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Annual gala finds a home within old church

The Gala Corina, in its fourth year, will open in a 92-year-old building that is being converted into 32 urban loft apartments.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 8, 2002

TAMPA HEIGHTS -- Tonight, Tampa Bay's artistic underground rises in a gutted church.

The fourth annual Gala Corina, a multimedia event featuring dozens of artists, takes place in what used to be Tampa Heights Methodist Church on Ross Avenue.

The 92-year-old building is being converted into 32 urban loft apartments. But for the next week, its naked trusses will hover above the works of artists both well-known and completely new.

Visitors will find photos of mountain streams and cactus-strewn deserts hanging just around the corner from a steel-and-fiberglass sculpture with a spider-ish body and scorpion-like tail.

If that wasn't jarring enough, consider the backdrop: stained glass, thick with religious imagery, and the towering metal pipes of a church organ.

The building "adds this character of a no-nonsense space," said Mike Calvino, a Tampa architect and co-founder of Gala Corina.

Historic buildings have "a raw feeling to them," he continued. Just like the art that will be on display: "This is uncut work, right out of the artist's head," he said.

Gala Corina began four years ago.

The first event, at the Corina Cigar Factory in Palmetto Beach, drew 22 artists and 500 supporters. Organizers liked it so much, they decided there should be a Gala Corina every year.

Last year's event attracted 70 artists and 3,000 visitors.

The underground is expanding.

"It's a happening. It's an experience," said another co-founder, Heather McCleaf. "It's an evening full of art, culture, good company."

And beer.

This year's suds will be provided by Dunedin Brewery. Wine will also be available.

For every gala, location is key.

"We want to create the entire experience," Calvino said.

In 2000, artists displayed their works in what used to be a shoe factory in Ybor City. Last year, they chose the Bustillo y Diaz Cigar Factory in West Tampa.

This year, organizers got an invitation from the owners of the church -- architects John Tennison and Vivian Salaga Tennison and developer Russ Versaggi. All three had attended previous galas.

They hope to begin renting lofts by February or March.

In the meantime, what better way to showcase a neighborhood on the rise?

The renovated church, which the owners call the Sanctuary, is one of several redevelopment projects under way in Tampa Heights.

"I want to bring people in," Versaggi said.

Organizers consider Gala Corina "underground" because it has been a grass-roots undertaking, led by a core group of six artists.

Their goal: to give people an experience they won't find in galleries and to synergize the creativity of different kinds of artists.

On one wall, visitors will find living-room-sized portraits of John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe. On another, they'll encounter a surreal cross between the St. Pauli girl and Courtney Love, a busty woman with big eyes and pink hair swirling across a 4-foot by 7-foot canvas.

Paintings are just the start. The gala features prints, photos, dance and poetry. A jazz ensemble is on tap. So is a 12-person "musical review."

And it's not just for established artists.

"Every year we've had artists who've never shown before," McCleaf said. "It gets their feet wet. It shows them, 'Hey, my stuff does match up.' "

This year, Juan Ricardes will be among them.

An Argentinian native, Ricardes moved to Tampa six years ago. He's an architect by trade and incorporates architectural themes into paintings and photographs.

"You need new blood," Ricardes said earlier this week, as he prepared to hang his work.

"You need inspiration."

-- Staff writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or

If you go

Gala Corina opens tonight with a reception from 5 to 11 p.m. at the Sanctuary, 502 E Ross Ave., just north of downtown Tampa. The show is open from 6 to 9 p.m. through Nov. 15, followed by a closing party Nov. 16 from 9 to 11 p.m. Suggested donation, $1. For more information, go to

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