by HEATHER LOVEJOY
“The wall screams out for a mural,” says chef and co-owner Jeff Stanford of The Salty Fig in Riverside, “It’s a glaring, blank space. People obviously want to see something filling it, because we’ve had to paint over a lot of graffiti. I don’t know how many times.” So graffiti tags are out — hopefully for good — and a commissioned mural is in.
Artist Shaun Thurston, 33, was recruited for the job, and was outside making his first marks at the corner of College and King streets in mid-June. Throughout July, he will brave the summer heat to create an approximately 20-by-150-foot mural that reflects the restaurant’s “modern Southern” concept. As a Jacksonville native, he is connected to old Southern culture, yet his vision as an urban artist is modern. “I think that’s why [The Salty Fig owners] chose me. It’s a good custom fit,” he said.
The owners gave him a broad artistic license, asking simply for something “elegant” and “clean” that fits into the historic neighborhood. Thurston decided on a fig tree and pheasant as central points, taking inspiration from the Southern tradition of displaying fowl, wild game and hunting scenes in paintings. He plans to mix that realistic style with the dreamy, fantasy-like elements seen in much of his other work.
Portraying a fig tree not only refers to the restaurant’s name, but also is symbolic of its role in sustaining life. A fig tree is a place where animals congregate to eat. As Thurston points out: “Essentially, a restaurant is doing the same thing, feeding people.”
This is Thurston’s sixth public art project in Jacksonville, and he has completed more than that in Atlanta. Most recently, he completed the mural outside Chamblin’s Uptown bookstore and coffeehouse in Downtown Jacksonville on Laura Street. That project was done with spray paint and took him about a week, but The Salty Fig mural will be done with brush strokes, which takes significantly longer. “It’s hard to do something elegant with spray paint,” he said, laughing. He asked that residents be patient as they watch the mural develop, and to keep in mind that until it’s finished, anything can change.
His entry into One Spark, the crowd-funding festival in April, earned him about $4,000, which went into supplies and studio rent, but it was not nearly enough to cover costs for his goal of painting 20 murals in the city in one year. Fortunately, he said, businesses and organizations in the city are increasingly willing to pay artists for public projects.
“Public art is a sign of a progressive culture,” he says. “It improves quality of life and adds energy to an area.” It reflects our need for self-expression, a core human value, and provides an opportunity for a community to embrace that together.
Jacksonville is catching up to larger metropolitan areas where public art has long been prevalent. “It’s something I’ve always seen as lacking in the city,” he says. As a young skateboarder and graffiti artist, he spent countless hours downtown lamenting what he saw as ugly, barren walls. In the past, his work would have been removed.
Says Thurston, “The same city that painted over all my stuff is paying me to do it now. The city caught up to my childhood dreams.” That’s partly because he has a better understanding of what the larger community wants to see. He has found that if people relate to the images he creates, they tend to embrace it without question. Graffiti lettering, however, is an “elite language.” It communicates only to other graffiti artists and a small population of people who love it. He keeps a place in his heart for it, but his vision for public murals is to “broaden the spectrum to include a whole community.”
“The key aspect, especially in a historic neighborhood like Riverside, is respect,” he said. “I have to take into account that there may be a 90-year-old woman who has lived [in Riverside] her whole life, and what I do affects her neighborhood.”
ART at large
by HEATHER LOVEJOY