by JON BOSWORTH
“My biggest hope is that the general population can all go in and say this is pretty. You can do that and take a deep breath and look at pretty Florida landscapes and enjoy it and go home. Somebody’s day was better; that’s good. That’s probably what seventy-five to eighty percent will do. Then you will have some people that go in a little deeper and say ‘what a sonofabitch.’ Liberal, communist, whatever. They’re gonna be pissed off and go home because I hate Rick Scott. And that’s fine. On the other hand, there are the people who will cry about the last manatee. And that’s fine. Most people will look at the pretty pictures and go home and go to sleep and go on with their lives. Some people will have a response one way or the other,” warns Jim Draper about his evocative new show in the Riverside neighborhood of Jacksonville in arguably the city’s most reputable museum.
The Feast of Flowers exhibition is on display now at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens. This 2013 show is taking place 500 years after Ponce de Leon named La Florida from the bow of a Spanish ship. This exhibition has been publicly construed as a celebration of 500 years of Florida, but that assessment couldn’t be more off-point. Florida was here long before Ponce de Leon claimed it for Spain. For 500 years, Florida has been conquered. Draper’s work provides a glimpse of a Florida that existed prior to that conquest–a beauty in the natural landscape that is endangered by this incessant conquering. The Feast of Flowers exhibition isn’t a celebration of Ponce de Leon, it is an observation of an irony. It is a study of the Florida that existed before European influence and of the American culture that has continued the conquest of this natural paradise. I sat down with Draper in his West Riverside studio to discuss the Feast of Flowers.
“The idea of a feast is having more than you deserve and more than you need. Feast is not a sustainable word. It is not about sustaining; it is about indulgence. A feast is not about being satiated; it’s about being stuffed to the point that you’re lying on the couch and your jowls flop back and forth. Every pore in your body is full of cornbread dressing.” Draper continues, “It is ironic to name the peninsula (or the country or the entire upper Caribbean and North-western hemisphere) the flower for the feast. It sets the stage for the fact that these natural resources are going to be consumed.”
While Jim accepts that most people who take in the exhibit will come, see pretty pictures, and leave happy with themselves, he has included a digital publication to reveal other artistic interpretations of Ponce de Leon’s impact on Florida.
“I don’t know which is more significant. The publication has been more exciting and interesting to me. The paintings are work. I know I can do it. I’ll paint them, and it’ll be fine. I’m a painter. More exciting to me is the curatorial aspect of the book. The fact that I can throw an idea out there and I get these measured responses, which is a creative act in itself. I look at the wealth of material and the experiences and the people that did them, and the thing that knits it all together is me. Because I have relationships with each individual that contributed. Few of the contributors have the same relationship with each other… It’s like if I were a big ball of yarn and different people are pulling threads out of my head and knitting them into something that is theirs. It’s been a phenomenal experience. I think a few people will get it; I think a lot of people won’t. It is what it is.”
The publication features video art, music, articles, essays, creative fiction, and photo essays. It is currently available as a downloadable PDF available for purchase online (http://jimdraper.bigcartel.com/product/feast-of-flowers-digital-publication), or you can purchase the thumb drive which is presented in a decorative, artful Florida-centric shadowbox packaging created by Draper and artist Crystal Floyd.
“Bill Belleville wrote this really incredible essay about his experiences walking through the scrub. Jeremiah Johnson has composed music from some collected sounds I gave him. So there is a musical component.”
While the exhibit is not a celebration of Ponce de Leon or European conquest, Ponce is certainly a central character of the exhibit. As Draper and the other artists working on the show found as they dove into the work, The Ponce is still alive and well in La Florida.
“I have a friend that is writing an article for the book, and as he was working on it he came to terms with The Ponce. He called me the other day and said, ‘They’re still here. We are still finding The Ponce.’ That’s the central message with all this. It is that The Ponce is with us. In us, probably. I’ve learned more about myself than anything. Ultimately it has been an exploration that is as much or more inward than outward. I’ve learned about The Ponce within myself, my internal Ponce and the two sides of it. On one side conquering. Conquering your fears, conquering the unknown, exploiting the thing that is evident, that can be exploited. The other side is being exploited. The idea of being the vassal. The one within yourself. You subject yourself to your own fantasies, your own self-realization, all of the stuff that you start understanding as being so complicated on so many levels. Your relationship with yourself, your personal relationships, your community relationships. Who are you dancing for? How self-indulgent is it to dance for yourself?”
“Through doing this project I’ve evolved from being a person that would hold up a mirror to someone and say, ‘What are you doing about this or that?’ Then it evolved where I turned the mirror to myself and said, ‘Who do you think you are?’ How can I pass judgement on The Ponce? Maybe without that our species would have declined. Maybe without the new world our species would have had another plague and been wiped off the face of the earth.”
