Stephen Collins, a Connecticut native, bought Coast Bothers janitorial supply firm a decade ago. It was an established business of several decades that services Central Florida schools, hotels, laundries and the like – you know, all the things that are currently closed due to COVID-19.
Plan B was formed – to lean on Coast’s online business, buyitbythecase.com, a bulk cleaning supply site open to businesses and the public. “It’s helping keep us afloat.” (Coast has lots of essentials in stock, and they’ll ship or drop ship anywhere.)
Just another in a long line of businesses facing challenges during these crazy and unprecedented times, right? It was certainly not the time to be… wait for it… commissioning art.
“I’ve always been a great fan of art, I see blank canvasses wherever I go,” says Collins. “And I love sea life. If I could, I’d live on an island and snorkel every day,” Collins jokes. “But I’m not sure my wife would like it.”
“I have always been a huge fan of the late Bill (BC) Woo. The impact and vibrancy of his colors – they just jump off the page. And, of course, the subject matter is near and dear to my heart.”
“One day I was listening to my brother (none other than St. Petersburg Arts Alliance’s fearless leader, John Collins) doing a podcast about a fund for artists.”
Stephen’s referring to the recently formed Pinellas Arts Community Relief Fund, a resource conceived in partnership with Creative Pinellas, the St. Pete Arts Alliance and the Pinellas Community Foundation, and currently in its second round. “I thought it was such a great thing.”
Collins is no stranger to helping others. “It’s always been important to me to support those in need of a second chance,” Collins says, “but I’m a ‘teach them to fish’ kind of guy.” Coast Brothers has always participated in rehab programs for offenders and addicts,” explains Collins. “Doing the right thing is very rewarding, but it is not without heartbreak. Sometimes people are just not able to overcome their demons, but we do what we can to give them a real shot.”
Now there was a new way to help the community and maybe attain some very creative branding in the process. Around the same time as hearing what his brother had to say about helping artists, Stephen Collins happened to come across the work of Derek Donnelly, mural pioneer and protégé of Bill Woo.
The proverbial “lightbulb” appeared over Collins’ head and he approached John about recruiting muralists to transform his own blank canvasses — four large delivery trucks. He and his son Patrick, who runs general operations, hired local favorites The Vitale Bros. and Donnelly to create a coastal vision for Coast Brothers.
You could call it a “perfect storm” of inspiration, an ultimate “win, win” or my favorite, making chicken salad out of chicken sh*%t.
“Bill Woo believed in me more than I believed in myself,” says Derek Donnelly, founder of the Public Arts Project and owner of Saint Paint Arts and his gallery at the COVE, an arts collective in Pinellas Park.
Donnelly has been a leader in St. Petersburg’s signature mural scene. It’s a statement industry at the heart of the area’s exploding growth, now spreading throughout Pinellas County and beyond.
“He taught me the art of business and the business of art. Woo’s philosophy was, in the face of challenge, to just keep on painting – to value yourself,” says Donnelly with pronounced admiration and a bit of sadness. Woo died of cancer in 2012.
“I find myself thinking, when faced with a dilemma or decision – What would Woo do?”
Donnelly’s depictions of sea life are a combination of style kinship with Woo, and his influence and inspiration. But he didn’t paint his own ocean works until after Woo’s passing.
Donnelly has also been an unwavering supporter of artists during the C-19 crisis with innovative programs like Paint it Forward and online auctions at COVE. “With six events of my own cancelled in the first month, I knew other artists were facing real difficulty, and I had to do something to help.
“Having an opportunity to complete a commission that honors my friend at the same time has been really amazing and I’m grateful,” says Donnelly. “I’m sure Bill is smiling down.”
The Vitale Bros.
You can’t throw a stone in St. Pete without hitting a mural or other art created by Johnny, Paul and Joey Vitale. They probably paint the rocks too. They credit good genes for the natural skills they say have been passed down from their Irish and Italian grandparents.
“Born with the skill” is what they call it, and since embarking on this family business turned dynasty in 1992, they have forged a prolific body of work. Over the years the Vitale Bros. repertoire has grown to include not just murals, but set designs, fine art reproductions and much more.
Now they can add turtles and dolphins on huge trucks to that resume.
When I asked Stephen Collins about the impact of the mobile murals on the business, he said, “aside from the fact that I love them, it’s a bit early to tell. But a neighbor recently said, “Hey I know those guys! Now I know where you are.” Collins was thrilled.
“Maybe it will prompt and inspire other businesses to do the same. I’d consider that a huge success.”
As we were talking, Stephen Collins found Bill Woo’s business card and sent me the photo. If that’s not a sign, I don’t know what is.