The Art of David Collins

by Zoe Trout

Introducing May 2017’s CityMakerNot an 863-native, David Collins adopted Lakeland at the age of 24, deciding that it was both a home and an open canvas. Collins, who moved around a lot with his family as a child, contracted polio and spent seven months living in a polio ward. It is here that his passion as a “creative” was born. Artists and entertainers would visit the ward in hopes of lifting the children’s spirits, and a young Collins was inspired.

If you think you can, you can. But that goes both ways. If artists don't value themselves, no one else will. Click To Tweet

Collins underwent numerous surgeries and years of recovery, during which he passed the time drawing, coloring, using watercolors, constructing and painting—anything that allowed him to create. This early love for all things creative evolved into a desire to be an artist upon “growing up.” However, when Collins at last reached recovery at age 14, he longed for the normalcy of sports, girls, and other 14-year-old interests. He walked away from his childhood wish and did not paint again for 44 years.

While his creative aspirations were largely dormant during a long career in industrial chemical sales and management, Collins began painting again in 2005, when the last of his four children went off to college, leaving Collins with an empty nest and a void to fill. This launched a four-year period in which he painted as much as possible, finally realizing his dream of becoming a self-taught artist. Since then, he has explored every medium associated with the word, becoming known in the Lakeland community as artist, painter, sculptor, teacher, activist, and public figure.

Collins’ Downtown Art
In 2010, just five years into his newfound art career and with roughly 40 paintings under his belt, Collins opened Paint Along Studios in Downtown Lakeland. The studio quickly became a staple for people who wanted a place to bond with others or have a group night out. Even the novice artist could feel comfortable, have a glass of wine with friends, and learn to paint something beautiful as Collins or his business partner took them step-by-step through the process. Collins says that it was during this time that he truly became an artist. During the four and a half years that Paint Along Studios was open, Collins and his partner painted with 4,129 people, 14,467 times, Collins himself painting 307 example paintings in 1,033 classes.

“I don’t know whether I taught anyone else to paint,” he said, “But while trying, I taught myself to paint. You start being an artist when you truly see yourself as one.”
His passion for art and the arts community now drives David Collins’ day-to-day. He spends his time finding different ways to leave his mark on the Lakeland community, calling Lakeland home and spending his winters here. For Collins, the city, particularly Downtown, is an open canvas.

Collins began creating public art Downtown with a simple sidewalk chalk drawing of a swan. The drawing was promptly pressure-washed away by city staff.  Collins tried again with a more traditional work of art, hoping it’d last a little longer this time. His 8×12 foot sidewalk painting of Van Gough’s “Starry Night” was again quickly washed away.

Collins’ projects began to gain more public attention, and for his third piece of public artwork, Collins went out overnight, wrapped light poles throughout downtown in plastic to avoid any damage, and painted them in what he now calls his favorite downtown public art project.

Despite calls and emails from city officials, Collins’ went out the next day and began painting detailed designs on top of the flat colored light poles outside of Jimmy John’s, where teams from a girls’ soccer tournament were eating lunch. The girls were enchanted with the idea, eagerly asking for paint and brushes to add their own designs, and flooding social media with photos of the painted poles. These photos ignited a local viral fire around Collins’ work and the Downtown area’s “cool” factor.

In his last “rebellious” acts, Collins and another artist painted scenes on the stumps of palm trees that had been cut down on South Kentucky Avenue, followed by a painting on the windows of a privately owned building on North Kentucky Avenue. As images of the painted light poles and tree stumps spread on social media, attracting an audience to the Downtown area, Collins also caught the attention of Lakeland Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Julie Townsend. Rather than condemn the work, Townsend was pleased with the attention brought to Downtown with each spontaneous project.

Thus, a partnership was born. The LDDA provided the cover that Collins needed to continue with his public art projects. Since then, the city has embraced Collins and his random beautification projects, making Collins an integral part of the Lakeland arts community, not only tolerated, but  supported by city officials.

For his first city-sanctioned art project, Collins and Townsend partnered to send a message of “sticking your neck out for the arts.” This message was symbolized by Collins painting a 20-foot tall, life-sized giraffe on a tree in Munn Park, a park that Collins now calls “the largest gallery in Lakeland.”

