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Artistically evolving

The designer of Florida's arts license plate also does finger-painting and dog portraits.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 10, 2002

TAMPA -- The walls of Stephen Kline's east Tampa studio trace the evolution of his life as an artist.

Earlier paintings, such as The Survivor, reflect his midwestern farming roots, with stark landscapes and solemn figures.

Later works, such as The Madam DuBois, show what he can do with his fingers, instead of a brush.

And it doesn't stop there. Add a license plate design and a collection of dog lithographs and you get the broader picture of an artist who has thrived on skill, talent and an eagerness to experiment.

"I go through different phases," says the youthful 58-year-old, who wears an earring in his left ear and plays the drums. "I like to try new things. One thing leads to another."

Kline began his career more than 40 years ago while living in Iowa. He went to art school, worked on a newspaper and a magazine and shot fashion photos. His artwork appeared in exhibits in Florida, New York, New Jersey and abroad.

"It's almost like a calling. It's something I have to do. I just see things differently, and I have to put them down on canvas," he says.

Over the years, he has produced about 250 works of art and 65 dog drawings. He sells most through word of mouth and his Web site: In 1994, he earned a spot in a prestigious juried show at Florida State University. His entry: an acrylic painting of his name drawn in repetition, a style that would become a common theme in later work.

Kline has lived in Florida since 1991. He opened a studio in an industrial park outside Tampa and bought a house in Ellenton with his wife, Kris.

The couple eventually got tired of commuting. Last year, they moved to a Hyde Park townhouse within walking distance of the village shops and restaurants.

Although new to South Tampa, Kline has been active in local art circles for years. He was a member of the former Florida Center for Contemporary Arts, an artist networking group that had a gallery in Ybor City.

Friends and fellow artists say his work screams originality, with its striking figures and bold colors.

"What he's doing is so different. I don't know anyone who is like him," said Odessa artist La Veda Longfellow Myers, who has known Kline for about a decade. "I think he's so overlooked."

Kline found unexpected fame in license plates. He designed the state's specialty tag for the arts in 1995, which generates money for the buyer's local arts council. It has green, pink and blue horizontal stripes, symbols of Florida's sunsets and surf. Some say the middle pink swath looks like a pair of sunglasses.

"I wanted a piece of art that everyone would want," he says.

Sales of the plate have netted more than $4-million for art programs across the state. As of September the plate brought in $251,000 for Hillsborough County, said local Arts Council director Art Keeble. It ranks in the top 10 of Florida's 48 specialty tags, behind Save the Manatee and Challenger plates, among others.

Kline says he spent a lot of time perfecting a simple, yet meaningful, design. He considered the plate a mini-canvas and was thrilled when the state selected his pattern from a large field.

Although Kline received no money for his efforts, he gets the satisfaction of knowing he is helping the arts community one plate at a time. His 1999 Mercury Cougar dons the tag, CREATOR.

"I get to drive down the street and say, 'Look at that!' " he said.

In the mid-1990s, Kline also began "finger-painting," which yields unique colors and figures far more complex than the children's art form.

"I've experimented all of my life, but this is one thing I'm really happy about," he says. "It's fun not to know 100 percent of what it's going to be when it dries."

Kline's latest fascination involves dogs. He draws different dogs using the name of the breed written over and over again. The Weimaraner was his first. Each takes about a month to research and draw. They cost $75 for a poster and $300 for a numbered lithograph.

Kline has about 30 to 40 breeds to go, but already is thinking about the next step in his evolution. He suspects it will be cats.

-- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or


  • OCCUPATION: Artist
  • AGE: 58
  • HOME: Hyde Park
  • BRUSH WITH FAME: Designed Florida's "State of the Arts" license plate.
  • ARTISTIC PHILOSOPHY: Experiment until you find something you like.
  • MUSES: Andrew Wyeth, Ben Shahn, Salvador Dali.
  • SECOND CAREER: Drummer in a band. "It was a little too physical and a little too late."
  • PETS: Himalayan Peking Robin named Art and two cats, Max and Missy.
  • FAVORITE CAUSE: Humane Society.
  • WALKING SPOTS: Bayshore Boulevard and Hyde Park.
  • BIG NIGHTS OUT: Dinner at the Wine Exchange, Mia's or the Samba Room and a movie at Old Hyde Park Village.

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