Visual Visionaries

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see the future. And while Folio Weekly isn’t predicting the winning numbers on a lottery ticket, the Super Bowl winner or the end of the world, we are envisioning that 2013 will bring even greater work and engaging activity on the local arts scene.

Our clairvoyance isn’t based on superstition but the sum total of last year, which witnessed a phenomenal amount of creative buzz: the growth of art walks, public art events such as The Highway Gallery Project, an increasing blend of social media in the arts, the ongoing phenomenon of the CoRK Arts District, various gallery and museum openings, including the “Re:Focus” retrospectives at MOCA and the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens hosting the Folio Weekly Invitational Artist Exhibition and, most recently, Jim Draper’s long-awaited digital media project and painting exhibit “Feast of Flowers.”

As if those weren’t enough, Northeast Florida boasts five colleges (Flagler College, Florida State College at Jacksonville, Jacksonville University, University of North Florida and The Art Institute of Jacksonville) that are home to an incredibly talented roster of teachers and equally impressive students to continue this wave of artistic activity.

These events are the result of the hard work and relentless drive of one demographic: the artists. In honor of this exciting era, we decided to focus on a group of innovative artists, visionaries and behind-the-scenes players who defy boundaries.

Rob DePiazza

Since 2004, Rob DePiazza has been bringing new, cutting-edge artwork to the Oldest City. Every two months, DePiazza presents an exhibit of works by international and local artists in his space:eight Gallery, located in the front of Screen Arts, his silk-screen company on West King Street in West Augustine’s. After purchasing the building in 1984, DePiazza remodeled the shop and decided to allocate a space to show art.

“The gallery offered a creative outlet to our daily routine of commercial printing and presented an opportunity to show art that didn’t have a venue in Northeast Florida,” says screen-print artist DePiazza, who was featured in a Folio Weekly cover story, “Hero of the Underground,” in December 2008. Since deciding to turn a part of his building into an art space, DePiazza’s discerning taste in handpicking groundbreaking artists and his natural no-bull vibe have resulted in 40 memorable exhibits by visiting artists like Mark Mothersbaugh, Ronnie Land, Bev Hogue, KRK Ryden and Derek Hess and locals including Mark George, Shaun Thurston and Mitch Cheney, along with the current show featuring works by Jordie Hudson (also subject of a Folio Weekly cover story, November 2012, “Drawing Strength,”

“There’s been so many great artists [to] come through the gallery,” DePiazza says, “it would be hard to pick favorites.” He says there has been a surge in similar alternative venues opening up in the area, along with an increase in overall awareness and interest in the arts.

This year, DePiazza will present shows by L.A. art icon Donny Miller, Lowbrow favorite Anthony Ausgang and local figurative-portrait painter Chip Southworth. “I think a lot of people appreciate what we do in bringing artists from outside the area,” says DePiazza, who presents these engaging artists at equally funky opening receptions that are unpretentious, notoriously fun and usually feature a DJ spinning sharp tunes, ice-cold beer and an array of tasty junk food. “Plus, they dig our fancy foodstuffs and libations.”

Chip Southworth

Chip Southworth is creating an impressive body of work that breathes new life into the untapped possibilities of figurative and portrait work. The 41-year-old painter uses large-scale canvases to render the human form in expressionistic-style displays of blues, pinks and shifting flesh tones that have featured figures such as President Barack Obama, local indie poppers Sunbears! as well as self-portraits of Southworth and his wife Rikki. In the past year alone, Southworth was featured in a show at The Grotto with Tony Rodrigues and Mico Fuentes, invited to participate in The Highway Gallery Project, a public art experiment hosted by Florida Mining Gallery and Clear Channel, and held a 30-piece retrospective at DVA (featured in Folio Weekly’s August 2012 issue, Southworth also created the recent cover portrait of John Delaney for our Jan. 2 “Person of the Year” issue.

“I have had decent success the past year and a half,” he says, “but it’s time to get down to business.” True to his word, Southworth is currently in the process of creating new pieces and hopes to have nine to 12 finished canvases for his April show at space:eight. The series is inspired by challenges, fears, struggles and other, darker themes than his earlier work.

“Often we feel like something is too massive or fucked up to overcome; sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t,” Southworth says. “Either way, it usually requires some certain solitude, faith in something and hitting the wall.” Adding “that turning point is dark and revealing,” Southworth says he hopes to explore that universal junction while making new journeys with his materials. “My work is about the paint as much as the subject matter.”

Southworth is encouraged by the “very tight and supportive” local arts community. “Today, Jacksonville has a completely different vibe and energy than it did even five years ago,” he says. “I have high hopes.”

“I’d like to see local art collectors buying more local art,” says Southworth, who is also currently in contact with other galleries outside of the region. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm in North Florida for the arts, and we are blessed with some great artists.”

