COVER STORY

Visionary RESIDENTS

Aaron Levi and Stevie Covart Garvey invite national contemporary artists to stay, create and network in Northeast Florida

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The Cadillac is dark, menacing and barreling straight ahead. Roughly 5,000 pounds of vintage American steel, leering grille, furious engine and spinning wheels. Luckily for those viewing the scene, the car is captured within the confines of a 5-foot-by-12-foot drawing, The Gatillac. Parked midair, the impressive 2D piece hides a bank of wires and weirdness splayed out behind it, connected to a sound system cranked to a woozy volume. The gallery walls surrounding the car are hung with other 2D and 3D pieces, some with their own playlists cranking. The sum experience evokes everything from a loud nightclub to a parking lot demolition derby—even a karaoke night gone haywire.

“Pretty loud, huh?” asks Aaron Levi Garvey, with a grin. Garvey and his wife Stevie Covart Garvey are standing in the West Gallery of CoRK Arts District. Both are wearing light clothing, he in khaki shorts and a faded dress shirt, she in blue jeans and a light top. The pair are photogenic, even striking-looking, Aaron with his tousled black hair and light beard, Stevie with her blonde hair, sharp facial features and left arm sleeved in tattoos. Yet here in the immense, sweltering gallery space, good looks or not, they’re starting to wilt. Both hold large water bottles and both appear flushed, as sweat starts to lightly dampen their reddening faces. If there is one glaring shortcoming at CoRK, it’s that the A/C system is still a hit-or-miss situation; its absence is blatant on this spring day in Riverside, all brutal Duval County mugginess with a junta of gray rainclouds pushing against the blue skies outside.

Aaron and Stevie are the creators, curators and sole operators of Long Road Projects. An artist-in-residency program, Long Road Projects (LRP) is unique to the Northeast Florida arts scene, not only in the sense that visiting artists stay and work here, but that they agree to directly engage with locals and create a limited edition work while in residence.

The LRP exhibit currently hanging at CoRK is Wild One 66 – USA, featuring 2D and 3D works by California-based artist Josh Short.

“Josh is from Nebraska,” says Aaron, of Short’s apparent obsession with vintage autos. “He’s into big cars and that kind of ‘big’ America.”

“He’s, like, extreme Americana,” says Stevie. “Josh’s the son of a cattle rancher but you meet him and you could never sense that in a million years.”

In part, Short is a kind of a one-person 21st-century revival of the ’60s pirate radio scene-meets-visual artist, traveling the country in “Lucille Valentine,” a mobile radio trailer forged from a 1978 Chevy LUV pickup. It’s from here he broadcasts Bomb Shelter Radio, using his playlists and mix tapes of both old and new music to cipher American past and current culture. His work on display at CoRK plays this out, with recurring imagery of Cadillacs and other national signifiers, with a soundtrack coursing through the gallery space. It’s only fitting that Short’s LRP edition is a 60-minute cassette mix tape of Short’s personally chosen tunes, as well as a download, in conjunction with a limited-edition print and packaging.

Roughly 10 minutes have passed and the initial conversation seems to lull more from heat exhaustion than social awkwardness.

“It is incredibly hot in here,” says Stevie matter-of-factly, hurriedly collecting her things. “We really need to go somewhere else.”

“Yeah, we should maybe see if we can talk in the main room,” says Aaron, clicking off switches and shutting down Short’s multimedia songs and Caddy rumbles.

No one argues as he leads the way toward the exit door, to quiet and air conditioning.
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Long Road Projects is closing a gap that may have become only apparent once it was acknowledged, studied, strategized and filled. “Jacksonville doesn’t import artists beyond the two museums that are here. I think artists and arts patrons are using the wrong term, saying that there’s no ‘gallery system’ here,” says Aaron. “No—there’s no independent art system here. That is, outside of the artists who live here and the two museums bringing in artists. So there is a need to trek in these artists.”

Previous to Short’s residency, last year the Garveys invited Lala Abaddon (July 18-Aug. 18), Gamaliel Rodríguez (Oct. 15-27) and Tameka Norris (Dec. 9-Jan. 11) to stay and work here. “One studio visit, one public program, an edition and a minimum two-week residence,” says Aaron, succinctly breaking down what LRP is. “That’s all we ask because that’s all it is.”

“Punk rock is the term I use a lot to describe this,” says Stevie, of a chief criterion their invited artists need to have. “Because if you’re a diva, you simply can’t come.”

Creating that residency, public forum/lecture and the concluding edition are driven purely by that very same punk rock DIY ethos. The Garveys pay for all food and art supplies. “Each time we provide supplies, whatever the artist doesn’t use stays in the studio as a resource for the next artists,” explains Stevie.

Housing is solved courtesy of the Garveys’ sole benefactor, as it were, a “really gracious friend” who owns many properties in the area who donates any available, vacant housing for the resident artists to work in and reside. “He actually reached out to us and said he liked what we’re doing and wants to support local arts,” says Stevie of the donor who wishes to remain anonymous. “That was a huge boon for us. And if someone needs to fly in, we’ll pay for that. We are just doing whatever we can to make this work.”

