Two shows showcase sweet salvation 

Discarded steel becomes sculpture at Blue Acier; beach trash ends up on a mural at HCC Ybor.

Last month, Esther Schneider was on her way home from high school when she spotted workers on the Columbus Drive Bridge removing sheets of perforated steel from the 87-year-old structure. Most teenagers wouldn’t look twice, but Esther’s dad, sculptor Dominique Labauvie, transforms steel into graceful sculptures inside his Tampa Heights studio; she knew he would want some of the discarded metal.

Workers gave Esther part of a steel sheet that afternoon. The next day, Labauvie rode his bicycle down to the bridge to see about getting more. Since February, workers have been restoring the 1925 swing bridge by repairing and replacing its gears, electrical components and steel supports. Chatting with the crew, Labauvie offered to re-use the original steel and left his phone number behind.

Within an hour, the project’s superintendent called him back.

“He said, ‘Come. I am ready to give you everything you need,’” Labauvie recalls.

Within a few weeks, the sculptor had taken the discarded steel — stamped with the name of its manufacturer, Carnegie Steel Company — and made two large-scale sculptures: the seven-foot-tall “Galileo’s Moons” and the nearly 10-foot-tall “Venus Walks.” Using a new steel cutter purchased with an individual artist grant from the state of Florida, Labauvie divided the sheets into narrow strips that resemble thick lines drawn with pencil or charcoal. Each sculpture is composed of several “lines” positioned around a vertical spine and L-shaped legs that balance delicately on steel balls. The holes in the perforated steel (left over from their original state) evoke planets in orbit.

On Thursday, Labauvie and his wife, printmaker Erika Schneider, host an open house for the sculptures at Bleu Acier, the studio they share on Columbus Drive. The informal event, dubbed “A Gift from the River,” is a way of giving back by showcasing what Labauvie has created with the remains of the nearby bridge. Other Bleu Acier creations will be on display, including a collaboration between the couple: a book of woodcut-and-photogravure prints inspired by a recent vacation to California. The book overlays Labauvie’s drawings, as woodcuts, onto images of granite cliffs and grass fields, printed as photogravures beneath the woodcuts; the unusual combination of techniques will delight print geeks especially.

“Gift” marks the first time a local audience has had a chance to see new work by Labauvie since his 2010-2011 solo exhibition at the Tampa Museum of Art. Somewhere Andrew Carnegie, founder of Carnegie Steel and legendary philanthropist, just might be smiling at what his steel has wrought.

Artists at Community Stepping Stones, the teen art education program in Sulphur Springs, are also busy turning trash into treasure. The program’s most recent graduates, about a dozen students between the ages of 12 and 17, unveiled their capstone project last week at HCC Ybor: a mosaic-style mural made from garbage found on local beaches and along the Hillsborough River.

The year-long CSS curriculum uses art-making projects to teach neighborhood teens employability skills from critical thinking and problem solving to planning and work ethic. After graduation, students are eligible for part-time jobs in some of the non-profit’s other, income-generating endeavors: adult art classes in everything from photography to jewelry design (also held at CSS’s Sulphur Springs campus) and public art commissions like city murals, both of which help fund the teen program along with donations and grants.

Each year, the teen curriculum has a theme. The past year’s was estuaries, a topic dear to the heart of CSS executive director Sigrid Tidmore, who is well known in Tampa Bay as a watercolor painter of coastal wildlife. During the program, students learned about different types of estuaries — places where river, gulf and bay water combine in various proportions — through visits to local beaches and in the backyard of the non-profit’s headquarters on the Hillsborough. Along the way, the teens collected trash, cleaned and pieced it together on a canvas approximately 8 feet tall by 12 feet wide.

The finished painting proclaims “One Waterway, One Tampa Bay” in large block letters and includes objects from cigarette lighters to a hypodermic needle within an image of the sun setting over Tampa Bay. To view the mural, visitors must walk through an installation of more than 1,500 empty plastic water bottles suspended on fishing line from the gallery ceiling. That’s how many plastic bottles are thrown away in the U.S. every second; many of them wind up in waterways, creating toxic environments where animals swim in and don’t swim out, Tidmore says.

“Young people around the country are starting to pay attention to this,” she says. “It’s not our leaders caring about this, but it’s young people. When they find out, they’re realizing that they’re going to live with it.”

On Thurs., June 28, Tidmore speaks about the project and local environmental issues during a closing reception for the exhibit.


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