The mid-century modern, 70-foot-tall orange arch and green slash, with Southgate scrawled across it in white, has long been an icon of the South Florida Avenue shopping center since it was built in 1957, making appearances in the films “Edward Scissorhands” and “The One and Only Ivan.”

Now it is part of an award-winning painting by Lakeland artist Karla Pirona. “Southgate” earned first place in the “Faces and Places” regional juried show in Art Center Sarasota on June 8.

“In that painting, I explore a new approach in my artwork, inspired by the color of John Singer Sargent masterpieces,” said Pirona, who immigrated to the United States from Venezuela in 2017 and now calls South Lakeland home. “I was born there, but my family and me had to flee because of the political situation.”  

This is far from Pirona’s first art award. In fact, she has been internationally recognized.

She won first place in Venezuela for her first original painting. In 2012, she entered an international competition and one of her works was a top-10 finalist in the XXVII Diego de Losada Hispano-American Painting Contest in Spain as part of the Collective Exhibition at the Losada Palace, Zamora.

In addition, last year, one of her works representing Venezuelan migration was chosen for the Figurativas 2021 exhibit at the European Museum of Modern Art, the most prestigious figurative art competition worldwide.

Pirona said she was surrounded by art all of her life, at both her parents’ and grandparents’ homes. When she was 14, her father registered her in a summer painting workshop, where she learned the basics in drawing, oil painting and watercolors. She also studied music performance.

“In this journey as an artist, God was guiding every step,” said Pirona, 43. She is married and has four children, ages 7, 10, 14 and 21. “I didn’t intentionally pick being an artist. It’s something that chose me. It has been part of me since I remember and fills a huge part of my mind. I’m always feeling the need to paint. I can’t bear the burden of going one day without painting.”

Pirona said she wakes up at 3 a.m. to paint because her daylight hours are filled with caring for her 7-year-old son, who has special needs. She homeschools him and is his fulltime caregiver.

“I love this journey, and I’m deeply in love with oil painting,” she said. 

The road to professional artist took a detour in college, where she studied chemical engineering, obtaining a master’s degree in process control engineering.

Still, she said, she maintained painting as a hobby, teaching herself the different techniques of masters like Diego Velázquez, Albrecht Dürer, Edward Degas and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. The calling to return to her first love was strong.

“I used to visit art salons, museums and exhibitions,” Pirona said. “Finally in 2010, I left the professional practice of engineering to dedicate myself entirely to (family) life and painting.”

She said she chose Southgate to paint for two reasons – one because of its beauty and the other because, after she painted it, she realized it is embedded into her subconscious.

“’Southgate’ shows one of the most emblematic urban landscapes of the city of Lakeland, where the light of dawn merges with the human creation, giving rise to a beautiful range of colors over the infrastructure,” Pirona said. “I think maybe everyone who lives, had lived, or just visited Lakeland has seen the Southgate arch, at least once in their life, since it was built. Its parabolic shape is interesting to depict because you can see a different perspective and overlapping of the arc lines depending on the spectator’s point of view.”

After finishing the work, she realized it wasn’t just an interesting architectural feature – it was an old friend.

“Days after I finished painting ‘Southgate,’ I read in the news about the 32nd anniversary of Edward Scissorhands movie that had a scene at ‘Southgate,’” Pirona said. “I watched that movie hundreds of times when I was younger — it was one of my favorite movies. I guess I had ‘Southgate’ in my subconscious mind, and I had to paint it.”

Pirona is currently working on more paintings showing her adopted hometown. After a two-year stay in Georgia, her husband, who is a chemical engineer, was offered a job here in 2019. And Pirona saw what residents know and love about Lakeland.

“Immediately, I fell in love with the beauty of the city, its weather, and the big sky views due to Florida topography,” she said.  “So soon, you could see artworks of other emblematic Lakeland locations.”

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

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