Surreal St. Pete: Tripping on Dali, Chihuly and getting ZaZoo’d

St. Petersburg Florida has transformed from a retirement haven to thriving center for the arts.

The Dali Dome in St. Petersburg, Florida, is home for the Dali Alive 360 Degrees multi-media show about the life and art of Salvador Dali. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)
The Dali Dome in St. Petersburg, Florida, is home for the Dali Alive 360 Degrees multi-media show about the life and art of Salvador Dali. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)

By Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com

When I first visited St. Petersburg, Florida, in the late ’70s the general feeling was sad and hopeless.

Twenty-first century St. Pete is a very different place. On a trip to see the world-renowned Dali Museum we discovered there is much more to a thriving arts scene that has breathed vitality into what was a sleepy retirement outpost on Florida’s gulf coast.

A two-day visit only scratched the surface, but it was enlightening to see the transformation of St. Pete into a younger, culturally hip hub of arts and creative expression.

We found the Chihuly Collection — a stunning, permanent exhibit of Dale Chihuly’s unique blown-glass artistry — as compelling as the Dali Museum. We saw a sampling of local talent on display at the Morean Arts Center and in galleries and boutiques of the Grand Central District, which is known for elaborate and colorful wall murals scattered through that part of the city.

In the process we learned what it means to be ZaZoo’d.

It was enough to vow a return trip to experience more of what today’s St. Pete has to offer — a number of first-rate museums are only part of the attraction.

What we found most appealing was the overall vibe of renewal evident in the city. An example was the Avalon Hotel where we stayed, a former extended stay accommodation renovated into a retro-chic art deco property that would fit in Miami’s South Beach.

‘Dali Alive 360 Degrees’ latest feature of Dali Museum

If you are a first-time visitor to St. Pete, the Dali Museum, arguably the fulcrum in the city’s renaissance over the past 40 years and certainly for its global arts reputation, is the place to start.

If you’ve seen it before there is good reason to return for the “Dali Alive 360 Degrees” experience which opened in 2023.

The Dali Museum features the largest collection of Salvador Dali’s works outside of the celebrated surreal artist’s native Spain. It is the eye-catching centerpiece of the city’s waterfront housed in a geodesic glass bubble that opened in 2011 and is known as The Enigma.

An appropriate nickname for what is displayed inside.

I’d seen Dali paintings here and there. View an entire museum of Dali — there are more than 2,400 of his works on display — and the conclusion becomes undeniable: This was one twisted dude.

Paintings like “Atmospheric Skull Sodomizing a Grand Piano” and “Daddy Longlegs of the Evening-Hope!” are just two examples leading to that assessment.

Explanations accompanying the various pieces are helpful, notably in understanding the sculpture “Venus de Milo with Drawers (and PomPoms),” which features six drawers cut into a replica of the famous statue of Aphrodite that are said to be a metaphor for the way Freudian psychoanalysis opens hidden areas of the unconscious. Obviously!

The museum’s docent-led tours are enlightening for deciphering Dali’s most complex paintings, such as the elaborate “Hallucinogenic Toreador.”

Dali turns angst into art

Of particular interest was the sculpture “Retrospective Bust of a Women,” in which Dali adorned a hairdresser’s dummy with everyday objects including a French baguette, corn, a zoetrope choker, feather cap, an inkwell and numerous ants.

"Retrospective Bust of a Women" at the Dali Museum in St. Pete is one of Salvador Dali's first surreal objects. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)
“Retrospective Bust of a Women” at the Dali Museum in St. Pete is one of Salvador Dali’s first surreal objects. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)

 

Dali's "Retrospective Bust of a Woman" contains the artist's core themes of death, decay, sexuality and consumption. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)
Dali’s “Retrospective Bust of a Woman” contains the artist’s core themes of death, decay, sexuality and consumption. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)

There is a free Dali Museum app that can be downloaded to aid in understanding the artist and his surrealistic bent. Our group took delight in collaborating on our own interpretations of Dali’s enigmatic creations, the wilder the better.

