COVER STORY

THE BIG EMPTY

Joy Leverette is filling the void of Downtown’s vacant soul with art.

THE ARTS ARE THE ANSWER: On a day that also included presentations with Downtown Vision and the Cultural Council, Leverette brainstorms with bookseller Jeni O’Donnell at Chamblin’s Uptown.
Dennis Ho
THE REVOLUTION WILL BE TELEVISED: For two weeks, Leverette will live in this storefront on the corner of Adams and Laura streets, under the constant watchful eye of two webcams.
Dennis Ho
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To Joy Leverette’s eyes, Jacksonville is not really a city. Not yet.

It is instead a grouping of little towns, joined together under one area code. In this pistol-shaped state, it sits on the hammer, ready to pull back the spring and fire off progress — if only it could get itself in the right position.

“What Jacksonville needs is artists Downtown,” Leverette says. “That’s what creates a beautiful urban culture.”

Below her curly red hair are eyes, framed by winged liner, that well with excitement when you say the word Jacksonville. This enthusiasm fueled her proposal for The Looking Lab, which last year received $19,500 from the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville in the form of a Spark Grant.

The Looking Lab’s mission is to draw attention to Downtown’s empty spaces and bring more people into the urban core. In this vast void, Jacksonville’s history is crumbling before our eyes. We try to mask it with murals, but leave the march of time largely unchallenged. Nothing, Leverette says, could be more dangerous to a city’s identity: “It’s the emptiness that’s scary. It’s in the emptiness where the underbelly lives. It’s in the darkness where the boogeyman is.”

Leverette and The Looking Lab shed light on that darkness with pop-up storefront art shows. By populating empty spaces with visual artists, musicians and dancers, Leverette is seeking to slowly exorcise Downtown’s demons. The next show, Exhibit B: Spaceshifts, opens March 28, featuring the work of the University of North Florida’s Enlivened Spaces sculpture students in collaboration with Jacksonville University’s dance department in the windows of City Hall.

“Usually we have a stage; this time we only have windows,” says JU dance instructor Lana Heylock. “It will be a challenge for the students to use a small space and still communicate kinetically and create a narrative and tell a story through their bodies.”

The UNF students will transform the space with installations that reflect various environments, from deep sea to coral reef to swamp to city to mountains to deep space, even to other worlds. The JU dancers will attempt to embody the life-forms that would live in these environments and tell their story through movement.

“The Looking Lab is an investigation for ‘what happens if,’” Leverette explains. “We’re performing experiments with different mediums.”

The resulting exhibits are the outcome of those experiments, showcased in Downtown storefronts.

If Leverette had her way, Jacksonville would be Brooklyn’s sister city. Then she wouldn’t need to leave here to experience the same artistic atmosphere that more cosmopolitan places offer. The Looking Lab is her effort to spark that atmosphere locally.

“She is a change agent,” says Erin Galat, communications manager at the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. “Artists may not come to the top of the list when you think about creating change, but when you think about the impact they make, they really should be.”

To the Cultural Council, artistic creation is tied directly to economic development. “Usually, when a space is abandoned, it is seen as a blight, or unsafe,” Galat says. “Projects like Joy’s create these spaces into points of interest that spur energy Downtown. The foot traffic benefits the other businesses on that city block.”

Leverette studied visual art and received her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Florida before leaving the 904 for the bright lights of bigger cities like D.C. and New York. As a singer for the jazz band Feels Like Radar, she immersed herself into the creative counterculture. She also managed to tap into a part of herself that always loved performance. She was affected most by the notion that large cities have spaces for artists to both live and hone their craft. Such spaces were the heartbeat of and added flavor to neighborhoods.

After eight years, she emerged on the other side with a new perspective: “The arts are the answer,” Leverette says. “They are what make a city unique and give a city its culture. I didn’t know that until I came back. You don’t realize the importance until you see it.”

When she returned to Jacksonville, it was in search of something else, a sense of self as much as a sense of home.

She began experimenting with what she calls field jamming. For the uninitiated, to field jam, follow these simple instructions: 1) Find an empty field. 2) Don your favorite sunglasses. 3) Put in your ear buds. 4) Begin dancing alone.

“As a painter, my style is very detailed and rigid,” Leverette says. “I wanted to find a way to get the same joy from painting that I did from field dancing.”

Thus was born Sister Feathertoe, a barefoot dance-painting goddess symbol that is equal parts courage and spontaneity. This alter ego has already made her mark on the city. Under this alias, Leverette, disguised as a nun or a businesswoman who suddenly breaks into dance in the middle of a crowd, has instigated impromptu dance parties. During MOCA’s retrospective showcase in the spring of 2012, for instance, Sister Feathertoe, crowned in daisies, dance-painted a portrait of Edie Sedgwick using her hands and feet to a track of “These Boots Were Made for Walkin’ ” — reverential to the ’60s.

By day, Leverette is a wife, stepmother and sister to 10 siblings. In her second skin, however, Leverette sheds what she calls her “clerical self” and becomes her “creative self,” forming large-scale pieces while freestyle dancing to Native American drumbeats.

All of which is interesting, but how could hippie ideas from Yankee cities translate into real progress for Jacksonville?

“For every dollar that’s invested in the arts, over $22 is generated in revenue to our city,” says Diane Brunet-García, chair of the Cultural Council’s board of directors. “That’s an incredible economic impact and return on investment for Jacksonville. So, if we place the arts and artists as a top priority in Downtown development, we will substantially increase our pace in making Jacksonville a world-class destination.”

Still, asking a few art shows to revolutionize a sprawling city mired in tradition and apathy is a tall order. “The Looking Lab can’t do it alone,” Leverette says. “We need the creative community to come together to let Jacksonville know Downtown is important. Let’s give people a reason to come Downtown so they don’t have to leave the city like I did.”

The city, she believes, is a blank canvas, ready for a renaissance that isn’t going to come from the St. Johns Town Center. And so her Looking Lab challenges us to connect with our surroundings, to imagine a Downtown with light in every window. This can only be achieved if artists occupy the empty spaces.

Leverette argues that if artists live and work Downtown they will, by osmosis, create culture where there is none. Like a river carving a canyon, these artists will change the landscape around them, bringing art shows and galleries to vacant buildings, music to sidewalk cafés, and performance to the streets. This in turn will (hopefully) attract more artists from other places and more foot traffic Downtown.

Jacksonville, Leverette adds, is a great place for an artist on a mission. There’s simply less competition. If you are driven, you can make a name for yourself here. But she would rather trade being a big fish in a small pond for a vibrant ocean of possibilities.

“I want to be the kind of artist who is part of a larger community,” Leverette says, “where we all work together to create something amazing. There is a lot of pressure on the creative in Jacksonville.”

The problems at our city’s core are deep-rooted and require creative solutions. After spending last year in an administrative role coordinating The Looking Lab projects, Leverette has now come to realize just how much money, resources and time are needed to get a vision like hers off the ground.

“If there are more people like me, then at least there are a few loud voices making noise,” Leverette says. “We have the ability as a generation to rebrand this city.”

The Looking Lab is her bat signal, calling citizens to action.

How will we answer?

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