Profits from the editions sales that each artist makes are split 50/50. “Not to sound pretentious, but I think everybody has an idea of what collecting art ‘looks like,’” says Stevie. “But I think with these editions, it’s kind of an opportunity to really collect something. All people hear about are these auctions and record-breaking sales. But people should realize that buying engaging, contemporary art is really feasible.”

In nearly a year of hosting residencies and publishing corresponding editions of each artist’s work, LRP has been arguably an immediate success. Their flagship artist, Abaddon, lived and worked in a space, while creating woven tapestries composed of photographs, as well as creating a live-streaming and continuous, 24-hour performance piece. She fulfilled the “public forum” aspect of her residency by being featured in a lecture and discussion at Sun-Ray Cinema, which was moderated by longtime local artist and arts writer (and regular Folio Weekly arts contributor) Madeleine Peck Wagner, while a limited edition print satisfied the tactile requirement of LRP.

Roughly three months later, Rodríguez created work that displayed his prowess at creating hyper-photorealistic yet dreamlike drawings, utilizing only ballpoint pens. He also gave a lecture at FSCJ Kent Campus Gallery. Norris and Short were invited and then presented in this same uniform structure: stay, create, discuss and present.

All four of the residents are enjoying much success in their respective careers. Following his residency with LRP, Rodriguez was one of 20 artists invited by Occupy Museums to be featured in an installation at the 2017 Whitney Biennial. After staying and working here in Jacksonville, Abaddon was commissioned by Facebook to create site-specific installations.

The Garveys somewhat downplay their involvement in, or even affect on, these resident artists, but the reality is that the words “Long Road Projects” are increasingly appearing in the CVs and résumés, and certainly memories of, celebrated artists who are drawing greater attention. That notice, in turn, is aimed back to LRP and, in turn, aimed back toward the project’s hometown: Jacksonville. This creates a dialogue and expands our artistic community and that community’s experience of meeting and networking with these artists. All of the above are also part of the Garveys’ design.

“Long Road Projects is community-building in the true sense of the word,” says Aaron. “We are drawing threads to everyone we know and, hopefully, everyone they know, to pull it in tighter and tighter and that same network will have Jacksonville in that design.”

The caliber of the invited artists speaks volumes of the Garveys’ awareness of the greater arts scene. That knowledge is due in no small part to their regularly visiting cities like Manhattan, Chicago or New Orleans, not so much as to talent-scout, but rather to experience what’s happening there, and meet and build relationships with the artists creating those scenes.

“We want this LRP to be the institution for everyone, because galleries and museums have become this austere, untouchable, highbrow, no-riff-raff-is-allowed-in experience,” says Aaron. “And that’s not where it’s at. Come meet these artists. Most of them want to talk to people and get their feedback on the art.”

Self-funded, the pair successfully filed for 501c3 status and LRP is incorporated as a Florida nonprofit. “But that’s solely so we can write not for organizational grants but for individual artists’ grants,” says Aaron. “Because what we are doing is for artists and any individual grants would actually take funding away for the next artists who come here.”
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Relationships and community—the two topics and ideas that reappear constantly when speaking with Aaron and Stevie. Those two words are connected, even interchangeable and certainly, when realized, influence one another. In some ways, the Garveys are their own microcosm of those principles, distinct personalities, a classic Venn diagram of two circles, their identities merging into their shared relationship, overlapping and building a third sphere: community.

Aaron and Stevie met six years ago here in Jacksonville. “We met in the most romantic way,” Stevie laughs, “at a bar.” Stevie, age 37, was born and raised here; Aaron, 32, is from upstate New York and wound up here to finish high school. Both had already accumulated strong arts academic credentials. Stevie studied art history at Boston University. Over the course of his 20s, Aaron had proved himself to be a force to be reckoned with, earning degrees from University of North Florida and SCAD in fields including nonprofit administration, art history and studio art. “Honestly, it all derived from being curious and liking history,” he says. In the past decade, Aaron has aimed that passion into stints as an independent curator at the gallery and museum level, writer, lecturer and arts consultant. From 2010 to 2012, Garvey worked as a curatorial assistant for exhibits at MOCA Jax. In 2016 alone, he curated the inaugural art exhibition at United Nations headquarters in New York City and co-curated the Atlanta Biennial (ATLBNL). His CV rivals and, at times, surpasses some of the very artists with whom he has worked. At press time, Aaron had been nominated as the Art Professional Seat of the city’s Art in Public Places Committee, a group that falls under the larger umbrella of the city’s Cultural Council. Yet over the course of a two-hour conversation, he never “talks résumé” and in describing LRP, it’s obvious that he and Stevie are creating on a shared canvas.

“It’s funny, because my favorite professor at the school would always say, ‘Well, there’s no turnover at that field [art history],’” says Stevie. “And it’s funny because I heard the same kind of skepticism and misunderstanding from people when we began this project [LRP].” Stevie acknowledges that establishing and maintaining an artist-in-residency program, as two people no less, to some might seem inconceivable.

