I live in the Jacksonville, Florida area. No one would mistake the Jacksonville arts scene for Miami’s on the other end of the state.
Jacksonville is conservative and small. Miami is bold and big.
Now, however, is as good a time as ever to explore the increasingly high-quality and diverse Jacksonville arts scene.
Carl Joe Williams at MOCA Jacksonville
Presently, Carl Joe Williams’ Making Great Lives Matter installation, filling the 40-foot-tall atrium of the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, stands as the highlight. Williams’ vibrant, rhythmic geometric patterns, inspired by African-American quilt patterns and ancient geometry, is the latest in the museum’s “Project Atrium.”
On view through March 21, Williams’ artwork not only fills the eyes, but the ears as well. Video monitors on the ground level play responses from Jacksonville residents asked about the “American Dream.”
What does it mean to them? Who does it leave out? Does such a thing really exist?
Televisions mounted to the second story feature harrowing newsreel footage of police violence against minorities including the murder of George Floyd, the beating of Rodney King, the shooting death of Philandro Castile and others. The installation takes on an additionally sinister tone as viewers inspect the fabulously patterned walls to discover Confederate flags. Wall text informs that Adinkra symbols from West Africa are included along with ancient symbols adopted by supremacist groups in the 20th century.
As with everywhere in the South, Jacksonville has had a difficult, violent history of racism and white supremacy. It’s most notorious such event, Axe Handle Saturday, marked its 60th anniversary in 2020. One small signal of progress can be found across Laura Street from MOCA Jacksonville with James Weldon Johnson Park. The city renamed the park last year to honor the famous civil rights activist, lawyer, educator, composer and Jacksonville native who wrote “Life Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” commonly known as the Black National Anthem.
Murals at the Jessie Ball duPont Center
Also recognizing the area’s surprisingly rich–and mostly undiscovered–history of national Black leadership is a new mural project put up last fall at the Jessie Ball duPont Center, two blocks from MOCA. The Jessie exists in what was once the Haydon Burns Public Library, a minty green mid-century modern architectural gem worth a peep in its own right.
Puerto Rican mosaic artist Celso González Quiñones has exuberantly memorialized six Black dignitaries, two-by-two, in three murals installed side-by-side along an outer wall at the Jessie.
World-renowned writer and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston, who grew up in Eatonville, Florida near Orlando, joins Jacksonville poet and performer Ebony Payne-English on one mural. Another shows the late civil rights leader Rutledge Pearson, one-time President of the Jacksonville Branch of the NAACP, and Jacksonville historian and author Rodney L. Hurst. The third depicts educator, soprano and humanitarian Eartha M.M. White and educator Johnnetta Cole, former director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, both Jacksonville natives. Hurst and Cole are still living.
The vivid, freshly installed murals dazzle in the sun.
The project was initiated by ArtRepublic, a cultural production agency headquartered in Jacksonville working nationally by translating the identity of communities through public art, programming, exhibitions and events. It is working tirelessly to bring more public art to the area.
Back at MOCA Jacksonville, before leaving, be sure to head upstairs for “The Circle and the Square,” an exhibition of works on paper highlighting geometric forms by a who’s who of Modern art including Ellsworth Kelly, Jasper Johns, Robert Indiana, Sol Lewitt and a precious kinetic mobile from Alexander Calder.
The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens
The longtime pillar of Jacksonville’s arts community, the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, sits two miles from downtown, magnificently situated along the St. John’s River.
A “Magnetic Field” painting by Jacksonville native Mildred Thompson, acquired in 2019, currently highlights the collection. Only steps from it, a fleshy, erotic, Starburst yellow, wriggly delight from Cecily Brown hangs on loan. Rufino Tamayo’s Mujer Perseguida (Woman Persecuted) (1950), is found a few steps in the other direction. Spend time with all three.
A small gallery inside the museum has recently been reinstalled to acknowledge work from indigenous artists, a highlight being Shan Goshorn’s (Eastern Band Cherokee) Zero Tolerance (2016). Another of the museum’s recent acquisitions, this vessel features “arches watercolor paper splints printed with archival inks and acrylic paint.”
Employing indigenous weaving techniques, Goshorn replaces conventional materials such as reeds with archival photographs, maps or text from historical documents. The paper splints woven together in this piece feature text from a speech given at the Carlisle Indian Boarding School. The Indian Boarding School era stands as a particularly ugly stain upon American history as tens of thousands of indigenous children were forcibly taken from their homes and families and sent to “schools” which amounted to forced cultural erasure and assimilation camps. “Kill the Indian, Save the Man” was a guiding principle in this horrific and failed experiment.
Additional strips of paper are imprinted with lyrics from the children’s song, “Ten Little Indians,” and the names of approximately 10,000 children forced to Carlisle during its 40 years in operation.
Time for lunch? Walking distance from the Cummer are two excellent choices.
Arepa Please serves up enormous arepas–ground maize dough stuffed with fillings. The dish originated from the northern region of South America and now is primarily found in the cuisines of Colombia and Venezuela. Biggie’s Pizza offers pies and slices fitting all descriptions. Both are local, speedy and inexpensive.
The best is surely yet to come for Jacksonville’s art scene with the recent hiring of Andrea Barnwell Brownlee as the director and CEO at the Cummer Museum. She will be one of only four Black women to lead “mainstream” American art museums.