Downtown Tampa mural graces The Portico

You wouldn’t expect to see a rooster and an alligator together, let alone sharing space in a giant mural in downtown Tampa. But the images are there, marking the site of The Portico, the downtown campus of Hyde Park United Methodist Church.

Depicting the two creatures “living together in harmony,” the mural helps represent The Portico’s mission of fostering conversation and connection. “We can have different ideas about different things and have a conversation about it,” said the Rev. Justin LaRosa, pastor of The Portico.

The massive mural, called “For the Love of THIS City,” is certainly sparking conversations. Reaching three stories high and stretching across the side of the campus’s Branscomb Hall, the mural is clearly visible to motorists driving along busy Florida Avenue in downtown Tampa.

The mural’s five arches are designed to match the architecture of The Portico.

Towering over the center of the painting is a huge blue rooster, which is perched on the tails of two alligators. The tails come together to form a heart. Inscribed inside are the words “All for Love.”

“Our image displays the connectedness and power between people coming together and having respect for the natural world, as well as the history around them,” according to the artists who created the mural, Michelle Sawyer and Tony Krol.

The two artists, who work under the name Illsol, discussed the mural and its meaning following a worship service on a recent Sunday evening at The Portico campus.

The symbols in the mural, which was completed in early June, are designed to reflect Tampa’s rich history, Sawyer and Krol explained. The two alligators are a nod to Seminole Heights, one of the city’s earliest neighborhoods. A two-headed ‘gator is on the neighborhood’s official seal, and can be found on some lamp posts in the community. And a 1911 advertisement touting the development of the then-new neighborhood featured the two-headed ‘gator.

The rooster is a symbol of Ybor City, Tampa’s historic cigar-making district, which was founded in the 1880s and drew immigrants primarily from Cuba, Spain and Italy. Chickens, which are descendants of those raised by Ybor City’s immigrants, still roam free in the neighborhood, and Ybor City is now a National Landmark Historic District.

The halo surrounding the rooster’s head and star above its head come from the official seal of West Tampa, which drew many Hispanic immigrants in its early years and was an independent city from 1895 to 1925.

Rev. Justin LaRosa stands in front of the Portico mural to show us how big it is.

Portico member Diana Grandy said, “I like the fact that they put so much thought into being representative of our entire community. And it welcomes others to join our conversation.”

Other symbols on the mural include oars, an anchor, magnolia blossoms and an egret, representing various facets of Tampa, while the colors of the murals help reflect Havana, Cuba, along with Tampa’s Hispanic heritage.

The mural cost $5,000, with funds coming from The Portico’s general budget. Several artists submitted proposals to design a mural around the theme “For Love of This City,” LaRosa said, and Illsol had the winning design.

Krol said of the mural, “this is my vision of what art should be – starting a conversation.”

One of The Portico’s missions is to be a hub for artists and to foster creativity. By featuring the mural, “it’s a symbol of hope for artists around here that someone does care,” Sawyer said.

It also allows people to see “what an asset artists are for the community,” Sawyer said.

The Portico also aims to help the homeless, and during the two weeks they worked painting the mural, the artists met many homeless people who live and gather around downtown. “They were very kind,” Sawyer said. “I was shocked by the amount of gratitude they had for it (the mural).”

She recounted the reaction of one man, who sleeps in the doorway of Branscomb Hall. He told them, “thank you for making my home more beautiful.”

Sawyer, who is a Tampa native, says creating the mural “is my way of giving back. I love this city and want better things for it.”

The focus on the homeless and on art came out of a brainstorming session held last spring, LaRosa said. The Portico wants to help empower the homeless and support art, which gives a voice to “important social issues.”

For years, Hyde Park’s main campus has fed the homeless on Sunday mornings and has provided other support and services through the Open Arms Ministry.

LaRosa said the mural fits in perfectly with The Portico’s mission of being “a place to enhance the spiritual, social and artistic fabric of Tampa.”  It works to encourage that through conversation, connection and community change.

The mural is the second major art installation on The Portico campus. On Ash Wednesday, the “Homeless Jesus” statue was unveiled. The life-size bronze sculpture depicts Jesus sleeping on a park bench.

The statue is a replica of the original by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz. It portrays Jesus sleeping under a blanket. His bare feet are uncovered, showing the nail marks in his feet.

The Portico is now planning for a third major art installation – a memorial to the homeless that would bear the names of people who have died on the street in the past year, LaRosa said. More names would be added annually.

“Art is a really important component of what we’re doing here,” LaRosa said.

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