“But what it all comes down to is sweat equity.”
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Stop trying to be somebody else. That seems to be one of the chief criticisms that the Garveys have toward the local arts scene. Aaron is careful when choosing his words about this community of artists. “We are never going to be New York. We are never going to be LA, Miami, Atlanta, and we don’t even need to be them, so why compare and why even bother?” he asks, opening his hands in a kind of defeated gesture. “Because we don’t need to be. Worrying about what we’re not helps no one and really weakens the whole community here. I think that might be the biggest misconception—needing to be some other scene—that is somehow perpetuated by the actual local artists themselves.”

Stevie cites a not-uncommon lack of self-promotion that hampers some local artists. “They won’t have a web presence, they don’t actively network with artists outside of the city,” she says. “Aaron and I were at Art Basel [Miami Beach] and someone asked a Jacksonville artist for a business card; and they didn’t even have a fucking card. Seriously?”

For all of its undeniable developments in recent years, the Northeast Florida arts scene has a few hindrances, some glaring. One could argue that there is a certain “clap harder” mentality that might have developed as a side effect of such an insular, if not at times cloistered, arts community. Recent group shows have revealed this, where a few notable artists’ works can seem incongruous next to offerings by emerging, even plain inferior, artists who are glaringly out of place in the now-compromised quality of the exhibit. When is enthusiasm a kind of enabling? Aesthetic can be systemic, as can be a reluctance toward discernment. Secondly, and in accord with that observation, there can be a sweeping excitement that all local contemporary art is “good.” This is a fallacy and goes against simple logic: If everything is “good,” then nothing is truly exemplary and nothing is actually “good.” Art might be egalitarian as an ideal, but is still based on skill and practice, not merely some expected encouraging words at an opening. Quite frankly, this writer is culpable in some of this fervor, more prone to focusing on what is seen as appealing rather than criticize what appears to be lacking.

The Garveys are ultimately supportive and magnanimous about the local arts scene. After all, the nexus of LRP is Jacksonville. They want to stay here and continue this now-proven exchange of visiting, resident artists and the natural, informal exchanges that occur between the artists and local artists. Their hope is that LRP will prosper and local artists will prosper right along with it.

“We do have a lot of amazing art in this city, but because it’s so insular, it doesn’t go out a lot of times to bring things back,” says Stevie. “And it seems like, when people go out, behind that excitement is an immediate jealously. I’ve always said, no one will hate on your art like a hipster from Jacksonville.”

If the adage “It’s all who you know” ever rang true, it’s certainly apt in describing the art market’s seemingly impenetrable payday. One of the Garveys’ core convictions is to stress how crucial it is to fully support art, as in buying art, since the greatest compliment is surely in buying an artist’s work. “The money that is in Jacksonville that purchases art, they purchase it elsewhere,” says Stevie, citing one of the loudest and understandable grievances from local artists. “The back-pats and the congratulations and the Facebook ‘likes’? Who gives a shit?” asks Aaron. “Buy something.”

This sentiment applies to supporting local artists, while the editions created by LRP artists can be bought for $120 to $300 each. Those same artists’ original gallery pieces can sell for upwards of $10,000 to $15,000. By the very nature of today’s social media multiverse, if affordable pieces by the established LRP residents draw attention toward, and interest in, Jacksonville, there is an increased possibility that some of that money might trickle down to local artists’ checking accounts.
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Two hours have passed and the gray clouds have made good on their threat of arrival, as rain drums on the roof and windows of CoRK. The conversation ends as casually as it started and everyone makes a run for their cars. Even though they’re putting in the same overtime as any disciplined, professional artist, Aaron and Stevie are indifferent to the workload. They seem to know their place in the art world and are confident of Jacksonville’s current and possible future position in that very same realm. As ever, it all goes back to relationships and community. Inviting a stranger in, letting them be who they are, opening a dialogue, honoring what they do and invariably being rather pleased when that person tells others of this new, inviting and supportive place where they were welcomed.

If we are lucky, visual art generates these dialogues, exchanges, confessions, even arguments. Even the most minimal, “anti-emotion” or transgressive art features some aspect of self-disclosure, however submerged. Art is sustained by connections; a connection with self and expression, a connection to the media, connecting with the viewer and connecting with the community. Long Road Projects is intent on ultimately curating an exchange, a conversation about art, artists and the audience and those curious confluences where they all sometimes meet.

“You know, I was a teacher for AmeriCorps and I taught really young children. I’d have them talk about art and they’d ask these very simple, direct questions about art, but they were great questions,” Stevie laughs. “People can lose that innocent fascination about art. And that’s really sad, since you’d find that most artists are still creating work based on those simple questions, trying to figure out the answers and even hope that you might step in, talk to them and make that happen.”
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The closing reception for Josh Short’s Wild One 66 – USA is 6-9 p.m. May 25 at CoRK Arts District’s West Gallery, 2689 Rosselle St., Riverside, longroadprojects.com.

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