Connecting Pasts in the Present

Ordinary scenes from spools of forgotten 8mm home movies are the catalyst for a new exhibit that explores human connections and the deceptions of memory at The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens.

The idea began when Jefree Shalev, a Mayo Clinic technology systems engineer by day and active Jacksonville art enthusiast and patron by night, offered to transfer about 30 short reels taken between 1957 and 1968 onto DVD. His parents had found them in their house while preparing for a move about a year ago.

“I made the mistake of watching before I sent them,” Shalev said. “I should have just put [the DVDs] in an envelope and sent them and that would’ve been the end of it, right? But I sat down and I watched them, and then I was like, ‘Oh my God, we have to do something with these.’ “

Shalev, 55, wasn’t especially captivated on a sentimental level with the scenes in the movies, which include his parents’ wedding, honeymoon and typical family events from his early childhood. He was taken, though, by the honest glimpse of his “old parents as the children they were,” and by the compositions, colors and everyday moments from another time.

“There’s something so universal about them,” Shalev said. “They’re so average that everyone who watches them immediately can relate to them. The outfits, the cars, the grainy scratchiness of the films … you know, crazy activities in the driveway and weddings.”

He pulled out 175 of his favorite still images from the films and shared them with a few figurative artist friends in the Jacksonville art community he thought might like to use them as bases for paintings.

Shalev was surprised by the positive reactions he received, and decided to post the stills on a private Facebook page and extend the invitation for more local artists to participate if any of the images spoke to them.

“These are not photos where you put people in a pose, like, ‘OK, everybody good? Smile, click.’ This is a movie, and sometimes you’re caught in a weird glance at somebody, and that’s what I pulled out,” Shalev said. “Once you see the images, it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I get it.’ They’re just really great little slices of life.”

Shalev referred to the project as a “Shared Past”: the intersection of random moments in his family’s history and the life experiences reflected through artistic expressions of 34 Northeast Florida artists.

Christie Holechek, director of the city of Jacksonville’s Art in Public Places program and an established artist in her own right, was inspired by an image of Shalev’s mother fixing her hair in a mirror, wearing her wedding gown. Holechek was herself going through a divorce and the image ultimately inspired her mixed media piece, “Something Blew,” an abstract rendering of fractured glass that represented her experience.

“Part of me struggled that I was taking this beautiful moment and I was shattering it, but looking at her looking in the mirror made me think that she was reflecting on a deeper level, too,” Holechek said. “My perspective was kind of altered in a sense. That was an idealized kind of vision of what marriage is like, and in reality what came from that, the actual piece, became very emotional and ephemeral. The idealization is fragmented by the reality of life.”

A range of paintings, performance pieces and assemblages represent the range of participating artists, including Jim Draper, Chip Southworth, Christina Foard and Jon Shepard.

Holly Keris, chief curator at the Cummer, surprised Shalev when she agreed to host the grassroots exhibition at the museum, with Shalev serving as guest curator. She said the showing is a powerful testament to the idea of family, and not just in the traditional sense.

“You know, family isn’t just about people you’re related to,” Keris said. “Family is also about the people you choose to surround yourself with. Jefree’s taking both — he’s taking his personal family, his relations, and then constructing a whole new community of family with these artists who are coming together around this shared experience, which I think is really amazing.”

What will Shalev’s mother and father, now 77 and 81 respectively, think of the unconventional tribute to their past, crafted by strangers? Shalev said he can’t wait to find out when they attend the show’s Dec. 17 opening. o