University of South Florida

College of The Arts

University of South Florida

BFA Alumnus Tyler Staggs Helps Others through Art

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Instead of building structures as an architect, today, Tyler Staggs helps to rebuild the lives of those with mental illness. The art graduate originally enrolled at USF to pursue architecture, recognizing that his skill in math and science were suited to the field. However, he soon found that he desired a greater, more personal connection with his work. Upon taking an introductory drawing class, he discovered that studio art was a more satisfying outlet for his abilities. This realization caused him to further delve into the arts by taking classes in painting and sculpture.

Tyler went on to receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Studio Art in 2012. After graduation, Tyler came upon an outlet for his talent as Art Coordinator at Project Return in Tampa, where he now works with adults recovering from mental illness, encouraging them to find joy and gain new skills through art.

Project Return was founded in 1971 in New York by Rhoda Zusman in order to address the needs of those with persistent mental illness. The mission of the organization is to improve the quality of life for people recovering from mental illnesses through educational, vocational, and supportive housing services so that they may live productive and fulfilling lives in the community. Tyler takes great pride in his students' works, which decorate the walls from floor to ceiling at the Project Return complex.

Tyler's aim is to break down the stigma of mental illness and give a voice to a group often marginalized in society. He teaches members to enjoy making art, all the while helping build social bonds and other life skills in a truly unique setting. "Normally artists seclude themselves, they lock themselves in a room, and they make something amazing," said Tyler, "but here there is a social component where there is collaboration and interaction which helps the students to build life skills." While Tyler's students are not necessarily trained artists, they have an instinctive style that benefits tremendously from a supportive environment. He excels at forming lessons directly tailored to members' interests, "If they can only draw a house, great, let's draw a hundred houses," said Tyler, "so it's just expanding on their positives." The supportive atmosphere keeps members coming back. On any given day, Project Return can host up to 100 members who are delighted by Tyler's guidance and instruction.

Since taking the position last year, Tyler has not looked back, "Up until this point, I was making art for myself... there was always kind of something missing." He has discovered that art does not have to be about himself nor exist solely in the "art world." Tyler realizes that being open to new experiences is what makes his work so rewarding, "It's become the thing that I am most passionate about in my entire life."

Looking back at the College of The Arts, Tyler recalls how he disregarded the idea of becoming an Art Therapist--which he attributes to a lack of experience and self-awareness, "I wasn't ready for it back then," he admits, "With life experiences, you get guided in that way. And it happens differently for everyone."

Having the College of The Arts as a place to grow and improve as an artist was invaluable to preparing Tyler for his career in art. He is particularly impressed with how the studio art program stresses the conceptual aspect of art from day one. Many artists, he says, do not begin to ask "why?" when it comes to creative decisions until enrolled in a graduate program. The College of The Arts not only allowed Tyler to answer his creative "whys," but also answer the daunting question of what to do after graduation through his participation in the class Real World. Taught by Academic Advisor in Art Richard Olinger, the class encourages student success by reflecting on USF experiences and examining the vast number of career possibilities for art graduates.

With the chance to be engaged in art while helping others, Tyler is already looking for ways to expand his impact. Going back to graduate school has been on his mind for some time, however, next time Tyler enrolls in school, it may not be to study art, "When I think about going back to school, I want to go back to study psychology because I want to help people." He envisions merging his background in art with a strong education in psychology to better understand mental health and to one day establish his own private practice. In a clinical environment, he could delve deeper into the issues of others and use therapeutic art practices in therapy.

In regard to his own art, Tyler is creating a body of work for a solo exhibition at The Studio@620 in St. Petersburg in January of 2017. He views this as essential to his own well-being and teaching philosophy. Anticipating that his experiences teaching art will make it into his new work, Tyler views this exhibition as a chance to focus on his own art while thriving on the energy of his students. "Me getting excited about their art is contagious," said Tyler, "'s gotten a little busier with art."

To learn more about Project Return and to inquire about artwork available for purchase, visit their website or call (813)-933-9020. Donations are always welcome (see list below) and can be brought to Project Return at 304 West Waters Avenue Tampa, Florida 33604.

Items Needed at Project Return

Beads, yarn, acrylic paints, brushes, paper, pencils, charcoal, ink, canvas, staples, copy paper, #2 pencils, erasers, colored pencils, markers.

Tyler Staggs Photo