I arrived at CoRK Arts District at 4 p.m. on a hot and muggy Sunday afternoon. The rain had abated for a brief moment, allowing me enough time get inside the large warehouse. It’s a fitting location for the group interview that was about to occur. What better place to have a conversation about a portion of the creative community in Jacksonville than in a shared space dedicated to studios and galleries?
The interview took place inside Chip Southworth’s studio. I’m surrounded by Princess Simpson Rashid, a painter and printmaker, CENT, a muralist, Dustin Harewood, a painter, educator and sometimes muralist, and, of course, Chip, a painter and activist.
The storm outside kicks up again. Against a backdrop of heavy rain, we make jokes about what’s on or off the record. Conversation comes easy, especially since this is not the first time they’ve met.
These artists have been crossing paths since 2012. Some have shared wall space in art shows and exhibitions. Princess and Chip each have studios in CoRK. Together with Dustin, they were part of the Cummer Museum’s “LIFT” exhibit in 2016. Dustin and CENT are both part of the BlessYourHeartCrew and are also some of the muralists doing work at the Phoenix Art District in Springfield.
These stories inspire my first question. Is the art scene in our city generally communal or is this group an outlier?
Princess dives right in. “Experiencing other art scenes like Atlanta, Tampa, and out west, when we’re here, we seem divided and segmented. But when you’re out from here and you’ve been part of it, you realize the scene here. We’re very connected. We are more supportive as a community than other communities I’ve been involved with.”
It’s a common refrain during our conversation, and one with a bit of weight considering the variety of locales where they have spent time. The combined list includes Puerto Rico to Brooklyn and Japan, Barbados, Tampa, Atlanta and many more. Their paths to Jacksonville vary greatly, as do their styles, inspirations and methods for gaining exposure. But their outlook on Jacksonville is optimistic — perhaps now more than ever.
“I think for the first time, the Cultural Council has got their board in a position where there could be some very positive things happening in their realm over the next few years,” Chip explained. “There’s more integrity, there’s more listening to artists, there’s more artists on the board right now than ever before.”
Hearing them call out names, programs and committees, it’s easy to say there’s a new guard in town. This includes people like Patrick Fisher on the Cultural Council, Aaron Garvey, curator and co-founder of Long Road Art Projects, or Caitlín Doherty, the new director at MOCA.
“There are people in there who know what needs to be done. And so I think things are changing,” Dustin said. He explained how more and more artists are being included in the decision-making process by local groups from invitations to sit on advisory committees for upcoming exhibits to helping decide new leadership for cultural institutions.
They offer up examples supporting the spirit of collaboration among local painters and creators. Chip references “Candy,” a recent collaborative exhibition at SPACE 42. “That’s real Jacksonville energy right there,” he proclaimed enthusiastically.
For CENT, having a group to work together with has brought opportunity and inspiration. “It’s pushed me to do more stuff outside of just murals.”
While the group is hopeful, they agree that Jacksonville still has many obstacles to overcome. For example, the lack of commercial gallery space. But that’s a blessing in disguise for Dustin.
“All this collaboration that’s happened, I think it’s because we have understood that we have helped each other,” he said. “I don’t know if that necessarily would have happened if there were two or three big commercial galleries. All of our energies would be going into getting them to rep us and having them control the narrative. Because they haven’t been there, we were forced to control the narrative, and I think that’s why it’s been so exciting.”
“I don’t want to say they’re one of the reasons we’re going to be awesome [with] their failure to support us,” Princess said. “In the end, I think the city is going to be even stronger because they have a strong group of artists, multigenerational, that is scrappy and will make a way out of no way.”
We end the conversation discussing ways that people outside the scene can become more involved. Ideas are offered up from celebrating Jacksonville’s different boroughs to joining a community like CoRK or Phoenix Art District. Perhaps it’s a small step like attending an opening night at the Cummer Museum in Riverside or MOCA downtown or at FSCJ’s Kent Campus. Either way, they all agree that what’s happening in their community is worth a drive from anywhere in town.