His most recent public art installation, entitled “Clearly People,” took center stage Downtown in January of this year. The project features a series of clear exoskeletons, including 28 adult human figures, seven swans, two fairies, a mermaid, an eight-foot tube of paint, and more. Designed to both entertain and provoke thought, the figures are made from multiple coats of packaging tape and created by wrapping models’ bodies in different positions. Collins collaborated with fellow Lakeland artist Meredith Pope and photographer David Dickey Jr. to create and document this project, which will continue through July.

When asked about the huge local response to the project, Collins shrugged, smiled, and said simply, “Go big or go home.” With that many pieces in such a public place, the project was calculated to make a big impact. “Everyone loved the giraffe, but I didn’t want to be a one hit wonder.”

As is the nature of art, every audience member will not understand or appreciate the intent, and some of the pieces were met with different reactions. The controversy injected into this project was not always met with open arms, and some pieces were stolen or vandalized. Though disappointed, Collins sees these reactions as a part of the learning curve.

“I didn’t see it coming, but I should have.” Collins said. “I will next time. It’s an important part of the experience.” The most important part, though, is being part of a community that is not afraid to embrace these risks and support the artists that take them.

Credit to Haven Magazine

Thoughts for the Future
David Collins hopes that his artistic journey in the Lakeland community will pave the way for other artists with ideas for public art projects, and will continue to bring joy, art, and attention to the Downtown community.

“There’s just something about spontaneous art projects,” he says. “Art has a different edge when it is unexpected and unsanctioned; when it just pops up over night.” This is why Collins says that he is sure that he will “break the rules” again. His boundary-pushing nature is, perhaps, the role of art in society. After all, had Collins not pushed the limits with a simple chalk swan, the city would not be fostering the artistic community in the same way that it is today.

Collins plans to continue pushing the limits and building the artistic community in Lakeland, but this time within his own four walls. He has recently purchased a building in the Dixieland community that will soon become home to The Working Artist Studio and Gallery—the WA, for short. The space will feature a rotating contemporary art gallery, featuring the work of the very best artists that Collins can attract, and becoming Lakeland’s very first independent contemporary art gallery. The rest of the space will serve as rentable studio space for twelve artists. With this space, he hopes to mentor, sponsor, collaborate with, and inspire emerging artists’ creative spirits. In this mentorship, Collins has set the goal of deconstructing the concept of the “starving artist” in Lakeland.

“Those two words do not need to go together,” Collins insists. “If we approach art differently, approach it as a business, it will be profitable.” Collins believes that, to be successful, artists need to have a goal and a plan; to know their next show, their next step. And he wants to be the one to help them get there.

“If you think you can, you can,” is Collins’ motto. “But that goes both ways. If artists don’t value themselves, no one else will.”

With this unique perspective on the artistic community, Collins hopes to move Lakeland toward becoming the center of arts in central Florida. This hope, in Collins’ eyes, is not such a far stretch from reality.

Credit to David Dickey Jr.

“We’re 49 miles from Orlando, 35 from Tampa and 55 miles from Sarasota. What other city has that choice of airports, venues, and hubs within that small of a distance? As the center of the I-4 corridor, we need to make a comeback and assume this position of leadership. We could be a center politically, socially, and artistically,” he says. And, according to Collins, Lakeland is already on its way there. One of the last missing pieces, he says, is art.

Collins envisions a future for Lakeland with a huge sculpture at each of the six I-4 Lakeland exits, making a statement and drawing passersby off of the highway. Within the city, Collins hopes for a future in which the Dixieland and Lake Morton communities are united as one walkable arts district.

His exciting visions aside, he has advice for future CityMakers.

“Just do it. Assume the position of leadership. Don’t just talk about it; become the pioneer.”

Lakeland’s greatest resource is the citizens who champion community initiatives and who ultimately inspire others to Love Lakeland. They are passionate about Lakeland, they seek to improve the quality of life for all of our residents, and their daily actions and attitudes reflect their love for the community. Their focus is often outward, toward the world, rather than inward, and, as a result, every rock is hidden, every tree is planted, and every kindness is extended, inspiring others to be a little better and to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.