By KERRY KRISEMAN
Public Relations Manager
St. Petersburg playwright Sheila Cowley has been creating collaborative multi-arts works since 2016. You could say she’s the spark behind and the force of support within Sparks Collaborative Ensemble, a working group of artists from many disciplines who create collaborative performance pieces.
“My words are a starting point, then a team of actors, dancers, visual artists, musicians – and once, even an electron microscope specialist – work together to create beautiful performances where everyone’s voice helps shape something that none of us could make alone,” said Cowley.
Art making can be cathartic in an often-lonely world. When Creative Clay closed in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Cowley reached out with an idea. Creative Clay artists and staffers could share their favorite word – and draw it. Then Cowley wrote a script using all those words, and the Sparks team crafted a short movie, Wordy, illustrated by Creative Clay.
Thus began a relationship that blossomed into a partnership between creatives. The most important facet of this collaboration is that Sparks welcomes Creative Clay artists as professionals and equal partners, which is sometimes lacking in a world where people with disabilities can be viewed as “other.”
Creative Clay artists created illustrations by listening to Cowley’s play for children, inspired by Member Artist Chris C.’s word from the Wordy project. Splish Splash can be watched on Creative Clay’s YouTube channel and features audio performances by actors Jan Neuberger and David Warner from the original cast, complimented by Creative Clay Member Artists’ illustrations.
“The visual artwork of Creative Clay inspires me, and I’m grateful that my words inspire images, sound, ideas and movement by the Member Artists,” said Cowley. “Every time we work together it’s a joyous process full of wonderful discoveries and surprises.”
Cowley continues to enlist Creative Clay artists, who explore to new work engage in diverse types of art, like dance.
“Sparks works with Creative Clay’s artists because they are wonderful visual artists and wonderful performing artists.” Cowley said. “I absolutely value their collaboration and ideas on Sparks performance projects.”
Cowley didn’t know she had the idea for her current project with Creative Clay until Sparks worked with Kendrick Wilson, a musician with Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association and one of the few professional tuba players in the Tampa Bay area.
In 2021, the Sparks Ensemble was commissioned to create a performance to celebrate a new piece of public art in Roser Park in St. Petersburg. They’d been rehearsing without music, but when Wilson and trumpet player Dwayne White arrived and started playing, everything came together.
Cowley remarked to Wilson, “Boy, when the tuba shows up, it’s a party!”
An idea for a children’s book was born. Cowley knew exactly who would illustrate it. Working in partnership with professional artist mentors, Creative Clay’s artists have
been creating paintings for Cowley’s book, When the Tuba Shows Up, It’s a Party. Creative Clay will submit the paintings to the Sparks team, who will select
12 of the paintings to be published in When the Tuba Shows Up, It’s a Party. Those original 12 paintings, as well as those not selected for the book, will be exhibited and available for purchase at Spring for the Arts, Creative Clay’s April 21 fundraiser at NOVA 535 in St. Petersburg. The Sparks team also will create a YouTube video that incorporates all paintings, with a link to purchase the book.
The partnership between Sparks Collaborative Ensemble and Creative Clay is evidence that when people work together, ideas are born, relationships are formed, and beautiful art is created. Cowley believes that art should be inclusive. She also believes that it’s life-changing, even inspiring.
“It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the busy everyday things that I have to do, but when you can stop and focus on experiencing art and making art, truly absorbing a painting, book, song, film, poem, performance, or creating one, that sparks your mind and soul with ideas like nothing else can,” Cowley said.
For updates on Creative Clay and its April 21 fundraiser, Spring for the Arts, visit www.creativeclay.org. Follow Creative Clay on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram @creativeclaystpete, Twitter at @creativeclay, and LinkedIn.