However you chose to confront Dali, appreciation of the bizarre resides in the eye of the beholder.

Dali is hardly the lone famous artist with hang-ups on top of complex issues — we learned that in his case much of it stemmed from guilt about the death of a brother before Salvador was even born.

He wasn’t one to keep his inner turmoil bottled up. He expressed his emotional trauma in a most unique and creative fashion that was sometimes frightening but undeniably brilliant and thought-provoking.

Tail of the Lizard, a novel by Craig Davis, available at Amazon.com

Dali’s world comes to life in Dali Dome

The spectacle of Dali, who lived from 1904-1989, isn’t just evocative paintings on the wall; he was a larger-than-life piece of work as unusual as his creations. He unabashedly celebrated his eccentricities.

That is amplified when his famous visage framed by the prominent waxed mustache curling up like a bull’s horns is projected inside the new Dali Dome.

The Dali Alive 360 Degrees multi-media show not only elevates Dali’s irrepressible personality but offers a view on the world and his work as if through his eyes.

Dali's surrealist world comes to life in the Dali Dome at the Dali Museum in St. Pete, Florida. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)
Dali’s surrealist viewpoint comes to life in the Dali Dome at the Dali Museum in St. Pete, Florida. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)

What a strange and fascinating world it is. Don’t be alarmed if you glance at the floor and see a procession of ants approaching your feet.

Ants are a recurring element utilized by Dali. According to one exhibit, they symbolize death, decay and decadence. How lovely.

Dali’s world is often creepy and weird, but 35 years after his death interest in it is more alive than ever. The museum has played a major role in breathing new life into St. Pete.

Check here for Dali Museum and Dali Alive 360 ticket information and hours.

Dale Chihuly's elaborate Mille Fiori was inspired by his mother's garden. (Fran Davis, craigslegztravels.com)
Dale Chihuly’s elaborate Mille Fiori was inspired by his mother’s garden. (Fran Davis, craigslegztravels.com)

St. Pete features Dale Chihuly’s wonderful world of glass

In the heart of St. Pete’s Central Arts District, the Chihuly Collection is a delightful detour from reality into Dale Chihuly’s colorful garden of glass. The 10,000-square-foot exhibition space was designed specifically as a permanent display of some of Chihuly’s iconic blown-glass art.

Dale Chihuly's Ruby Red Icicle Chandelier is 8 1/2 feet tall and composed of more than 1,000 pieces of blown glass. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)
Dale Chihuly’s Ruby Red Icicle Chandelier is 8 1/2 feet tall and composed of more than 1,000 pieces of blown glass. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)

As disparate as their artistic mindset and medium, I couldn’t help but see a common thread between Chihuly and Dali.

Surrealism as an artistic movement may be long past, but the magnificent glass creations on display seem the very embodiment of surreal in the sense of being dreamlike, fantastic and unbelievable.

Whereas Dali imparted visions of melting clocks to canvas in oil, Chihuly melts gobs of sand at 1,700 degrees and transforms it into mind-boggling glass shapes that spring from his imagination.

While many of Dali’s works evoke a reaction of WTF, Chihuly’s are met with a sense of wonder.

As in, how did he create the 8 1/2-foot Ruby Red Icicle Chandelier out of more than 1,000 free form pieces of glass?

Or the elaborate “Mille Fiori” — Italian for a thousand flowers — which fills an entire room and is said to be influenced by his mother’s garden? It struck me more as an undersea realm, such as the Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden” cast in glass.

Chihuly Collection overwhelms with light and color

Chihuly, in a Q&A on chihuly.com, cited influences for his work by the assorted artistic visions of Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Van Gogh and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Where Chihuly stands alone is in his methods for creating complex works of glass art on a grand scale. And in his use of color that wows the senses.

According to Chihuly: “I want people to be overwhelmed with light and color in some way that they’ve never experienced.”

