The Multifaceted Orbit
The St. Pete Women’s Collective has opened a coworking, gallery and event space to St. Pete’s budding Fringe District. Their hope is that it can be a place for learning, growing and discussing ideas.
BY JULIE GARISTO | JUNE 3, 2019
PHOTOS BY DANIEL VEINTIMILLA
Communal reverie lit up the grand opening of Venus on May 25. Some visitors chatted and hugged, filing through the partitioned venue like home-buyers at an open house. Others asked questions, complimented the earthy-sophisticated decor and mingled with artists in open studio spaces.
St. Pete Women’s Collective runs the venue. The nonprofit’s mission involves mojo-making for all who identify as women and their allies. Their arts incubator and coworking space celebrated their launch with “Visions of Venus,” an exhibit of works by member artists, available for sale.
The art in “Visions of Venus” displays a variety of media, subjects and themes, celebrating but not limited to themes of womanhood. Works depict a range of body shapes, explorations of anatomy and pose questions relevant to the evolving role of gender in society.
Arts, community and activism
SPWC President Ashley Sweet greeted visitors by the entrance and outside table covered with sassy reproductive-rights swag, including briefs and panties that read “Don’t Touch” in an ironically retro-cursive font. She shared that some misunderstand their purpose: “Some men come in and hear ‘safe space’ and ask if we are an abuse shelter.”
Incidentally, Sweet is director of research for Planned Parenthood of Southwest Florida and a licensed mental health counselor who specializes in sexual trauma, she stipulates that she and her cohorts at SPWC intend their space as a haven for creatives to launch new ventures. People can perform coworking duties there Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and memberships include creative and business work spaces, wifi, a mailing address, access to power outlets, limited printing, free coffee, shared art supplies, supportive community, free parking and discounts on workshop-hosting rates.
“We’re here to create a conscious community,” Sweet said, “one that will hopefully send ripples out and remind everyone that community consciousness is alive and well in St. Petersburg.”
Sweet also shared that Venus will present a Save Roe Community Meet-Up the first Monday of the month at 7 p.m. June’s meetup will feature a representative from Planned Parenthood who will coach attendees on how to write a letter to the editor and phone-bank in support of reproductive rights.
Location, Location, Location
The organization’s president added that she felt proud of their new neighborhood, the budding Fringe District, and was looking forward to sharing the block with new neighbors Star Booty and Planet Retro, businesses priced out of their former locations. Meanwhile, the historic Coney Island Sandwich Shop, which has been in the same spot for decades, can be found two spaces to Venus’s right. She praised their new landlord for his community-minded approach for sharing with SPWC an interest in building up the district.
Artists in the “Visions of Venus” gallery show also expressed gratitude, effusing how much they appreciated the camaraderie and acceptance they found in the multifaceted orbit of Venus.
“This space perfectly represents my ethos as an artist and a woman — I’m really excited to be here,” shared member artist Lauren Petty, whose portraits incorporate a vivid use of color, graphic allure and realism.
The St. Petersburg Women’s Collective formed in 2017 at Bloom Art Center, where four out of six of the original SPWC board members set up before the building near the Fifth Avenue interstate on-ramp closed for good.
“We met for a month straight, two to three days a week,” member artist Emily Stone told Jennifer Ring of Creative Loafing. “Bloom was for bros,” she told Ring, adding that Stone and Mitzi Gordon were putting on the shows in the meantime.
Ring’s article goes on to explain that after Bloom closed, SPWC leased a bungalow in Historic Kenwood for its new studios but needed a larger space, when Stone, Tiffany Elliot, Jodi Chemes, Sweet and Jeannette St. Armour put their official stamp on the St. Pete Women’s Collective as a new support system in St. Petersburg.
Good timing, indeed
One could argue that SPWC’s messaging of female empowerment couldn’t come at a better time. Around one third to half the country has aligned with a patriarchal stance toward gender roles, electing representatives and senators who intend to roll back the right to a legal, safe abortion and the ruling of Roe v. Wade itself. Recent regressive legislative changes from Georgia to Missouri have come against protests and boycotts across the U.S.
You could argue that it’s a bit nervy for conservatives to obligate women to stay home and raise babies in an economy that doesn’t even support a base livable wage for two household managers, let alone one.
As women get caught in the crosshairs of conflicting messages, more and more questions must be addressed: How do we bring justice to the protests of those who have had enough of sexually charged violations only to be demeaned by conservatives’ reactive ridicule to the #metoo movement.
And where does today’s political climate leave a gender-fluid woman who cannot serve our country in the military, surviving against a backlash against of progressive changes in norms?
SPWC’s president prescribes going from passive to active mode. She urges members of the community to channel their frustrations, learn ways to be strategic and engage in creative pursuits with empowering messages.
“We’re here to help women transform their fears and anxieties into personal power,” Sweet affirmed.
“We are creating a platform for conscious community, to talk about issues, but beyond that, provide a space for people to put their thoughts into action.”
Flipping the script
Sweet and I also talked about how the arts can help send the right message, but that showbiz often fails in this regard. We commiserated in particular about the final season of Game of Thrones (spoilers ahead — skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen it), how the series started out on a promising note with an inspirational firebrand in the form of Daenerys Targaryen, but the series later pits her against Sansa Stark, ruler of the North in the final season, a side plot that goes nowhere.
We agreed that HBO’s writers have come under derision for wasting an opportunity to showcase powerful women working together toward a common good. I conveyed my opinion, that though HBO took cues from author George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones, they didn’t hesitate to take liberties and bend time and space in other ways during the final season. They retooled character arcs left and right. At the very least, they could have written Daenerys as a victorious Elizabeth I who overcomes her detractors. Instead, we wind up with two women brutally executed and catty glances on par with a reality show or second-rate soap opera.
“In my opinion, it ended with Arya and the Night King,” Sweet added.
Co-founder Mitzi Gordon, a Tampa Bay arts supporter who founded the Bluebird Books Bus and Carmada and co-founded SPACEcraft, offered her input on how art can flip the script on prevailing notions.
“Art can be really equalizing,” she said. “Art can also be really cathartic. It gives all people an opportunity to share their voice and gather courage, sometimes publicly.”
Venus invites people to express themselves and find opportunities for expression as a way to encourage emotion, make statements, get people thinking about other perspectives, she added.
“Even for those visiting Venus to experience others’ work — by providing that sense of community, we offer comfort and safety in sharing a story, whatever that might be. Or, just be among a supportive group of people. That has a lot of value. We all need our support systems now.”
Which brings us to another challenge: How can Venus initiate dialogue, and not just create another echo chamber, when issues and factions of the population are so polarized?
Gordon responds: ” Understanding is the basis of growth. Discourse is a challenge, but creative expression provides a way to learn someone else’s viewpoint. The more we can share through diverse modes of expression, the more we are encouraging a sense of empathy.”
You can learn more about Venus and apply here.