Across the back of The Morean Arts Center at 719 Central Avenue are several murals, in the alley between Central and 1st Avenue North.
Sarah Sheppard’s “Life Reimagined,” is a quiet contemplative piece in the style of an old-fashioned storybook illustration. It’s on the east end of the alley, where the alley opens onto 7th Street North.
The mural is painted in rich deep blues and greens and golds, 41 feet wide and 20 feet high. On the left half is the trunk of a banyan tree, with a cascade of pearly-grey roots, and branches that grow out horizontally but send thick shoots down, dripping from the tree.
A beautiful woman grows out of the banyan tree, surrounded by roots, reaching toward a bright red phoenix, a startling bird on her left.
On the right half of the mural, giant golden gears mesh and move toward the tree. A gold and brown gear dominates, like a swollen setting sun, balancing a gear in the upper right corner, with a sunflower emblazoned on it. Smaller gears cluster at the bottom of the mural, sinking into deep blue-green earth.
The sunflower gear at the top is so big that its upper half is cut off by the roof. Even though it’s painted to appear like metal, the petals of the sunflower are soft and wavy, curling like the petals of a real flower.
Each petal has a slightly different shape – some like a wide pointed tongue, others more narrow, and curving and kicking. The flower is textured, in darker and lighter shades of gold. The oversized round center of the flower rises up, almost three-dimensional.
The body of the woman is painted very simply, pearly grey just like the banyan’s roots. Her long grey hair and curvaceous body blend into the roots. Her face is detailed, tilted to the left and looking at the bird. Her expression is serious, courageous, as she reaches for the bird with her right hand. Her left hand rests on the face of a clock, brown, the letters in gold Roman numerals, connecting with the gears that spill across the right-hand side of the mural.
The hands of the clock read nine minutes past twelve.
The phoenix that the woman reaches out for is the one bright spot of color amid rich blues and golds. The bird is flaming scarlet red, his feathers tipped with gold and orange. His head is crowned with four curving gold feathers that arc back above his scarlet skull.
His three tailfeathers are long and dangling, longer than his body. The tip of each red tailfeather is shaped like a wide, pointed, leaf with a golden eye, a red center and a dot of black.
The phoenix reaches one foot, with sharp talons, toward the woman’s outstretched hand. His beak is curved and sharp, like a hawk. But his gesture is welcoming.
In the background, behind the woman, and behind the tree, a soft moss-green shoreline with hills stretches to the horizon. Deep blue water spreads around the rolling coast, under a pale grey sky with thin pastel yellow clouds.
This mural was commissioned by the AARP. The Association for the Advancement of Retired People aims to reimagine aging as a new beginning, a time to let go of the stress of 9 to 5 and explore your passions.
For artist Sarah Sheppard, the gears represent the grind of daily life, the lapse of time and the mechanics of the working world.
The Banyan tree flourishes in St. Petersburg. Several enormous Banyans grow near the waterfront, beside the Museum of Fine Art.
The Banyan is the national tree of India, and considered sacred. The complex web of roots and branches seems to grow both up and down. In the mural, the woman’s roots spread deep into her community.
In Greek mythology, the phoenix is a long-lived bird who dies in flames. But a new phoenix is born from the ashes.
Reaching for the phoenix, who represents rebirth and new beginnings, the woman is embracing the possibilities of this next stage of her life.
The mural is framed in deep blue, like a colorplate in an old-fashioned children’s book. It was hand-painted with brushes. On the left and right sides of the mural, the blue border has a vertical strip, where fragments of gears and cogs appear, as if in a window. At the bottom of the right-hand strip is the artist’s name, painted in gold capital letters like an embossed metal nameplate.
On the lower right side of the mural is a corrugated loading door, painted as part of the mural. In the middle of the mural is a black glass window, cutting into the top of the largest gear. The phoenix’s tailfeathers fall around an electrical box.
On your right is Ya La’Ford’s The Golden Wave and just past the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the fishing hat, Derek Donnelly’s mural, Extreme Ethel.