What used to be empty walls along Pensacola’s shoreline Foods International Market & Deli has turned into a wide-open canvas for University of West Florida art students this summer.
During a brand new, seven-week mural course, eight students created visual expressions of what Pensacola means to them. The store’s exterior now features landmarks such as Pensacola’s Beach Ball water tower, the Blue Angels and Joe Patti’s Seafood Market, along with each student’s own stylized representation.
Although the class is technically complete, the students can still work on their pieces until the end of July as the inclement weather is delaying student work sessions.
The course, led by UWF graduate student and associate professor Yvonne Christine LeBrun, all started with an email from Shoreline owner Maia Vatsolakis.
Vatsolakis credited the idea to her 16-year-old daughter, Luciana, who has a passion for art. Lucianna alerted her to the lack of public spaces for artists to freely design, prompting her to email LeBrun.
“It would be really cool if we could paint the store,” Vatsolakis recalls, as her daughter told her.
LeBrun knew this idea was a class in the making.
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After recruiting a group of interested students to form the very first class, Community and Public Murals, she guided them through the history of mural painting and then helped them come up with ideas for their own space.
LeBrun brought Vatsolakis into the classroom, where she spent over two hours answering students’ questions about what she wanted the mural to represent. Vatsolakis insisted that the murals should be left to the artist.
“I told them it’s not about the store, it’s about what Pensacola means to them and what the food culture means to them,” she recalls. “We wanted to give them freedom of expression.”
Vatsolakis paid for all the students to have the materials they needed, and they got to work. Each student created their own sketch of their design before putting it on the wall, which for most students will be the largest piece they have completed to date.
For Whitney Hayek, a sophomore at UWF, her sketch alone took six hours. She would continue to spend 10-hour days on the wall, bringing the tiny road traffic sketch to life.
“I’m still a bit afraid of how the proportions will turn out,” Hayek said.
LeBrun said the students took the assignment seriously because it serves as a spotlight that could possibly secure them future commissions as independent artists.
“I think the real test will be where they go from here,” LeBrun said. “You now have all the tools and knowledge to do it. You have a mural in the real world.”
While researching the city for her article, Hayek said she noticed that Pensacola’s translation from the Muskogean tribe meant “hair people,” which became the catalyst for her article.
She imagined a 15th-century woman with long, flowing hair depicting the waves of the ocean and a round face painted with colors that reflected the beach ball on Pensacola Beach’s water tower.
The crown on the woman’s head depicts an old castle-like building on East Hill, which she considers Pensacola’s “crowning jewel.” The halo wrapped around her is shaped like the Pensacola railroad tracks.
She said her piece is nearing completion, but she’d like to incorporate even more elements of downtown culture and add more symbolic flowers.
Kaylie Shultz noted how much patience it takes to create a mural, constantly stepping back and evaluating how the piece looks from afar.
For Shultz, her mural contains a smorgasbord of Pensacola moments, such as the Pensacola Umbrella Sky Project, which she saw as a celebration of Pensacola’s art culture.
Though it’s difficult for the artists to watch curious onlookers get close to the murals before they’re finished, Shultz said the murals managed to get the college students the attention they needed.
“A lot of us are extremely talented and trained to be,” Shultz said.
Other students said the course motivated them to try bigger things, like Elizabeth “Lizzie” Williams, who always had a goal to paint graffiti bridge. Before it seemed too scary; Now after going through the wall course it seems possible.
Williams was able to showcase her illustrative style and create a larger than life pirate ship scene filled with pirates, flags and even a UFO, alluding to the urban legend of Gulf Breeze.
“I think it’s good preparation,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to showing it to my family.”
LeBrun hopes to continue the course in the coming semesters and to look for more local companies to work with. Vatsolakis said she’s not quite ready to close the chapter either.
“It was definitely a really positive thing. Yvonne wants to get on the roof next,” teased Vatsolakis. “Maybe the whole store will be covered in art.”
Those interested in seeing the murals for themselves can visit the shop at 1180 W. Main St.