Street Lighter

Attention lords, ladies and lesser life forms, this just in: Shaun Thurston has been revealed as the “mystery artist” commissioned to create the spring Project Atrium installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville. This is a huge step forward in his career; with this piece and the four paintings MOCA also commissioned, two of which will become part of the permanent collection, Thurston has the opportunity to demonstrate his talents at Downtown Jacksonville’s premier event.

The 30-something wielder of spray can and brush has spent the past two decades building up to this moment. In addition to countless other public and private works in Jacksonville and Atlanta, Thurston painted the Lewis-Carroll-meets-The Jungle Book mural outside Chamblin’s Uptown and he’s the brush behind the beckoning fig tree at The Blind Fig.

Last year, he won $4,000 and mad props for his One Spark entry, for which he proposed to create 20 public works in a year; it helped him land the Project Atrium commission, which, in turn, is also an entry in this year’s One Spark festival. Thurston plans to donate half of the One Spark crowd-funding he receives to support future Project Atrium artists at MOCA.

Pulling off the Norwood exit on 95 North, I spotted Thurston standing in the middle of a busy street to get a better view of one of the last public murals he’s creating before his grand finale at MOCA, which he begins painting this week. Grabbing a seat on the sidewalk, Thurston, fingers stained with green paint and face shadowed from the blazing sun, says that he’s racing to finish in time, but it’s well worth every feverish, frenetic day.

A graffiti artist who’s become a respected muralist and painter (he contributed a painting to The Cummer Museum’s Our Shared Past exhibit, showing through May 25), Thurston is an artist’s artist in a way that cannot be taught or imitated. With a vague, nomadic air, he initially comes across as an average guy with a can of spray paint and talent until he opens up and reveals the effortless intellectual, humble and down-to-earth — but with that peculiar brand of grandiosity vital to true artists.

Asked if he sees himself as tattooing the city, he shakes his head. No, he says, that suggests permanence. “I think I’m lighting the street.”

Thurston plans to utilize all three walls of MOCA’s 40-foot-high atrium to create a piece that’s a bit of a departure from his previous work. Best known for fantastical images of wildlife, he’ll incorporate similarly organic elements, while also drawing inspiration from some of the greatest artistic masterpieces of Christianity: the rose windows of Notre Dame Cathedral. His voice reverberates with emotion as he recalls the way he felt standing before the elaborate stained glass windows, to which no photograph or description can do justice. It is this feeling he wants to impart.

“People should be able to walk into the atrium and get the same feeling I got standing in front of the rose window in Notre Dame,” Thurston says. “It’s my modern-day nod to the gothic cathedral.”

He’s found further inspiration for the piece from the behavior of mycelium, which grows mushrooms and occasionally forms crystals. Increasingly animated, he describes a radial form of quartz, oreganite and amethyst with dazzling reds and purples. The concept evolves even as he speaks. “My mind keeps rolling it over and over. It keeps getting more multilayered.”

Though art necessarily in some way glorifies its creator, Thurston creates art more for the beholder than for him. For the thrift shop on Norwood Avenue beneath which we crouched, he chose sentimental images of dogs and cats — not the sort of thing an artist desperate to be taken seriously might paint.

But Thurston doesn’t need every piece to be “serious” art. Sometimes, it’s just enough to bring a warm smile to passersby in an area of town that could use more warmth, more joy.

“Music and art have the ability more than other things to create an instant emotional response. If you have the ability to do that, you should do it to uplift people,” he says.

It’s his way of lighting the street.