Carla Bristol left corporate America in 2014 to do what she always wanted to be doing – live a life steeped in community. Her gallery is filled with African, Black and Caribbean art; she is the founder of the Black Arts and Film Festival and a collaboration manager at the St. Pete Urban Youth Farm. Even her line of textile art is called “Jamii” – or “community” in Swahili.
“Everything I do centers around community,” she says.
Bristol opened Gallerie 909 at 909 22nd Street South in The Deuces neighborhood to provide a space for established and emerging artists of the African diaspora.
“It was this specific niche,” she says. “The art scene in St. Petersburg really began to expand in 2013 and 2014. But it was not expanding in the same way for Black artists. There was nowhere for them to go except for the Woodson Museum and whatever was showing there at the time.”
Gallerie 909 became known for its unique cultural offerings and relocated to the Skyway Marina District in 2017. In 2019, the art gallery found a new home in its current location at 559 49th St. S.
Bristol only displays the work of artists who have visited the gallery. She carries art that is solely created by or highlights people of color.
”My goal is to give exposure to those who may not have the opportunity to be exposed,” she says.
The art at Gallerie 909 is an eclectic mix of textiles, fashion, jewelry and home furnishings. Current works include watercolor paintings, clay, sculpture, wood carvings, African drums and an African bench created by local and national artists.
Bristol’s Jamii line features clothing, one-of-a-kind clutches and crossbody handbags made from African fabrics such as batik and ukara she collects on her travels. Each is made from four to six different pieces of fabric.
“I don’t buy in bulk,” says Bristol, “so anywhere I go, I’m buying fabrics.”
Bristol’s feeling of community extends to the shopping experience – windows on three sides of her gallery offer a wide view of the area, something not often seen in other galleries as owners prefer to maximize wall space.
“It matters to me how you feel in that space,” she says, “whether you’re comfortable and how you navigate while not feeling pressured.”
Heavily involved in her work with the St. Pete Urban Youth Farm – a program that empowers young people to lead urban agriculture projects – Bristol says she hasn’t been as busy creating as she wants to be these days.
“I spend most of my days with high school-age students,” who she calls her “young angels.” She has plans to introduce them to the world of textiles.
“We were going to have a market right before COVID,” says Bristol, “and I planned to teach them how to sew their own canvas totes to sell at market.”
Prior to the pandemic, Bristol also hosted events at the gallery. The last one, a one-day pop-up event, featured a designer from Illinois who appeared in Essence magazine.
“We have to find the new normal in how we create,” Bristol says. “We need our creativity in these times.”
And our sense of community.