Jacksonville was once considered a cultural wasteland — a town worth skipping between Atlanta and Orlando. Creative minds dreamt of moving to big cities and upon graduating high school, often did.
Music venues were scarce and short-lived, art venues worse off and once any glimmer of hope was seen in the horizon it would shoot off to another town. But, in the mid-2000s something began to change.
Artists opted to stay, build their respective communities, bring back former residents and welcomed those that would’ve never paid the city attention before. This was around the time Brian Squillace moved to The River City. Squillace came to Jacksonville 12 years ago because he was young and he could. A friend called and told him to move, so he did.
A former resident of Raleigh, N.C., Squillace said in hindsight the Carolina weather was nice, but it’s not enough to move him out of Jax yet. He plays in two musical projects, Sea Cycles and Grammar Tree, and produces material for area musicians. These projects, along with many others he experiences in town, are what keep him planted here.
Squillace’s musical roots go back to when he was 5 years old and taking violin lessons. He became more active in high school, playing drums in punk bands. Eventually, he shifted to alternative rock music, but hit a creative roadblock because he couldn’t write songs behind a drum kit.
After switching to a role where he could write more freely, and recording music, he realized his biggest strength was helping other musicians bring their ideas to life. This focus on individual ideas and projects is what he believes is key to Jacksonville, or any city, developing a cultural presence.
“Everyone in Jax is super obsessed with community events or building the community, but that’s foolish in my head because everyone is just a little brick,” Squillace said.
This isn’t to say he believes community is a waste, but rather a different approach to that concept should be taken. Cultivating an individual’s skills, whether it be music, painting, running a food truck or whatever, should be a creator’s focus.
“There’s an artist’s responsibility to make a city better with their own content,” he said. “Everyone needs to look inward and say, ‘What am I contributing?’ not in a community sense, but literally in a selfish sense.”
In order to build a community, one has to find their role in that community, devote their effort to that role and make something of it.
“Just do your own thing really well, and it’ll become a thing,” Squillace said.
How successful does he believe Jacksonville has been at becoming a cultural hub? Well, he thinks three or four years ago there was a sense of things coming together in town, but said some of this has begun to fade away.
Perhaps it’s age or a shifting of responsibilities for several key players in the community, but for whatever reason, the cultural boom of recent years has seemed to subside. This goes back to Squillace’s argument of focusing on the self.
By relying on certain people or groups of people to be the curators of a scene, we forget we all play important roles as individuals to whatever scene we best identify with. This role needs to be a constant focus if there is to be any further cultural growth.
To keep himself from burning out, he said he focuses on his drive to continue working on things. He argues creativity should be what folks should focus on rather than lousy jobs or getting drunk.
Outside Jacksonville, Squillace looks to cities like Asheville, N.C., that are experiencing a cultural explosion and towns such as Seattle and Atlanta that are historically rich in creativity. Jacksonville has a long road to becoming comparable to those hubs, but it’s in a better place than it was a decade ago.
Individuals like Squillace are certainly helping to move Jacksonville down that long road, although, he’s not so sure his role is as important. During our interview he was concerned that maybe there wasn’t exciting stuff happening since we decided to interview him.
If anybody published content on all the folks in town doing awesome shit, it would be too long to read. In the big scheme of what’s important in Jax culture, none of us deserve such a title. But, if we hone in on some of the bricks (as Squillace described them) that have made a clear difference, he’s certainly one of them.