Above Photos Courtesy of Bob Willis
In the summer of 1986, I moved to Jacksonville at the ripe old age of 9 from New Orleans, LA. As many of you know, my hometown is a plethora of art & a melting pot of culture, so as you can imagine, it was quite a shock when I moved here. My first impression of this town was lots of trees, beautiful river, nice beach, but no deep cultural roots were apparent. Though I loved the nature that was very abundant around Jacksonville in the late 80s, there was quite a lack of creative stimulation and cultural diversity. As the years passed, I looked forward to the day I could get out of this town. I felt like it had nothing to offer me except for diminishing natural beauty that was quickly being replaced by new malls & cookie cutter suburbs. I knew culture came to visit us from time to time in the form of festivals like World of Nations, Jazz Fest, Blues Fest, etc, but it took me a while to realize where to find it locally and on a regular basis. Part of it was ignorance on my own part and the other part, which is still a problem today, is the disconnect between the artistic & cultural community and the rest of Jacksonville.
Somewhere in my mid-teens, I was introduced to the Riverside/5 Points area of town. I was shocked that such a place existed in Jacksonville and couldn’t believe that I had never stumbled across it before. It was a side of town that wasn’t just built yesterday, it had history, it had culture, and more importantly it had some roots. While hanging out there with some new friends, I found out about Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and was ecstatic that there was actually a school dedicated to the arts right here in town. How did I not know about this?! Before I knew it, I had somehow convinced my mom to let me leave my private high school education that she worked so hard to pay for, so I could pursue my desire and love of art at a public school. I joined the school late in the game and as soon as I saw the quality of work these kids were chugging out, I knew I had a lot of catching up to do. So I got rid of some of my academic classes by enrolling in summer & night school and filled those empty spots in the regular school year with more art classes.
These were defining moments in my life that made me stop seeing Jacksonville as a giant black hole of nothingness (yes, I admit, I was that negative back then), but instead, I saw it as what it really was: A city full of hidden gold nuggets of art & culture that are just waiting to be discovered by the masses. I noticed, that the disconnect mentioned earlier is not the fault of the masses or even the individual people, Jacksonville is huge and if you don’t know where to look, you could spend an eternity searching for something you’re not even sure exists.
Those of us involved in the art & culture scene are just preaching to the choir. We are expressing our views, opinions, our support, to the same people over and over again and our message isn’t reaching everyone else. It seems like the powers that be, don’t seem to understand the intrinsic value that housing a strong art & culture community has on a city. It generate tourism, which in turn brings in revenue, art education stimulates the creative process necessary for higher academic learning, scientific evidence proves the healing power of art, strong public art programs improve the quality of life for many communities, it’s inspiring, motivational, and spirit lifting, yet for some reason funding for the arts continues to be cut, artists are not valued as a resource, and the message of how important the arts are to a community continues to get put on the back burner. This has to change and the best part is that it is changing in leaps & bounds, but we still have a way to go. Until we get more media & city officials behind what we are doing, and have them believe that what we are doing is part of the cake and not just the icing on the cake, then we will continue to struggle.
Now, all that being said, this brings me back to why I decided to write this particular post to begin with. I wanted to tell The Story Behind the Reddi Arts Mural. When I was first approached about painting the mural, my initial thought was simple “This is going to be a fun project”, but after speaking with the store owner, Mr. Bruce Meiselman, I realized, this is bigger and more important than what I first thought. As I went back in my mind and thought of the original mural, I started thinking about what a large role the store itself played in my life as a young aspiring artist in what I previously called this “giant black hole of nothingness.” I remembered how awesome it was to see the original mural in all it’s glory every time I went to buy art supplies. In my early 20s I actually worked at the store and it really was another step in my involvement in the local scene. I met many great local artists and several future artists that I’m still friends with today. As my mind churned away at these memories, I started to realize that this store, was one of Jacksonville’s deepest roots. Though many galleries, museums, & artists have come and gone from Jacksonville, Reddi Arts has been a permanent fixture, even with the competition of big box art supply stores like Michaels & Hobby Lobby.
Now came the hard part, how do I give this business the justice it deserves for being such a long standing part of the art scene? And more importantly, how do I take advantage of this opportunity to express, & educate the masses who drive by the store that art is more than just a pretty picture, but it’s an integral part of every community and it needs to be valued and preserved?
Well, I remembered a sermon my pastor had given about the parable of The Sower, the gist of that particular message was, what type of seed are you sowing? If you want an orange tree, you need to plant orange seeds, if you aren’t getting what you want, you may need to check what you’re putting in the ground. During this time, there were also lots of conversations floating around the art community as well, discussing the lack of breakthrough in our art scene. These two things started joining together in my head and I realized that if we want a strong art scene, we need an entire community that supports the art scene. If all you have are artists, then you’ll just have lots of art but no place to show it & no supporters. If you have no art education or appreciation in our schools, then you are growing a public who is intimidated by the arts and again, no supporters, and so on and so on.
The design of the mural came from a spin off of all these elements: Reddi Arts being a deep root in Jacksonville, we need to plant a “seed” of art to reap the benefits, and last but not least, we need to show the masses not already in the art & culture community the difference art can make in a person’s life. I chose to create “A Tree of Art.” All the layers of the tree are visible to emphasize the importance each layer has. Of course, you start with the seed, you put that in good ground, from that seed comes a strong root system that will hold the tree proud and strong, and the result of a strong tree with strong roots & proper care, is plentiful fruit. If you look at the fruit on the tree you can see each piece stands for a different benefit of what art does: it inspires, it explores, it illuminates, it discovers, it educates, it creates. This is all subtly symbolized in the tree and for those of us who aren’t great at interpreting other people’s art, “Rufus” the dragon helps spell it out more clearly.
It took several months to finish this mural, the process is physically demanding & difficult, I dealt with sunburns, ant bites, sore muscles, & freezing temperatures just to name a few. Not to mention the interesting characters that made their presence known, some with honks, some with whistles, while others were just borderline stalkers. The expressions of passerbys were priceless, especially from the children. The opportunity for the average person to see the amount of work needed to create a piece of art was an invaluable opportunity to show that artists aren’t created overnight, no one is born with the talent to create, we are only born with the desire, it only turns into a talent after we’ve put in our hours to master our craft. I got much pleasure from hearing the mail lady scream with delight at the early stage of the creation process when only the sky, clouds, & hills were laid in. She saw me setting up to paint more and she asked, ” There’s more!? It’s so beautiful now!” The fact that just the background of the unfinished mural made her so happy was very satisfying.
So, now I’m back to the beginning. I have come to love Jacksonville and now see it as my home, and I want to see it grow into the amazing wonderful culturally diverse artistic city I know it can be. All the elements are there, we just need to figure out the right formula, get the right people, and right motivation to see it come to fruition. There are many of us who are too stubborn to leave, we’ve put too much blood, sweat, & tears to walk away now, though believe me, the temptation comes and goes. I have already seen more public art pop up around town, to me this is a sign that the scene is breaking out into the public eye and it makes me smile to think that someone unknowingly is reaping at least one of the many benefits of art. Now all we need to do is educate our city, support our artists, and bring more art to the masses so we can all continue to reap the benefits of art.