“However, for the scene to translate into success for the artists, there needs to be more emphasis on sales … otherwise, at some point, this all goes away.”

Overstreet Ducasse, Dustin Harewood, Princess Simpson Rashid

As the arts scene in Northeast Florida has expanded and grown, so have the concerns and intentions of its artists. In a spring show, three artists turn their sights toward issues of character, society and even what it means to be an artist in the bigger picture of our nation. Opening on March 1 at CoRK, painters Overstreet Ducasse, Dustin Harewood and Princess Simpson Rashid present a show that Ducasse said will be titled either “What Country?” or “All American,” with each artist contributing six to seven works. The brainchild of Ducasse, the exhibition is a strong commentary on the topic of identities, from the level of the racial, patriotic and even artistic. “This show is about three young black artists,” Ducasse says. “I was born in Haiti, Dustin was born in Barbados and Princess was born in the United States. But we all have an American story to tell.”

Ducasse says he was inspired to invite fellow “non-typical artists” Harewood and Rashid because of his respect for both his peers’ ability to create fascinating art and the intellect that drives their work. An innovative painter and popular local educator, Harewood co-runs the art program at FSCJ’s Kent Campus. The now-Tampa-based Rashid, known for her watercolor abstractions, is a founding member of both The Art Center Cooperative Inc. and the Jacksonville Consortium of African-American Artists. Ducasse’s multimedia-based, cerebral work is currently on display in the “Through Our Eyes” exhibit at the Ritz Theatre & Museum.

Another strong thread in the upcoming show is smashing the hypocrisy of what Ducasse calls those hiding behind “the typical artist syndrome” or “the hippie-crits”: “You know, the artists who claim to smoke weed because it helps them to create? And when you ask to see their creation, they have nothing to show. Or the vegetarian who snorts coke and pops ecstasy; the so-called conscious Rastafarian who is the biggest womanizer, the promiscuous Christian, the artist who uses inspiration as an excuse to procrastinate.” For his contribution to the show, Ducasse is focusing on the hypocrisy of drugs in American culture, such as three states legalizing marijuana in the recent election, the power of the pharmaceutical companies and the disease of alcoholism.

Edison William, Staci Bu Shea, Lily Kuonen, Thony Aiuppy and Sterling Cox (not pictured)

An innovative art experiment is getting ready to take up residency in Jacksonville’s historic Avondale district. Set to open this spring (no exact date at press time), “The Apartment Exhibition,” an exhibitionary project curated by Staci Bu Shea, features original works by Thony Aiuppy, Sterling Cox, Lily Kuonen and Edison William. This quintet of young local artists was initially inspired by radical Swiss artist Hans Ulrich Obrist and his 1991 “Kitchen” show, when the then-23-year-old Obrist rocked the art world by exhibiting contemporary art from his kitchen.

“The artists will contribute individual works that respond to the space, making the works environmental,” explain the group, who chose to collectively co-author their answers. Using Cox’s mother-in-law suite as their template, the group intends to explore ideas like occupation, temporality and ownership in 21st-century America, with a variety of materials and approaches. “The heart of the matter is that the ideal and subject of the ‘home’ is changing,” the artists explain, citing that they would also like to explore how “the status of ownership” seems to have diminished since the market crash of 2008. “This exhibition is being made with the intention of designing a new order of historical memories, of proposing new criteria for collecting by reconstructing history and will openly display its temporality.”

The participants, who work in media ranging from paint to photography, are all somewhat familiar with one another, but they have never collaborated on such a grand scale or in such close, creative proximity. After agreeing to sign on together, the group began brainstorming how to “deliver the exhibition” in unconventional ways, including the possibility of utilizing Craigslist or placing ads. They’re still considering an attempt to live together as roommates during the show’s run.

“This exhibition gives an opportunity to see works in an alternate venue, leaving the white cube gallery and using our previous understandings of art and display to build upon,” the group writes. Over the course of its three-month exhibition run/lease, “The Apartment Exhibition” will also feature various programs and events, designed by the show’s resident artists. The group aims to attract art lovers and curiosity seekers alike and encourage people to be fully immersed in this innovative and highly contemporary installation that appeals to a most basic, human drive: a place to call home.

Jefree Shalev

Just as critical to Northeast Florida’s visual arts boom has been the presence of an equally receptive, enthusiastic and astute audience. Jefree Shalev certainly meets those criteria as a participant, patron, gallery owner and ubiquitous figure in the overall creative community. If there is a cool or crucial art event in the area, chances are Shalev is there.

“I am inspired by art,” Shalev says of his lifelong affair with imaginative ideas. “I am taught by it, humbled by it and moved by it.” As a civilian, Shalev spends his days in the world of healthcare information technology as a senior systems engineer at Mayo Clinic. Also a photographer and poet in his own right, he’s a longtime player in the art community. “I’m a collector and an erstwhile gallerina,” Shalev humorously explains. Shalev is also an advocate for the arts through his participation in the Arts in Public Places Committee for the city of Jacksonville.

