On a side road off of Edgewood Avenue sits a small, nondescript building. Inside is the Murray Hill Art Center, which serves as a home to the Art League of Jacksonville (ALJ). Inside, teacher William McMahan begins his 3 p.m. class with a group critique. McMahan guides his students in how to critique each other’s works. Rather than being anxious about any criticisms, all but one were eager to have both their artistic assets and flaws explained to them by McMahan. The walls of the room are an office-like off white. Yet colorful paintings cover each wall, their colors only broken up by a few shelves of pottery. Improvements on last week’s work are pointed while some offer suggestions design principles and techniques.
A sense of community is apparent. Side chatter and laughing join their commentaries about each other and their positive progressions from when they first began taking the class.
Every class begins in the same way: 30 minutes of group critique from McMahan and the other artists. As he gives praise, he follows with specific suggestions and even makes strokes and, after asking each student’s permission, he outlines on each individual’s work.
Since 2012, McMahan has been a teacher at ALJ. In that short amount of time, he has witnessed its expansion and progression, as well as its ability to form bonds between artists.
Classes are home to all kinds of artists, ranging from novices to experts. Even those like well-known Jacksonville artist Cookie Davis continue to attend classes through the ALJ to be inspired by others and continue to improve.
“I believe everyone has an inherent artistic ability. Everyone improves and broadens their art through ALJ,” says McMahan, explaining that no knowledge of art or even skill level is required to sign up. “People have evolved so much. I say [to my artists], ‘Look at everyone’s techniques and be inspired by everyone else.’”
McMahan’s journey that led him to the Art League of Jacksonville began when he and his wife moved here in 2012. In that same year, he began showing his printmaking skills at the Riverside Arts Market. That’s where he ran into ALJ founder Craig Erskine.
When Craig Erskine created Art League of Jacksonville in 2009, it’s safe to say that the type of interaction and camaraderie shown in McMahan’s class is what he envisioned. Erskine’s main reason for wanting to form an art league in Jacksonville was truly to fill a void. “His daughters weren’t getting enough art in school,” says McMahan, matter of factly. Erskine passed away in May of 2015. A portrait of a smiling Erskine hangs in the main lobby of the Murray Hill Art Center, where he remains an inspiration to the Art League of Jacksonville. “[Erskine] was the best person that I ever knew,” McMahan says.
When asked about the process of creating the league, McMahan explains that, “ALJ was really a labor of love.” He says that the now fully functional art center was once a mess, requiring lots of repairs, maintenance, and hands-on renovation.
Now in 2017, the Murray Hill Art Center is home to 11 unique art classes ranging from acrylic painting to comic book art. Since its 2009 inception, the Art League of Jacksonville has even grown to have two additional locations in Mandarin and San Marco. ALJ is a nonprofit organization that has an agreement with the City of Jacksonville, who provides ALJ with buildings, electricity, and water. Due to their nonprofit status, ALJ makes sure to keep the cost of their classes low so that artists can enjoy the perks of being a member without having to stress about if they can afford it. For those who may not have the funds to join, there are also scholarships available for youth and adults that are experienced artists. The league and generous donors pay for materials that are used in the classroom such as easels, paper, pencils, and paint. “Money [we’ve received] has been through people in the classes,” says McMahan.
This spirit of giving that is seen outside of the classroom through donations can also be seen inside, with collaboration and creativity. “[ALJ] offers a welcoming group of people with a huge range of experience,” McMahan explains. “Our classes are very collaborative. [Artists] will appreciate elements from everyone.”
This collaborative, hands-on culture that can be found at Art League of Jacksonville has contributed to the success of their members and allowed for more than 40 of their young artists to be accepted into Douglas Anderson School of the Arts . Many others to publish their work and show their pieces in public places. Even if you think your artistic abilities are lacking or your end goal isn’t necessarily to be published, there is still a place for you to improve and grow at Art League of Jacksonville.