Update, 4/28/21, 1:30 p.m.: This article has been expanded from a previous post.
Former Caribbean fusion chef Vivia Barron has collected vintage Florida postcards and abandoned family photographs of African American people for over a decade.
The postcards beam with smiling, white faces in old-timey bathing suits, stripping away the history of the African American community.
Barron, a Jamaica native, flips that vintage portrait on its head with the creation of The Beach Series, an acrylic rendering of an alternative universe where people of color were portrayed positively in the media and marketing at the time.
She’s been creating period folk art full time, mainly with paper and India ink, since 2009, but she dreamed up The Beach Series in 2019 and began working with acrylics.
“I started thinking about what life was actually like in Florida at the time,” Barron said. “All the images of African American people were derogatory, picking crops and such. I thought to myself ‘There’s something here.’”
Her work, painted in bright colors with muted edges, features the nameless people of the past, people that Barron pulls from faded photographs.
Far from recreating “real” images, Barron’s series coveys a sort of dreamy emotion: a small girl clutching a teddy bear, a father resting his hand on his wife’s back.
“I ingested a different view from the past,” Barron said. “I take care of these photos because it is an honor to have them.”
In a past life, she owned a restaurant in Tampa, Vivia’s Kitchen, before settling into her role as a full-time artist 12 years ago.
It came naturally.
“My aunts, who raised me, were all artists in their own way,” Barron said. “Growing my life was filled with art, crafts, food, music.”
She moved to the Northeastern U.S. from Jamaica 30 years ago, but sunny Florida called to her.
“When I first moved to Tampa, I used to visit St Petersburg and I felt a connection to the energy here,” Barron said. “I knew I wanted to live here, and I knew I would.”
Years later, Barron drives through her neighborhood, a historically Black neighborhood in South St. Petersburg, and uncovers forgotten faces in yesterday’s trash.
She usually has a partner, her teen-aged daughter, who is sometimes wary to be seen going through side-of-the-road rubbish.
Next to the work of artist Kehinde Wiley and photographs of tumbling Florida clouds, Barron cites her daughter, with her postcard-perfect smile, as her inspiration.
“She comes with me still,” Barron said. “All of these people’s belongings from historically Black homes, all just on the side of the road.”
Barron finds brightly painted postcards of 1950s beach scenes online or in antique shops, but her real treasures come in a less pretty box.
“It’s being gentrified here; investors are coming in and gutting the place,” Barron said. “You wouldn’t believe all these people’s things, just left out on the side of businesses on Central Avenue.”
Her collection of antique photographs typically range from the late 1800s to the end of the Civil Rights movement. She features them online as well, and they play a vital role in her creations.
“I was never a formally trained chef, I cooked as an art form,” Barron said. “I’m still using my hands, and my eyes, and working with color.”
In addition to her culinary creativity, Barron also studied at the International Academy of The Arts in Florida.
“I just have to let out what’s inside of me,” Barron said. “I find these mediums so that I can create.”
In the Present
Until a pandemic pushed Barron out from behind her computer – she originally conducted most of her sales online – the St. Ann Parish native never once sold her work in Florida.
“I had the same customers for 12 years,” Barron said. “From the first moment I put my work out in the world, these people reached out and said ‘You’ve got something here.”
However, a lull in online sales pushed her out into the community, and for the month of May, the Brenda McMahon Gallery in Gulfport will spotlight Barron as a featured artist.
“I’m still learning, but working with this series gives me the opportunity to say more,” Barron said.
See more of Barron’s work and antique photograph collection at viviabarron.com.