Shalev has been a silent force in pushing the arts scene forward. Along with artists Kurt Polkey and Mark Creegan, Shalev was a co-owner and co-conspirator of the experimental arts space Nullspace Gallery, which hosted an inventive array of installations and avant garde-leaning events. Located on Adams Street, Nullspace opened in January 2010 and centered on the premise that the actual gallery was “null” and empty space, with the physical area being an open container to be utilized and filled by the artist. “The space was the show,” says Shalev. Before closing its doors in October 2011, the conceptually driven space featured a veritable who’s who of local, imaginative artists (at times working in collaboration), including Jim Draper and Morrison Pierce, Patrick Moser and Loren Myhre, and Greta Songe and Sarah Colado, as well as solo shows by Jenny K. Hager, Ian Chase and Tony Rodrigues.

Shalev is once again calling on the local arts community with an intriguing project. “A few months ago, my parents gave me a shoebox full of 8mm movies, which I offered to convert to DVDs for them,” Shalev explains. Filmed between 1957 and 1968, the Shalev home movies feature standard fare like weddings, honeymoons and graduations. While watching them, Shalev was struck by a nostalgia that’s as common as it is poignant. “I asked myself, ‘What happens to us? What happened to me?’ ” Shalev says about the kind of self-awareness and alienation people can experience over a lifetime. “And must it be this way?” After viewing the films, Shalev watched them a second time, frame by frame. He selected 200 images which he thought “longed to be paintings” and invited 25 of his artist friends to interpret one of those images on canvas, hoping to create a kind of group commentary on life, relationships and memory.

“Drawing on their own past, combining it with mine, we will create what I call our shared past.” The project, to be titled either “Our Shared Past” or “Under Two Seconds,” opens in July; at press time, the venue hadn’t been decided, but the show will include Draper, Polkey, Creegan, Christina Foard, Carolyn Brass, Jason John, Christine Holechek, Jonathan Lux, Jessie Barnes, Rachel Levanger and Crystal Floyd. “I can’t imagine what I will feel when they’re all assembled together,” says Shalev. “More interestingly, I can’t wait to find out how they make everyone else feel.”

Julie Dickover

To the untrained eye, Flagler College’s Crisp-Ellert Art Museum in St. Augustine seems like another student center, office or nondescript campus structure.

After becoming museum director in September 2010, Julie Dickover has helped reinvent what was an otherwise unremarkable venue, transforming it into a consistently engaging hotspot for Northeast Florida visual arts. Upon moving here with husband Chris Balashack, who is an art professor at Flagler, Dickover was offered the job of running the museum. “I still have a hard time calling myself a curator,” she says, “and, honestly, I never would have guessed that I would end up curating or running a small, little space.” But Dickover has turned the 1,400-square-foot museum into a stopover for some big-name art.

Dickover studied art history in college and realized that being an artist was not the creative path for her. “But I knew I wanted to work in the arts, and so I started working at a gallery, and then eventually moved on to be a registrar at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.” Still in her early 30s, Dickover’s love and passion for visual arts, combined with the connections she made during her decade-long tenure in Southern California’s arts scene, have allowed her to offer some wholly original programming choices that have strengthened Flagler’s already impressive arts program, while making the C-EAM a must-see during St. Augustine’s monthly First Friday Art Walks.

A short list of notable past exhibits include the works of contemporary artist Harrell Fletcher, the experimental video art of Julie Lequin, siblings (and Jacksonville natives) Mark and Philip Estlund and a display of works from the collaboration between painter Sara Pedigo and poet Liz Robbins (also both Flagler professors). “They both make beautiful work and the interdisciplinary aspect of that exhibition is something that I would like to explore more,” Dickover says. The visiting artists usually engage in discussions about their work. Crisp-Ellert also hosts portfolio shows of Flagler students’ artwork. Dickover has also hosted live music, and last spring she and Balashack presented a series devoted to the genre of rock music documentaries, projecting films like “This is Spinal Tap” on a screen set up on the campus green. The current exhibit is a celebration of the 125th anniversary of the construction of the Hotel Ponce de Leon. In March, the museum presents the experimental fabric art of Anna von Mertens and then hosts multimedia artist Liz Rodda in the fall.

“The public’s reaction to the exhibitions over the past couple of years has been incredibly positive and supportive,” Dickover says. When choosing artwork, she focuses on pieces that allow for critical engagement and call for time to relax and enjoy the experience of art. “Sometimes that means the viewer needs to spend a bit more time with it — I’m thinking of videos, in particular — but that can be very rewarding.”