, they shimmer through the mist of time. I wanted to capture that playful moment where mermaids show their beautiful tails to the world.

The entire work was created by hand. I painted all the walls. It was like painting mini murals! All the figures and sculptures inside the Floridarama were hand built with clay.

For my artistic process it’s important to create and build everything with my own hands. The contact and connection with the material is important in every artwork I create, so I needed it to keep it that way for this work as well.

I hope you enjoy the moment when mermaids make an apparition. I hope you can enjoy the magic and playfulness of the aquatic forest.

I hope you create your own ideas and I truly wish you imagination will run wild with your own stories.



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