The exhibit includes a 20-minute video that features Chihuly discussing his work and showing how it is done. Since an accident that cost him the sight in one eye, he has functioned as director of a team of glass artists who bring his visions to form.

The Chihuly Collection is part of the Morean Arts Center. A ticket to the center includes admission to view demonstrations in the Morean Glass Studio across the street.

Check here for Chihuly Collection ticket information and hours.

ZaZoo’d an artful state of mind and style in St. Pete

The Chihuly Collection is at 720 Central Avenue in the heart of the Grand Central District. While browsing storefront galleries and boutiques in that area we came across ZaZoo’d, a home décor and gift shop with an unusual inventory and an off-color sense of humor.

Visit Fran Davis's Etsy store for an assortment of handcrafted jewelry.
Visit Fran Davis’s Etsy store for an assortment of handcrafted jewelry.

Some of the merchandise reminded me of elements of the Avalon Hotel where we were staying. No coincidence. David Fischer, owner of ZaZoo’d, is a designer of note in the Tampa Bay area and he orchestrated the makeover of the Avalon.

There is a lot of ZaZoo’d in the Avalon, such as the antique steamer trunks used as chest of drawers in the rooms. The neon-lit lobby is a gem, fashioned around a reproduction of a vintage Richard Avedon photo of supermodel Jean Shrimpton posing as an astronaut.”

As for the Zazoo’d spirit, Fischer has been quoted as saying the name pays homage to “the love of wine and the euphoric feeling one gets when drinking it.”

Fitting then that guests at the Avalon Hotel are served complimentary wine and champagne at the front desk every afternoon during happy hour.

The Avalon Hotel in downtown St. Petersburg was an outdated property that got a retro-chic makeover. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)
The Avalon Hotel in downtown St. Petersburg was an outdated property that got a retro-chic makeover. (Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com)

Shuffleboard finds fresh audience in St. Pete

While the face of St. Pete is changing with old buildings being turned into chic hotels and restaurants and new high-rise residences springing up, some remnants of bygone St. Pete remain.

The St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club celebrated its 100th birthday in January 2024, but that is no longer indicative of the age level of its members.

A group of young artists resurrected the iconic facility in the early 2000s and sparked interest in a new generation, turning a pastime that symbolized old and decrepit into young and hip. They’ve had Galactic Shuffleboard nights with the lines illuminated by glow-in-the-dark paint and a DJ laying down a beat that belies the pace of the pedestrian game.

New St. Pete Pier a mind-bending experience

So if you haven’t been to St. Pete lately, you’ll be surprised by the scope of the changes and the array of options for visitors. In addition to world-class museums scattered around the city, Beach Drive along the waterfront is the hub of a thriving foodie scene with numerous restaurants, many of them upscale.

The recommendation here is an early dinner and sunset on the recently rebuilt St. Pete Pier at the more casual Doc Ford’s Run Bar & Grille — shrimp tacos enlivened by the spicy Yucatan sauce is reason enough.

After dark, check out the mesmerizing Bending Arc aerial sculpture, the most distinguished feature of the reimagined St. Pete Pier, expanded into a 26-acre entertainment complex including several restaurants, stores, kid’s splash area, beach spa and public art.

Bending Arc, created by Tampa Bay native Janet Echelman, is the very unusual public art attraction, a billowy soft sculpture made of 180 miles of high-tech twine connected by 1,662,528 knots — seriously, you’ll have to take the word of the artist, I’m not going to count them.

Essentially it’s a giant fishing net that stretches more than 400 feet and hovers 70 feet above a grassy park area that has become a public gathering place. At night it shimmies with enchanting colors like an artificial Northern lights.

Yet another surreal aspect of revitalized St. Pete.

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About craigslegz 112 Articles
Travel is about discovery, and I learn most about a place when I explore it on foot. Craigslegz Travels is about favorite places and people, and advice to aid fellow travelers. My emphasis is on venturing off well-worn paths. - Craig Davis

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