This interview originally appeared as the Influencers feature in Void Magazine’s winter 2020 issue.

For those in need of free time, 2020 hasn’t left many wanting. The opposite has proven true for Shawana Brooks, who has jumped from project to project this year like bees float through flowers. At the outset of the pandemic, Brooks and her husband, the artist Roosevelt Watkins III, had already started the socially distant art space, 6 Ft. Away Gallery, in the lot adjacent to their home. She then expanded her efforts with the voter-turnout-focused Color Jax Blue initiative, followed by a collaboration with the San Francisco-based Come To Your Census, a national campaign to encourage participation in this year’s US Census. 

At press time, Brooks has been helping drive caravans of early voters to the polls, and finishing work on her new home, all while raising a toddler son. She’s also launched her own podcast, because: Why the heck not? Brooks’s many initiatives are linked by common threads: public art, social activism, engagement with civic leaders, etc. 

All of the above has brought Brooks to the attention of local and national media (she’s been featured in the pages of Void Magazine and on this publication’s website twice already this year). And every time she pops up, it seems, Brooks is doing something different. 

She sat with Void again, though this time at her new home in the Mixon Town neighborhood of Jax. We sat on metal lawn furniture, positioned between a sawhorse and a hobby horse, and talked for over two hours in her new backyard, while renovation work proceeded inside.

Talk to us about the term “influencer,”  because that is our theme, and because influencers seems to be influencing more than usual this year.

I find that word to be a little bit of a mystery. When I think about “influencer,” I kind of think more about manipulation. I don’t want to manipulate people into being a part of what I’m doing, but I do want them to get pulled in through their own heart rate, using their own passion. I kind of switched up that naming [with Color Jax Blue]. Instead of calling them “influencers,” I’ve started calling them “amplifiers.” I started thinking about what amps do, how they increase the frequency, so you can really hear everything really clearly. 

What percentage of the moves you’ve made this year were deliberately planned, before the year began, and how much has been in response to the events of this year?

I had no plans about any of this. At the beginning of this pandemic, I finally had time to put my own exhibition out there, with my own writing and my own words. But the universe wouldn’t even give me time for that. Even though there were things that I knew I had planted seeds for, there was a stillness that allowed me to recollect on my own passions. I had this time to look at myself and my life, and look at my husband and my child, and think about my own needs. It’s been a rollercoaster. 

6ft. Away Gallery from marc mangra on Vimeo.

What’s the longest you’ve gone without sleep this year?

Thirty-nine hours, one time. I just was up, and I could not fall asleep. This was right when we were starting to plan the <Injustice in Jacksonville> mural. This was right after Breonna Taylor was murdered. As much as it affected me personally, I didn’t know her. I never met her, or her family, but I can think of Breonna Taylors who are here. These people, to me, are symbols. 

When it comes to the intersection of art and commerce, to what extent does motivation matter, in terms of the ultimate results? Is it better to have someone who does the right things for the wrong reasons, or someone who has the right motivations, but maybe doesn’t have the ruthlessness to follow through in a competitive environment like this?

I think you gotta pick your poisons. There are times when I’ve not necessarily wanted to work with certain people, but I knew I had to in order to get something done. I think there’s a lot of ways where we can all learn from one another, but we gotta be better about forgiving each other. What’s the point of holding a grudge? It’s not going to help get anything done!

The explosion of public art in this city has been great, visually, and the investment made by the community in public art has paid off well, financially. What comes next?

So often, artists are so passionate, and they want to get their work out there, so they do it for the peanuts, and in the end they get upset about what they didn’t have. With private entities, all you do is ask the business owner, and you’re set. In dealing with the city, you have to deal with proposals, approval processes, city council, meetings, appointments, committees, etc. In the end, when the money is so low, I’d almost rather they do nothing than do too little, sometimes. 

We’re so far behind. Every time I look at another city, and they’re about to do a whole mural festival, dedicated to social justice, and it’s not even a thing to ask for, or beg for, and it sits on this nexus where we have so many underdeveloped areas. The fact that I get to do things like this here, it’s joyful, but also so disturbing. It should not be that way. We’ve had decades to be where other cities are, as far as how they’re utilizing artists and public art. I feel like, if I stop, who’s going to do it? I’m just doing this small, tiny bit, and that’s the fuel to my fire.

This interview originally appeared as the Influencers feature in Void Magazine’s winter 2020 issue.