The COVID-19 pandemic has forced almost every industry of every type, in every city and every state, to not only refine its core business model, but to redefine its place within the broader society. The art world is no different. Social distancing has put a temporary halt to mass gatherings, meaning that the sort of close-talking and physical intimacy characteristic of your typical art show is a flat non-starter, with no obvious end in sight.
Artists Roosevelt Watson III and his wife, educator and activist Shawana Brooks, have responded to these challenges in rather cheeky fashion. And it’s been a hit.
The 6 Feet Away Gallery gets its name from an obvious place, but its physical place is less obvious, conceptually: the couple’s own yard. It’s a sunny, spacious corner plot near the corner of 15th and Fairfax, on the Northside of Jacksonville. “People walk by, or they’ll bike by, and then they slow down to look at it,” says Brooks, who’s lived there for about three years. “In the past month, I feel like we’ve had at least 300 people, if not more.” Brooks is bold, brash, brassy, a forcefully charismatic personality and a natural salesperson–the kind, smiling face of the venture.
Her husband tends to be more reserved and cerebral, but he gets fired up when his passions are stoked. “I fought to not make a box, but now I’ve kinda made a box,” he says. “One professor said, ‘You should be a folk artist,’” which was a notion he’d resisted at first. “But I later came to realize that she [the professor] was just telling the truth, because I am a storyteller, an orator, a historian.” Roosevelt works in styles ranging from caricature to abstract art, the latter being his current focus, using repurposed doors and found objects to a chart a course through the diaspora, as manifest in the south.
Within days of opening, the space had become a touchstone for a local art scene struggling to define itself in this bitter new reality. “I am inspired by what Shawana and Roosevelt have created, which is an authentic and powerful way to connect people, art, and place,” says Hope McMath, Founder of Yellow House and a former Director at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. “So many arts leaders and cultural workers speak to issues like relevance, access, and representation, but these two are actually doing it.”
6 Feet Away’s success was driven almost entirely by word of mouth, as well as social media, but their story quickly took hold in more conventional outlets. The gallery has been featured in the Florida Times-Union, and was even presented to national audiences by NPR’s “Morning Edition” on June 3.
“We tell all our neighbors that we’re artists, but not everyone knows what that means,” says Brooks. They use the space to draw their peers deeper into the art experience, even giving out family passes to the Cummer for local kids, some of whom have never visited a museum before.
The gallery’s value to the community only increased as the country underwent one of the most abrupt cultural shifts in living memory. A city already reeling from the pandemic was thrown into full-blown chaos as blowback from the murder of George Floyd swept the nation, leading to dramatic scenes of violence and unrest in cities across America in late May and early June. For Watson and Brooks, social justice has always been central to their work; Brooks, in particular, has seized upon the crisis to advance the kind of dialogue that she’s been advocating for years now.
“To amplify the stories of Black lives, through the creativity and experience of a Black artist and curator, directly in a community where generations of Black families have lived, worked, and played is such a welcome addition,” says McMath. “It’s the conversation created in spaces where all are truly welcome that gives meaning to the art. More of this!”
No doubt. As social distancing restrictions ease up, Watson and Brooks plan to expand on their vision, a vision that resonates strongly in these times.