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Art Populi: Whimzeyland Will Bowl You Over

WUSF is infusing a little fun in our news with an occasional series called “Art Populi.” The aim is to shine a light on Tampa Bay's rich cultural landscape-- and offer a perhaps welcome diversion from the political stories that can dominate during election season.

Our debut collection of stories will focus on public art.  We’ll be reporting on city murals, abandoned art, public art galleries and more.

For our first story-- we traveled to a place in Pinellas County known as "Whimzeyland."

Thirty years ago--a corner-lot bungalow in Safety Harbor had very little curb appeal. Today, the house at 1206 Third Street can literally stop traffic.

“A lot of times people drive by here and just slow right down," said Janet Lee, a member of the Safety Harbor artist collective. "Nobody's paying attention, so you have to be careful crossing the street.”

Lee is our tour guide for "Whimzeyland," a roadside attraction that serves as both a home and work of art for its owners Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda--also known as the "Whimzey Twinz."

Todd and Kiaralinda are traveling artists," said Lee. "So they like to call themselves gypsies and everywhere they go -- they collect.”

And since the duo spends so much time on the road -- they rely on Lee and other artist friends to keep an eye on the property and answer questions about it from curious visitors.

When the artists bought the house in the 1980s -- it was boring and beige.  Now, it’s turquoise and bright pink, accented with smiley faces, butterflies and rainbows -- and the yard is adorned with all kinds of art.  There are winding trails of mosaic tile work, cobalt blue bottle trees and bowling balls. Lots and lots of bowling balls.  

“It all started one day when Todd and Kiaralinda found a bunch of bowling balls at a flea market," said Lee. "There was a sign that said, '10 free bowling bowls per person,' so they called all of their friends and they said c'mon down -- we have to get all of these bowling balls!”

Today, there are more than 800 bowling balls painted in bright colors or with bold patterns.  Some line the perimeter of the yard. Others circle flower beds. Dozens are stacked in a bowling ball pyramid. 

The point here is that the bowling ball theme is not subtle and that has put "Whimzeyland" on at least some people's pop culture radar. It’s been featured in magazines, travel books and on national TV shows like HGTV's "Extreme Backyards."  

"Whimzeyland" also features a gazebo packed with strands of colorful beads, a disco ball and hundreds of tchotchkes.  And a couple of 'art cars' are parked in the driveway.

There's the Y2K bug a Volkswagen, bedazzled with CDs, chipboards, and keyboard pieces. The "artsurprise” is a VW bug completely covered in the "Whimzey Twinz" wire art. 

It all adds up to something of a local landmark, and unlike a suburban subdivision with Homeowner Association regulations, residents in this Safety Harbor enclave aren't bothered by their neighbor’s eclectic style.

"It's been here so long that I think if you buy a house nearby you kind of know what you're in for,"  Lee said with a laugh.

The interior of the main house can be seen just once a year during a charity fund raiser. But Lee said visitors can walk the grounds free of charge at any time of the year. Bowling shoes are optional.

“It's not meant to be just seen from afar," she said. "It’s meant to actually be experienced so we encourage everyone when you arrive here to just come on up--step up onto the yard but don't stand still because if you do--you might get painted!”

WUSF News invites you to contribute to our Art Populi series. Grab your phone and send us your thoughts and pictures. Tweet us @WUSF, or find us on Facebook and Instagram @WUSFPublicMedia. Make sure you use the hashtag -- #WUSFPubArt.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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