(No) Sympathy for the Devil

Brenda Kato has fought all her life to be free of what she calls the “beige people” in her hometown. For her, that’s shorthand for a certain kind of conservative Jacksonville Christian who is closed-minded, conformist and judgmental. As a visual artist and creative person, Kato regards beige people as a threat to her individuality and creativity — and they are a people she knows all too well. Growing up in the congregation of Jacksonville’s First Baptist Church in the 1980s, where her father was a deacon, Kato remembers how the church held sway over the City Council and pretty much dictated what was acceptable and what wasn’t in downtown Jacksonville. First Baptist didn’t like bars, for instance. They didn’t like creative rebels, either.

But even Kato, who owns Bee Gallery at The Jacksonville Landing, was taken aback by a religious dustup with the owner of a store next to hers. According to Kato, the owner of River City Gourmet Shoppe, Sherry Lyford, complained after Kato invited Medium Tree, a tarot card reader, to give readings during First Wednesday Art Walk.

Kato, who opened her gallery at The Landing in 2010, thought the readings would bring customers to the gallery, so she set up a table for the reader just outside the shop’s entrance. She never heard any complaints about Medium Tree or her readings, she says, until the River City Gourmet Shoppe opened next door in August 2011. First, Landing management told Kato to move the table and the tarot readings inside her gallery. Then Lyford told Kato that her customers didn’t like tarot cards, and that a group of Baptist women had started a monthly prayer circle inside the food store to combat the evil spirits at Kato’s Bee Gallery.

“She said to me directly that she didn’t like the tarot card reader [particularly the long white cape that Medium Tree wears], and her clients didn’t like psychic folk,” says Kato. “She said we were scaring away her clients, and her clients are high-end people.”

Kato, who opened her Landing gallery as part of the Off the Grid project — an effort by Downtown Vision Inc. and the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville to put artists in empty storefronts — was initially reluctant to complain. After she moved the readings inside, Kato believed everything had been worked out with Lyford. She says she even bought all of her Christmas presents from River City Gourmet. But at the February ArtWalk, a woman interrupted a tarot reading, complaining that Bee Gallery was “New Age” and warning, “That’s the Devil in those tarot cards.”

Just a week earlier, two additional River City Gourmet customers had stopped by her gallery to deliver the same Bee-Gallery-as-evil-enterprise complaint. Soon after, a Landing security guard told her he’d seen a family hustling their children away from her gallery window as if it was going to swallow them. Kato says the encounters drove her past her tipping point.

“I’m not trying to be the tarot card union leader,” says Kato. “I actually identify myself as a Christian, but I don’t like their tactics and I don’t like it when they try to bully anybody who is living a creative life or who has a vision outside what they deem important.”

Bee Gallery isn’t a staid art gallery. In addition to showing abstract paintings and cubist dreamscapes, Kato invited a couple to set up Diversions, a retail shop, in the front of the gallery. Diversions sells relaxation products — jars of incense, yoga mats, crystals and other products that might be described as New Age. Pretty tame stuff, Kato observes. “It’s not like I’m playing death metal and have a bunch of pentagrams hanging from the ceiling, like a real Satan shop,” Kato complains. “I actually believe in demons — and I’m not conjuring them up. I’m not a Satan worshipper.”

The Landing’s public relations representative Blakeley Ainsworth says she hasn’t heard complaints about the Bee Gallery being “evil,” but says Landing management did receive a complaint about six naked mannequins displayed in the gallery window. They asked Kato to dress them so that the breasts were covered.

Ainsworth observes that The Jacksonville Landing has a lot of different kinds of businesses, including many that are independently owned, and reflect their owners’ and customers’ tastes. As long as the shops obey the strictures of their leases and aren’t hurting anyone, they can do their thing.

The gallery was closed and the food shop empty when Folio Weekly stopped by last Tuesday during the lunch hour. Ceramic saucers of olive oil were out for customers to sample at River City Gourmet, and a stocky, 50ish man with a mop of gray hair emerged from the back of the shop. When asked about the conflict with Bee Gallery, he responded angrily. “Nobody ever said anybody was a Satan worshipper,” he said, waving his hands to say the conversation was finished. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

He then added his wife had a conflict with Bee Gallery because they’d set up a table outside the store, which their lease forbids. “They were hawking,” he said. But whatever conflict his wife had with Kato, he thought it should be kept between them. “There’s no reason why what was said should be going in the newspaper,” he fumed.

Kato later said she understands that the Lyfords can’t control their customers’ actions, and she admits she’s assumed the complainants are River City Gourmet customers. But she again notes that she never heard any complaints until the Lyfords opened their shop.

“[The election of] Alvin Brown was a huge victory for liberals and other people who want to move this city forward in thought and individuality,” she says. “But there is that core majority that just has a ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ mentality, and they want to fight tooth and nail to keep it that way.”

Susan Cooper E

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