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The art of the big picture

Working 14-hour days for more than a year, Tarpon Springs artist Mitch Kolbe finishes three mural projects.

By JUDY MORRIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


TARPON SPRINGS -- What would you get if you crossed the Italian Renaissance with an underwater circus?

That, or something a lot like it, was the vision that emerged when Tarpon Springs artist Mitch Kolbe took on a commission in 1999 for a large painting at a new restaurant, the Trattoria del Porto, at Universal Studios in Orlando.

But that was just the start. Before he was finished, Universal had tapped him to do a second mural project, and someone wanting him for a third at Disney's Hotel Celebration was knocking on his door. The result was three very different projects painted during one prolonged burst of creativity.

Kolbe, 46, has been painting for most of his life. Born in Charlotte, N.C., into a family of artists, he moved to New York in 1973 to study at the famous Art Student's League. In 1977, he had his first exhibition there and also made his first visit to Tarpon Springs.

In 1983, he moved to Tarpon Springs for good. Ten years later, he was commissioned by St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral to create a life-size statue of an Epiphany cross diver. The 6-foot bronze statue stands in the church courtyard and has become an attraction for Tarpon Springs.

Throughout his career, Kolbe, whose gallery is at 123 E Court St., has worked as a commercial artist, muralist, sculptor, Florida landscape artist and portrait painter. So it was not surprising that a California art broker, sent in the fall of 1997 to check out the artsy community of Tarpon Springs, found him.

The project she had in mind was for the Westin Innisbrook Resort. The resort was undergoing renovations, and the owners were thinking about using the work of local artists. Eventually they decided to use photographs rather than paintings, but the broker didn't forget Kolbe.

When the Universal project came up, she gave him a call. By early 1999 the first project was under way.

Universal had begun construction on a replica of the Italian town of Portofino, including a family-style restaurant called Trattoria del Porto, which had six massive white columns, 10 feet high and 10 feet wide. Kolbe was hired to paint these columns.

To start, Universal's art director showed Kolbe illustrations from James Christensen's sci-fi fantasy, A Journey of the Imagination. The only other guidelines included infringement. There could be no Little Mermaid or Dr. Seuss look-alikes, and he had to maintain a sense of family decorum -- in other words, no cleavage. As a result, the fairies have flowers covering their decolletage.

Kolbe began by researching all aspects of the Italian Renaissance, its history, art, fashions and hairstyles. In addition, he researched circuses, Mediterranean sea life (both plants and creatures), and the way bodies move under water.

He used the face of his dog, Gabby, for the seals, and in place of mermaids he used genies. One of his favorite characters is the "catfish": half-cat, half-fish. There are seashell carriages pulled by sea horses, underwater jousters, an octopus parade, acrobats, jugglers and clowns. One column features musicians, 16th century artists, singers and painters. And it's all underwater. Nothing is static; everything flows. The result is that diners feel like they are looking up from the bottom of the sea.

This project took almost a year to complete. But as Kolbe was putting the finishing touches on the columns, Universal executives asked him to decorate another of their new restaurants, the Delfino Riviera, a romantic dinner spot. The mural they had in mind was a landscape 147 feet long that would wrap around the whole top of the restaurant. Kolbe wrapped the top 3 feet of the restaurant walls with a landscape of northern Italy, the verdant hills and fields of Tuscany, with the sun setting in the west. Kolbe had never been to Italy, so he studied maps, travel books and photographs. Then he ordered a special seamless canvas from New York and recruited his brother and fellow artist, Scott Kolbe. The brothers built a frame where individual, 4-foot sections could be rolled out, like paper towels, worked on, and rolled back up. :

The landscape was to represent Kolbe's view of northern Italy. Kolbe painted it as if there were a narrow window all around. The landscape is viewed through that window. He created one continuous scene, with a sky that went from light to dark. He paid special attention to the color of the sky. Blue as the sky looks in places, no blue was used. A mix of black and white, placed against other background colors, created the illusion of blue. The view places the patron in a valley, looking at the hills and mountains of northern Italy.

The Delfino Riviera commission took two months. But just before it was finished, he received a call from Richard Kessler, an Orlando developer who had recently bought land and built a hotel in the Disney town of Celebration.

His Hotel Celebration, designed in a Key West, old Florida, turn-of-the-century style, was built to accommodate the tourists who passed through Celebration. He had discovered Kolbe through Coast to Coast, a book featuring one of his Florida landscapes on the cover. He asked Kolbe to do the mural for the lobby of his new hotel.

The mural for the lobby of Hotel Celebration had a specific theme: to depict the spirit of Seminole leader Osceola and include a natural Florida river scene, a boat and the face of Osceola.

Kolbe started with a simple plan and let the rest evolve. Titled The Spirit Of Osceola, the 5- by 9-foot mural is largely covered by the still, pristine Chassahowitzka River that Kolbe has canoed many times. The boat he painted in the scene is a Seminole Indian dugout canoe that looks as if Osceola just parked it there.

Also featured are native birds, trees and animals.

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