Much More Than Art For Sale
On entering Gallerie 909, you’ll notice wall-to-ceiling displays of artwork in all media, African-inspired fashions and crafts vie for your attention.
While perusing the vivid aquatic life of Cora Marshall or the graceful dancers of sculptor Starlin Martin, you may be surprised by the warm embrace of owner/gallerist Carla Bristol — a greeting she gives everyone who enters her establishment.
“I opened the gallery to provide the community exposure to fine arts and for the artists themselves who struggled to gain opportunities locally,” she shared. “My hope was it would be a space where young people could hang out, where deep conversations could be had and where heritage and culture are paramount to the arts.”
Mission accomplished, you could say. In recognition of Bristol’s efforts, The Men and Women of Distinction honored her with the Award for Arts, Culture and Heritage in 2015. LocalShops1 honored her with the “Most Iconic Style” award in 2016.
“I have items priced from $1 to $2,000,” she effused, gesturing to a turnstile of fine arts postcards for sale for just one buck. They’re located right by a collection of portraits of legendary jazz musicians by Arthur Dillard.
Bristol includes in her stock smart, colorful clutches she designs for $70 each. To make the purses, Bristol searches all over for unique fabrics and many are made from several different fabrics inside and out.
“They are one of a kind — no two are alike,” she said of her bags. “I began making them in May of 2016 and now people have them in Australia in New York, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and right here at home in Tampa Bay.”
Without threatening to sound too much like an ad for a travel destination, you really can lose track of time and forget about the stresses of daily life while visiting Gallerie 909.
On our visit, friends and neighbors popped in to say hello, give one another pep talks, gossip and catch up on current events. A child scampered in and out as one woman in a group of friends affirmed that 2017 will be the year she will reclaim her joy.
“There’s something sacred about this space,” said Gwendolyn Reese, the St. Petersburg activist and civic leader who pioneered the African-American Heritage Trail in south St. Petersburg. “I love this place, and I love Carla. She infuses an energy that enriches all of our lives.”
Artists pop in regularly. “Charles Axt comes by every weekend and will call if he can’t come in to check up on me,” Bristol said with a smile. “It’s as if we have a standing appointment, Bristol said.”
Gallerie 909’s former incarnation, a husband-and-wife tailor shop was within the markers of the African-American Heritage Trail, explained in rich detail by a brochure offered at 909 and other Midtown businesses. There are also walking tours, led by Gwen Reese and Jon Wilson, that educate the public on the 22nd Street South district — a.k.a. “the Deuces” — where landmarks enjoyed their heyday during the segregation era. Reese’s efforts to recognize the historic district have helped spearhead the community’s comeback.
Taking the torch from Reese, Bristol has advocated for the arts community at large in St. Pete and, in the recent past, served on the Board of the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum. She also serves on the board at The Studio@620 and Pinellas County Historical Commission.
The Guyana-born proprietor says she’s particularly enthusiastic about the young, aspiring artists who frequent the gallery. She nurtures their talent through workshops and is always out to discover new artists.
Chris Roberts, a tattoo artist also known as Brain Storm, sold his first piece at the 909 shortly after meeting Bristol in July 2014, two months after it opened. These days, his expressive acrylic of Spike Lee as Mookie from Do The Right Thing hangs above the rear patio entrance next to his poignant snapshot of the Jim Crow era.
“His work has a strong urban connection that was relatable to a younger and diverse demographic,” Bristol says of Roberts.
She also welcomes the neighborhood teens and preteens who just come to hang out. She shows them through her various price points that collecting art is something anyone can do, it can be habit-forming and isn’t just a dalliance for the wealthy. One boy, she said, put a dollar by her register when she tried to gift one of the postcards. Another teenager carefully picked out a jazz print of Dillard’s and paid her in installments.
“It was the first piece of art he purchased — hopefully of many more to come,” Bristol said with a smile.
Gallerie 909 will present the 2nd Annual Black Arts Festival on Sat., Feb. 25, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. between Ninth and Eleventh avenues south. Festivities include a guided walking tour of the African American Heritage Trail at 10 a.m., starting from Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, and a visit from the NOMAD Art Bus. In conjunction with the event will be a screening of Dancing Like Home, directed by Joyce Guy, on Fri., Feb. 24, at 6 p.m. The Studio@620. Click on the fest’s Facebook event page for updates and detail.