A low bright moon looms above the brick alleyway on 6th street and Central Ave. A small crowd gathers outside of 689 Central Ave, home the gallery of Bill Correira “Woo”, a local celebrity artist in these parts. Murmurings and quiet hugs are shared through tears as the word spreads that Woo has just passed away inside his gallery. Upon hearing this news I jump in my car and head down to the block. Silence hangs like a wet blanket on the typically bustling block as the crowd outside thickens. Meanwhile in the alleyway behind the crowd, an aggressive sound of a shaking spraypaint can clicks in my ear. “Let's do this.” says Christian Thomas. Thomas, a local maniacal muralist is getting ready to start another mural. A giant aerosol-ed portrait of Woo. “He wouldn't want us standing around crying about him. He'd want us to keep painting. So that's what I'm doing. But this one's for him.” Derek Donnelly, of Saint Paint Gallery, who's fiery hair matches his passion, agrees. “The reason I started painting and opened up a gallery here is because of Woo”. Ideas exchange, spotlights burn, ladders rise and an outline starts to form on the outer side wall of Sleeperwoods' shop at 6th Street between 1st N and Central Ave. It's only been two hours since Woo has passed.
Woo painted beautiful underworlds of marine life, bringing highly saturated canvases of color into St. Pete's art scene. Woo's water worlds mesmerized onlookers as he frequently painted live in front of popular restaurants and bars such as 400 Beach Drive. Instead of painting in solitude, like so many artists prefer, he brought his works outdoors, engaging and inviting people to take part. His weekly rite was painting live with other local artists at Sake Bomb on the 500 Block. He shared conversation, advice and encouragement over beers and his signature drink Coconut Nigori, a coconut flavored Sake which Woo said tasted like “licking the back of a sunbather gal”. Artist and friend, Jennifer Kosharek said “There was nothing like Woo handing you a shot of sake, and drinking it with him. Camaraderie”. And that was the essence of what Woo built with his art in this community; a fellowship of artists, friends and strangers, where anyone was welcome to paint along side of each other and share hardships, advice and above all; encouragement.
Woo had survived brain cancer only a few years prior. The doctors had to remove ¼ of his right upper frontal lobe. The right side of the brain holds creativity. For some reason it had the opposite effect and tapped into something Woo could barely contain as he was the most prolific artist I've met. It only took him a mere few hours to paint a giant canvas of a beautiful sea turtle swimming toward the viewer and inviting them in. All of his works had that tone of invitation through color and a glimpse into another world. A world Woo was blessed to tap into after all his hardships with beating cancer, undergoing brain surgery, awaking from a coma, enduring two and a half years of chemotherapy and all the things the doctors said he'd never do again, he did. And he did with aplomb.
An outpour of love has flooded the community with art auctions and fundraisers for Woo's family, the sale of t-shirts with Woo's signature, donations, toasts, memorials, even a bronze bust is being made in the image of Woo so that he'll always have his eye on the goings on of the block. Stories exchange, scrawled notes to Woo on post-it notes cling to the window of his gallery above a few candles that are lit at night as a place to reminisce in silence alone or with a friend.
The mural slowly starts to form over the course of only a week. It is of a giant “Blue Woo” surrounded by fish and a coral reef comprised of painted hand prints. Artists start to contribute fish to the wall. Even I'm asked to paint a fish for Woo, which is a very high compliment for me. I decide to copy one of Woo's bright orange Koi fish and present it in my style. A gifted painter and close friend of Woo, Cheryl Murphy, aka Saori, works next to me painting an oversized mandarin fish. She's never worked on this large of a scale before, not to mention ten feet off the ground on a ladder and painting on an uneven surface. She muses that Woo is challenging her, as he did in life, to complete this huge bulged eyed fish that rests on his shoulder. She giggles and says “I know that Billy is here right now pushing me to do this. It's totally out of my comfort zone and I know somewhere he is laughing. But, its okay. This challenge is for him. This fish is for him.”
Woo engaged everyone. Painting live was an invitation to his portable studio and an easy way to make friends. His station was typically 400 Beach Drive but he could be seen all around town at a myriad of events, auctions, openings, etc. My first painting opening last year Woo came with a bottle of wine and paid me the highest compliment an artist can receive “your art isn't priced high enough”. Only a small few came to my show but the fact that Woo thought it was important to come made my night very special. I remember him coming to my shop and buying one of my first pillows I had made. He kept it in his gallery for the whole year. He had a way of making people feel welcome and special by the small things he did. Friend, Maria Jose, who recently helped organized part of the funds for the St. Pete Indie Market to go to Woo's family, remembers when Woo invited her daughter to paint with him on a canvas he had already started. At first Maria hesitated but Woo insisted, engaging her little girl to paint along with him. Do you know of any artist that would do that? Even a youngster spoke out at his memorial at 400 Beach drive about how Woo influenced his young life at a ripe age of 10.
Fish start to slowly appear on the newly dubbed “Woo Wall”. A giant mermaid painted by Jenipher Chandley, hangs lazily above Woo's head. Only a week ago when Woo died, her eyes were pink and swollen with tears. Now as I pass her she wears a smile behind her aquamarine curls stuffed inside her signature fedora as she beams up at her bright hot pink mermaid with wild untameable hair. Hotshot local muralist Sebastian Coolidge contributes a giant jellyfish that slowly drags its long purple legs over a coral reef filled with children's brightly colored hand prints. The list of contributing artists and varying fish piles up higher and higher as the mural nears completion. And it's not just artists; it's everyone. Friends, co-workers, anyone that knew Woo either put their handprint on the wall, painted a fish or helped out in some way with a donation to the family or just being a shoulder to lean on.
Woo had an influence over so many artists in this area. He was a huge encouragement always pushing exposure and getting out of your comfort zone. “Come paint live with me” he'd always ask me. He was such a source of positive energy for so many people. Many local gallery owners nod their head in respect to Woo as he always popping in for a chat or helping with ideas for business and inspiration. Woo will always be remembered for being encouraging, pushing it forward, challenging others, inspiring and for all the little details and personal stories from co-workers and friends that smoosh in-between. Woo died in a beautiful gallery he worked hard to build, had a great reputation, a supportive family, a new love in his life and a group of supporters who would do anything for him.
I will always remember the night he died. At one point I looked up and noticed the moon had a giant ring around it, enveloping me and the few other artists that had gathered, comforting us. We felt like it was Woo sending us a sign. A sign that bonded us and pushed us to come together, despite our different personalities, and create something beautiful as a giant Thank You to him.
This is my story. And this one's for Woo.