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Friday, Jul 21, 2017

Police station murals depict East Tampa's past

EAST TAMPA - Now the jazz begins. Artist James Vann is halfway through a six-panel set of murals intended to depict life in East Tampa. "My joy will be on the next one because I love music," Vann said. The fourth panel on the side of a neighborhood police outpost will recall East Tampa's historical ties to music greats such as Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald. But members of a volunteer committee who oversaw the mural project did not put restrictions on Vann's creativity.
"Telling me this is like telling me go with the jazz," he said. His neo-cubist style roams freely across broad concrete canvases defining sharp angles, off-kilter shapes and sizes, all with the visual pop of red, blue, green and yellow. The completed panels honor Tampa's first black police officers, East Tampa's strong families through four generations and those families' faith-led lives. The last three panels will be on music, sports and business. The glory of the Belmont Heights Little League will figure prominently on the sports-themed panel. The league produced professional baseball players such as Dwight Gooden, Vance Lovelace and Gary Sheffield. For the music-themed panel the impression emerges of smoky nightclubs and musicians in zoot suits, wailing on saxophone and clarinet, with a sultry female singer, perhaps Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughn, singing the blues. Jazz and art are Vann's passions. As a teenager the Brooklyn native sneaked into jazz clubs such as Birdland and Basin Street East to hear Vaughn, Dizzy Gillespie and Spike Mulligan. He learned to play the trumpet at music school, and majored in cartoon and illustration at New York's High School of Art and Design. Even in a long career with the New York Department of Corrections, art triumphed. He went from corrections officer to teaching art to inmates at Rikers Island and city jails. Now retired, Vann and his wife, Jeannette, live in Valrico. Vann's work has been featured in exhibits at Hillsborough Community College, the Atlanta Convention Center and the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York. Locally he has painted murals for the Lee Davis Neighborhood Center and area churches. He is taking a break from teaching art at the Life Enrichment Center while he paints the East Tampa murals. He sketches each panel beforehand. In one completed panel there is a family tableau as a great-grandfather cradles the family's newborn child. In another, people in Sunday finery line up outside a church, a baptismal river flowing behind them. There seem to be more people than can fit inside the church. "Are they leaving or going?" Vann asked. And can they all fit inside a church that isn't drawn to scale? With cubism, there are no rules. "I make the rules," Vann said. "Each wall I can feel personally," Vann said. "A lot of it is me. I'm a family man. My father was a Baptist minister." The murals are expected to be completed by March 16 when a ceremony is scheduled to mark the completion of a new $1.8 million streetscape on 22nd between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and East Lake Avenue. It is the first of three segments on 22nd to be redesigned. The next two segments will re-pave and landscape 22nd from East Lake Avenue to 23rd Avenue and include a roundabout. Total project costs are estimated at about $11 million. "I am just delighted," said Denese Meteye-James, chairwoman of the East Tampa Community Revitalization Partnership's aesthetics and beautification committee. There is a feel of newness to East Tampa with the 22nd street improvements and the art is a plus, she said. "People will be able to walk down 22nd with a sense of pride," she said. Vann's murals are the second public art to grace the outside campus of Tampa's District III police headquarters on 22nd Street. Artist Charles Humes Jr. nearly four years ago created a tile mosaic of East Tampa's history on another seven panels grouped in a semi-circle, facing 31st Avenue. Residents occasionally stop by to ask Vann what he is doing. On a recent morning a motorist slowed to a crawl on 31st Avenue, rubber-necking to get a look at the panels. Belmont Heights resident Patrice Hopkins pushed a stroller across the street. She said she is grateful to have a police station so close to her home. The art is an eye-catcher. "He's doing a good job," Hopkins said. Even her 9-month-old son Joshua Johnson has taken note. "Just when I pass by here he's looking at the artwork," she said. ksteele@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7652
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