Saturday, December 28, 2013
There's no doubt it caught our eyes. The small, low building on Fletcher Road where the I-75 on-ramps curved was bright blue and festooned all over with fishing floats painted in candy colors. To one side, a tall tower of piled and braided floats rose, like a tree made of corks.
"What the heck is that?" we said, as we passed it by. "A bait and tackle shop? Art?"
"Is that a helicopter?"
We came back a few days later. It was a cool day, with grey cloud cover. We had only a few minutes time before driving to the airport. We pulled into the driveway, and when a stocky man in a Hawaiian shirt walked around the side of the building, we asked him to tell us about his place.
He told us to google "Hong Kong Willie," and, speaking in the third person as though he were a tour guide, he told us it was an art gallery and studio, run by three artists who worked with discarded materials to create art from reclaimed junk. As we continued talking, his tone became warmer and more personal, and we were invited inside.
Inside, the small room was floored with burlap mats refashioned from coffee and peanut sacks, and on the walls were handpainted signs, shinily laquered with images of wildlife and rustic letters, somewhat like the fanciful tiki-bar signs much loved by our vacation-rental landladies to decorate home bar-rooms and pool enclosures.
But Hong Kong Willie is worth a second look. He didn't give us his real name, but an August, 2011 article in the NewTampa Patch identifies him as Joe Brown. What he told [The Man I Love] while I toured the grounds is detailed further in the article and also on his blog.
He grew up in rural North Tampa, not far from where [The Man I Love] grew up, on his father's farm on Gunn Highway. Hillsborough County built a landfill next door, and as a boy Joe foraged the dump for treasures to reuse or sell. Inspired by the art classes his mother sent him to, he nevertheless made a practical career for himself in the tech industry, but just wasn't happy. In the 1980s, he left business, bought the property on Fletcher Avenue, and started his second career, recycling trash into art.
Re-claiming trash and making it useful is a passion for Hong Kong Willie, rooted not only in his early days as a collector, but also as a witness to the kind of environmental devastation caused by irresponsible human trashing of the planet. He told how soil analysis of his father's farmland property revealed toxins and buried hazards that endured far beyond the 1962 closure of the dump.
He and his wife Kim have organized clean-ups in the coastal mangrove swamps, where often discarded fishing floats are found tangled in the growth. As they decay, the plastic and cork foam finds its way into the food chain, killing sea birds and animals. The Browns have salvaged thousands of these floats, some over 50 years old. These reclaimed floats form the brightly painted garlands on the property.
The Browns also run a composting operation, making and selling compost for local gardeners, and run a brisk trade in worms, for both composting and bait. If you're in Tampa and spot an amazing tree made of cork floats by the side of the road, stop in.