Any local resident knows that road construction is a constant in Jacksonville, but many in this area don't know that hidden behind all those orange cones is the nation's largest urban park system, with more than 80,000 acres spread among more than 300 parks.
But artist Kathy Stark knows.
Her passions for art and nature, specifically the wilderness of North Florida, became fused in her quest to raise awareness about the parks, their beauty and the nonprofit organizations that preserve and protect them, including St. Johns Riverkeeper, North Florida Land Trust, Greenscape and Timucuan Trail Parks Foundation. Stark launched a project to paint watercolors of 15 to 20 of Jacksonville's parks.
Stark will complete the paintings as time and funding allow, while also creating a coffee table book to feature the paintings and sketchbook pages with the history of the parks and information about those nonprofit groups. Stark plans to create a traveling exhibit that will include print versions of her original paintings and pages from the book in a bigger format.
"The idea is to create large-scale pages so people can walk through the book," said Shannon Blankinship, outreach director for St. Johns Riverkeeper.
Stark said she wants to include GPS coordinates for the locations in her paintings so that people could trek to those spots and "prove" they found and visited them. This interactive element could become an ongoing contest, with prizes from local outfitters such as hiking water bottles or fanny packs.
"It would be a way to motivate people to go the parks and make it fun," Stark said.
Stark is partnering with Timucuan Trail Parks Foundation to establish a "Park Depot," a place for people to learn about the parks, the nonprofit groups and her artwork. Other artists' and photographers' work featuring Jacksonville's parks could be exhibited there, as well as information about the nonprofit groups.
"If the ‘Park Depot' happens, we could have an ongoing amateur park photo contest and show those photos during Art Walk," Stark said.
She said she'd want to secure four or five different locations around Jacksonville for a possible rotating "Park of the Month" wall.
"Kathy's project is on point with our goals and, obviously, we're on board with anyone who wants to promote the parks," said Maria Mark, executive director of Timucuan Trail Parks Foundation.
Stark entered her work as a One Spark project and received $1,135.11 from crowd fund votes and $624.65 in personal contributions. She displayed her work at the River City Challenge & Eco-Fest in April and at a North Florida Land Trust screening of the documentary "Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition" in May.
Bonnie Barnes, executive director of North Florida Land Trust, said Stark's project has the potential to combat obesity and other health issues in Jacksonville.
"Kathy's book can help instill in families the desire to get outdoors and become more healthy," Barnes said.
So far, Stark has painted five watercolors of four parks: Theodore Roosevelt Area (in Arlington near Fort Caroline), Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park, Tillie K. Fowler Regional Park and Cumberland Island National Seashore. These are currently on display at Southlight Gallery. Her next painting will be of Little Talbot Island. Stark has a proposed list of 33 parks, all within an hour or less of Downtown Jacksonville.
At the June 5 First Wednesday Art Walk, Stark's art will be accompanied by a map of the proposed list of parks; visitors can vote to prioritize the ones she paints next.
Stark is working with a team, which includes John Ragsdale, the project adviser; Joe Eberly, the business plan adviser; and Wayne Wood, the book designer.
Family, friends, art collectors and enthusiasts have helped greatly in supporting the project, as has the funding Stark received from One Spark. Stark is looking for grants that might help fund the project and financial support from those who visit her displays.
"The trick for an artist is to be able to focus on a theme as this in a concentrated, consecutive amount of time," Stark said. "This is particularly how support from people interested in the project helps."