St. Petersburg, Florida: Experience art

In reality, St. Petersburg was built for tourists and travelers who come to this part of Florida to escape the harsh winters up north.

THE SUNDIAL plaza where tourists shop, dine and enjoy local nightlife in St. Petersburg, Florida (photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
THE SUNDIAL plaza where tourists shop, dine and enjoy local nightlife in St. Petersburg, Florida
(photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
As I sipped a café latte in a sidewalk café on tree-shaded and bayfront Beach Drive in St. Petersburg, Florida, I could not but overhear the following conversation: “Did you know that most cities have only one ‘celebrate-the-arts-event’ a year?” a tourist told her friend, quickly adding, “but St. Petersburg holds an art program every day.”
“Every day?” challenged her disbelieving friend.
“That’s right. Each day I’m here I can tour the [Salvador] Dali Museum, the Morean Arts Center, the Chihuly Collection, Morean Glass Studio and Hot Shop, the Morean Center for Clay, the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as the Sunken Gardens, the Mahaffey Theater and the Florida Holocaust Museum, to name but a few.”
I thought about that brief encounter with the two tourists after I returned from a recent trip to St. Petersburg. And I remembered another favorite quote: “Travel as much as you can, as far as you can, as long as you can. Life’s not meant to be lived in one place.”
Highly recommended for a visit is St. Petersburg on the west coast of the Sunshine State, where during a three-day jaunt around this very clean, quiet, city, the traveler will discover fine, gourmet restaurants as well as motels, inns and hotels in all price ranges, including, the up-scale, elegant The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club.
In reality, St. Petersburg was built for tourists and travelers who come to this part of Florida to escape the harsh winters up north. Quite the art attraction in downtown is the Dali Museum, home to an unparalleled collection of works by the renowned artist Salvador Dali (1904-1989). I had traveled to his home in Figueres, Spain, where Dali became known for his technical skill as a painter and for the extraordinary quality of his imagination and dreams that can be seen here at the museum. It has an unparalleled collection of his finest works, explains Pam Whiteaker, co-director visitor experience at the Dali.
Alicia Weiss, who is interested in art and art history and is a member of her Boynton Beach community’s art class, remembers gazing at Dali’s painting regarding president Abraham Lincoln.
“I stood there till they made me move. Dali’s a master in a class by himself,” she recalled.
How Dali put together the painting of his wife Gala looking out of the window, is beyond belief. The painting was done in 1976 and is called Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea. This curious painting, up close, appears to be just that; Gala looking out of the window.
But from a distance, it appears to be none other than Abraham Lincoln.
Dali, I learn, was “a lover of math and science.” He even went so far as to say “every great artist must be a great mathematician.”
On our tour of this modern art museum, we pick up another saying Dali supposedly uttered: “The only difference between me and a madman is I’m not mad.”
Very accessible from the Dali stands the world-famous Chihuly Collection, presented by Morean Arts Center. The collection is the work of renowned artist Dale Chihuly. Visitors gape at the masterful chandeliers and glass works that has made Chihuly famous in the world of glass.
All of St. Petersburg’s major art centers, shops, restaurants and cafés are relatively close to the Chihuly, so you can ride the visitor trolley around town; and/ or drive from venue to venue and easily find a parking space, or amble to and fro –the palm trees will shade you from the hot afternoon sun of this city on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
A must on any art tour is the Morean Arts Center, where we learn that the tradition of glass blowing came to America with the 17th century Jamestown, Virginia, colonists, six of whom were glass blowers. But it wasn’t until the early 1960s that the studio glass movement began, inspired by Harvey Littleton’s discovery that some glass could be melted at a low enough temperature to allow the use of small studio furnaces, that it received a real kick-start in the US.
So, of course we stepped next door to the Morean Glass Studio and Hot Shop. Amazing to watch young, resident glass artists take you through the process of creating a one-of-a-kind piece of art glass, including gathering the molten glass from the furnace and working on it.
The Hot Shop is a treasure trove of locally-made items from jewelry to complete walls of stunning glass.
For those interested in ceramics, pop over to the Morean Center for Clay. This center is a haven for all pottery enthusiasts.
Highly recommend is the Florida Holocaust Museum, which honors the memory of the six million Jews who died in the Shoah. We learned that each year more than 15,000 students visit the museum that trains hundreds of teachers and reaches more than 50,000 students in the state by supplying large trunks of educational material to schools.
“Our focus,” says Sandy Mermelstein, senior educator of the Florida Holocaust Museum, “is education, especially education in the schools.”
This museum is “dedicated to teaching members of all races and culture to recognize the inherent worth of dignity of human life in order to prevent future genocides.”
A highlight at the museum, according to visitor Jacki Spiegel of Boynton Beach, was hearing the experiences of a Holocaust survivor who told her story to Jacki and her group.
Slowly moving through the museum, one gazes at photo exhibits as well as an authentic box-car, number 113-0695-5, which we were told was used by the Nazis to transport Jews and other prisoners to the killing centers. More than 100 people were stuffed inside that car without food, water or sanitation.
We observe visitors staring at the car.
According to a display in the museum, “a victim of genocide dies every 24 seconds.”
A must-do is a saunter through Sunken Gardens.
According to Susan Rebillot, a garden specialist, about 300,000 visit the gardens each year. We enjoyed this 4-acre garden and its meandering paths, a botanical experience and certainly a good place to experience horticulture, botany and environmental science. Here, we found we could relax, in contrast to the fast-paced world outside the vine-covered walls. Here, too, the visitor can walk along pathways to experience hundreds of tropical and subtropical flora.
Many of the plants have been identified by markers with their common name, botanical name and country of origin.
I stopped at the elegant The Vinoy Renaissance St. Peterburg Resort & Golf Club. Here, too, one can see several art glass pieces created by glass artist Dale Chihuly. One is the center-piece chandelier, Isla de la Luna, in The Vinoy’s historic grand ballroom.
The rooms are superb, the service is impeccable and The Vinoy stands at the heart of the city’s social and cultural activity.
A free activity near The Vinoy is walking along a beautiful waterfront park, or as the area is called, “Waterfront Walk,” replete with restaurants and cafés, eclectic shops and boutiques.
Plenty of benches to sit, relax and gaze at the huge banyan trees – whose branches produce aerial roots that later become accessory trunks.
These trees that can be viewed throughout South Florida also stand as the national tree of India.
But like any sojourn, one must do their homework in regards to planning. For St. Petersburg, it’s wise to have a docent shepherd you around an art institution, explains Faith Spitz of Boynton Beach, who spent hours planning a trip for a group from her community, Valencia Pointe, to this sought-after destination to enjoy the arts.
The author is a travel writer and lecturer, and published Klara’s Journey, A Novel, [Marion Street Press]; The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, [Globe Pequot Press]; A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition; A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, and A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America, (Pelican Publishing Company). Follow him on twitter @bengfrank.