Art in Public Places

by Katie Gile
Upon the once-barren exteriors of seemingly forsaken buildings and unassuming stretches of fence around Jacksonville, bursts of color have begun to appear like the first buds of spring with one vivid message in common: the artistic presence highlighted during One Spark is here to stay. From Shaun Thurston’s multi-colored mural along Lomax Street to Doug Eng’s photography installation over the boarded windows along Laura Street, art in unexpected places brings energy to its surroundings.
“Taking a public place and giving it a feel really attracts people,” says Katherine Hardwick, director of marketing for Downtown Vision, Inc. “When a public place has an identity, it helps the vibrancy of the area.” In addition to the Lomax Street mural, Shaun Thurston’s mural work can be seen outside Burro Bar, Sun-Ray Cinema, the second-story wall of Chamblin’s Bookmine Downtown, and soon outside of the Catty Shack Ranch.
Thurston says it’s the wall or surface he’s working with, as well as the energy of a surrounding neighborhood that can inspire his murals. “If I’m painting in a neighborhood with a rough history, I don’t want to make the energy of the area more negative,” Thurston says. “I’d like to pull in the opposite direction. Just like if I’m working in an area that’s really candy-coated, sometimes the right mural can remind them that they’re part of a larger fabric.”
The thrilling challenge with art in public venues is, in essence, the public, Thurston says. “For someone to walk into a gallery, their presence tells you they’re interested,” Thurston said. “But when you work on a public wall, you’re almost forcing them to hear what you have to say. You have to be more respectful and considerate of the broad spectrum of the community.”
Doug Eng agrees that creating work in a public forum is, in some ways, more challenging than galleries. “In a gallery, it’s always more controlled, which can be positive or negative,” Eng says. “You can have the best lighting and everything’s clean. Pieces hanging in a gallery are extremely well-crafted, and you need to contemplate them. Public art is more experiential. It has to have a big initial impact.”
Eng completed his first outdoor installment, over 2300 square feet of printing, for One Spark. The process gave him a whole new respect for public art, he says. “When we put the first piece up, it really struck us how much it changed the space,” Eng says. “I think everyone appreciated that we were able to change a little piece of Downtown for the better.”
Art in public venues is a cyclical public service, it seems. As it offers personality to bland streets and boarded windows, the public is willing to give back to protect it. For example, one of the most recognizable public pieces known to Jacksonvillians today is Jim Draper’s “Cat House” piece on the dilapidated Bostwick Building on the corner of Bay and Ocean Street. “Back some years ago, there was a program called CANVAS run through the Cultural Council,” says JCCI CEO Ben Warner. “[With Jim Draper,] they painted a jaguar over the boarded up windows of a vacant building. And suddenly, that became a downtown landmark. That was a short summer program that went away over a dozen years ago, but that impact has lasted for a long time.” The impact of this oft-appreciated piece of art, colloquially known as the “Jaguar Building,” on the city may have saved it from demolition. The 111-year-old building, previously inches from destruction, is currently under contract to preserve and restore, owners say.
To keep this essential creative spirit alive, the Cultural Council of Jacksonville has created the Spark Grant. The Council is accepting grant proposals from individual artists and nonprofit organizations to host arts and cultural events in the Spark District (between riverfront north to Duval Street, bordered by Liberty and Hogan Street).
The Spark Grant is another artistic step in Jacksonville’s journey toward revitalization, a journey made faster and more beautiful by the work of public artists. “When you walk past an abandoned building, you almost feel like you should walk fast,” Eng says. “But when you walk through a space with art, and it’s something that you can study or feel good about, walking through the space is an experience.”
Both Eng and Thurston agree that no matter how bland or how derelict a place may be, sometimes the surest step toward revitalization is a creative touch. “Every place has soul,” Thurston says. “Reminding people of it is often all that’s necessary.”
For more information about the Spark Grant, visit