Ya La’ford brings sunshine to St. Pete

BY Frank Drouzas, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – The walls of downtown St. Pete are getting a makeover.

With the SHINE Mural Festival in its inaugural year, multiple artists are contributing their stylistic strokes and fanciful flourishes to the exterior walls in the Central Avenue corridor. The public art project, which started Sept. 1 and will run until Sept. 12, aims to revitalize the area through the power of vibrant and illuminating art.

One of the participating artists, Ya La’ford, has added her own personal touch to the tunnel next to Ferg’s Sports Bar, which travels under First Avenue and empties out at the parking lot at Tropicana Field.

Since we’re in the sunshine state, she pointed out, La’ford decided to create a metaphor of the sun rising, with a series of various “symbolisms” and geometric patterns. When the LED lights illuminate the artwork, the interconnecting geometric designs come alive. She’s christening the new-look tunnel the “Sunnel.”

“Where you find that a tunnel is a dark place, this becomes a place of hope,” she said. “There’s light, there’s hope!”

The artist said she aims to change the notion of what art-making means by pulling it off the canvas and making it something that people walk through. So it becomes “something transformative, so as opposed to becoming a piece on the wall, it becomes something that you actually can immerse into.”

“It’s activated by you, my viewer,” La’ford said. “You become then the heartbeat, the pulse of my artwork.”

La’ ford hopes it will not be merely a stretch of art but a “conversation space” where people will actually spend time taking it in. She loves that with the mural she can reach those who are out and about and not necessarily seeking to absorb a piece of art.

“I started to exhibit some of my artwork at jails, homeless shelters and I could see the power of what art could do to a space,” La’ford explained. “So I decided that it needed to be bigger and better and hit people that would not typically be hit. Right now I’m able to serve a clientele who are going to a Rays baseball game or people who are exercising.”

With a team of four others, La’ford speculated that about 190 hours have gone into the work to transform the tunnel. She designed it on paper about 20 times, she said, then went out to the tunnel to “sit with the space,” which is her process.

“I always work with geometric shapes,” La’ford said, “which is referencing this notion that we’re all interconnected. I look at civilization—where we’ve come from to where we are today—and try to remind people that we need to get back to this space where we’re actually thinking about how we’re more alike. I like to play with your mind space, shift what’s going on and alter your perception.”

La’ ford, who has a background in law, said an analytical aspect appears in her artwork. She cited Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford, known for his urban landscapes, as an influence as well as Julie Mehretu, known for her “Landscape Allegories.” She described the various sunrays in her work that are shining down and shooting up as representing the “yin and the yang.”

“It becomes something magical and mystical in here,” La’ford mused.

Explaining that the project has truly been a community affair, she is thankful to everyone who helped make it possible, including Tes One, the curator of SHINE; St. Petersburg Art Alliance; Ferg’s; the Deuces and Mayor Rick Kriseman, among others.

“I feel just so blessed to be able to communicate not only what’s inside of me and in my heart, but I feel like I’m unlocking all sorts of codes, too,” La’ford said, noting that slaves during the days of the Underground Railroad would try to find routes to freedom, and hang up quilts as a sort of code. “A lot of my work started there, because I quilt, too. So these codes and patterns, it’s just like I’m trying to create overall what is a universal language.”

La’ford is the only African-American artist in the festival, and aims to show people that an artist can come in any shape, form or fashion.

For more information on the festival, go to stpetemuraltour.com.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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