When the element of the digital publication is added to experiencing the museum show, the entire exhibit is altered to incorporate themes of master/servant, what it means to conquer, evolution, and the man/nature paradigm. These are intellectual studies of what it means to be human. They are cerebral and linguistic; a severe juxtaposition to the paintings. The paintings alone come from a sacred place to Draper, and he takes special care to portray a Florida without humanity. To collect the photos and videos he works from to make the paintings, Draper takes excursions deep into the everglades and up the Suwannee River. He gets in the water with the critters and immerses himself in the natural landscape.
“When I am fully immersed in nature as an interloper, I realize what it is to be a minority as a species. I find myself in situations where I don’t matter as a species. In a place that is controlled by other species. You have no control over it. You could be eaten in a matter of minutes, and you would find yourself being nothing more than a food source. I find that exciting.”
In essence, Draper is stripping himself of all of the arrogant trappings of our culture and the American tendency to act superior to nature.
“I’ve been in the presence of big gators, and they really don’t care. I think it’s self-indulgent to worry about it. Can you name one person who has died from a snake bite? I’ve known some people who have been grazed by a shark. You hear about people getting attacked, but it’s totally inadvertent. There aren’t wild animals out to get us. We probably are not that appetizing. It’s self-indulgent to think we are more appetizing than we are. We think we taste better than we do. We probably stink. We are nastier than most other animals. They think ‘I would hate to be him.’ When you’re underwater and an octopus looks at you, they are thinking about how repulsive you are.”
The uniting central art object between Draper’s paintings and the more political, cerebral material of the publication is the idea of Nana. Nana is the name naturalist and activist MaVynee Betsch gave to the 60 foot sand dune that looms over American Beach, a stretch of beach just south of Fernandina that was owned by MaVynee’s great grandfather, A.L. Lewis, an affluent African-American who purchased it to give African-Americans a beach they were allowed to enjoy in the deeply segregated south. Draper believes this spot, the highest point along Florida’s coast, was likely the first piece of Florida Ponce de Leon saw from his ship.
“I actually think Ponce did see Nana. It makes sense. It’s the tallest sand structure on the shore, and it’s bright white. Early in the day, sun rising on it, how could he not see it? It’s a beacon.”
The late MaVynee, a one-time acquaintance of Draper’s, named the dune Nana after an ancient West African creation myth. “MaVynee is a genius in the first place by resurrecting a deity that is male and female. A single entity that is creative and can produce the egg and the sperm that fertilizes the egg. I love that idea as a deity. I think that particular mythological strain is one of the few traditions that embraces the idea of a god that is beyond sex. Naming the dune Nana as a physical manifestation of that deity in Fernandina Beach, in Nassau County, in the segregated south; the idea of claiming that piece of property that goes beyond sex, politics, master and servant, beyond Ponce, beyond any of that – this is the ground we sprung from. This is the thing that has the seed and the fertilizer and generates our species. That’s really a dynamic and beautiful thought, and in that thought is the conflict. Good and evil. Birth and death. Everything is manifest in that idea. There’s this whole drama that has played out on this field.”
That drama spans from Ponce’s first sighting of Florida through the police state that tended to monitor activities on American Beach as recently as the 1970s, as showcased in Bob Self’s photo essay of American Beach in the digital publication. “You look at Bob Self’s photographs you see these dramatic situations as they played out. I don’t think anybody was aware, I don’t even think Bob was aware, of the significance of the situations he was photographing as they played out, metaphorically or symbolically or at any level. Now, with a little bit of distance, you look at these photographs and see the police officers with their arms folded and Nana, the dune, looming in the background as this deity figure with this mass of humanity manifest by the black participants in the American Beach experience – that to me is the Bible. It’s the Koran. It’s the I Ching. It’s everything that has ever been written. It is all in that photograph. It wasn’t Bob Self’s intent for it to be that, it just is.”
For all of these ponderous themes, the bottom line is that Draper has opted to provide this offering. Like the Eucharist, it is put here before you to experience. Your history may be tainted, you may be a sinner, but you can take and eat this and accept forgiveness or you can go on living how you please. Nothing is forced on the viewer, but the deeper you want to question the work, the depth is there to be plumbed. “I don’t wanna hurt anybody. I don’t want to rub people’s noses in their own shit… The show will be beautiful, and it will be accessible, and it will be a neat place to dive into. It’s like the shiny water. My wish is someone will plunge into it and be immersed in it and see the world as I see it.”
Food for Thought
by JON BOSWORTH