Mystery in the Mouth: Sarah Crooks Flaire’s The Oyster & I

Recognized for years as someone who cares about our river, its tributaries, estuaries, and canals, nationally known artist and Jacksonville resident Sarah Crooks Flaire developed a fantastic magical mystery tour to bring about awareness of our most precious resource, the St. Johns River. She was awarded a major grant by Florida Blue and the Cultural Council for the community-based, complex, and fun event. A creative force and long-time pre-CoRK District artist, her’s was the first at the corner of Rosselle and King streets with a beautiful, multi-story art studio in the decades old building that once was a 7-UP manufacturing plant. She shares this old concrete building, now a beautiful creative spot, with her husband, Olivier, owner of the well-known and established Flaire Antiques.

The yearlong project “Mystery in the Mouth – The Oyster & I” is based on a fictional river. Created by artist Crooks Flaire, her mysterious and interesting Red Pearl River parallels our beautiful St. Johns, which is a National Heritage River and one of only three rivers known to run north in the world. Crooks Flaire invites children and adults to participate in an exploration of our River and create a personal relationship with place. “As a community, together we will create a giant Water Spirit puppet, made out of recycled water bottles and learn about the heartbeat and value of our river to our daily lives,” says Crooks Flaire. “We will become active players in the drama of ‘Mystery in the Mouth’ through a treasure hunt for Who’s Who and community storytelling.” This project has four parts that the artist hopes the community will embrace each step of the way.

Who lives in the river and what do the Sun and the Moon have in common? Where does all our water go? And who is the real hero of the estuary? These questions and more will be posed to the community during the first event – “Who’s Who in the Mouth” – starting in November of 2014 during the Community First Saturday on the North Bank Riverwalk near the Times Union Performing Arts Center at Hogan Street.

The community is encouraged to bring a clean empty water bottle and a smile to this first event. At this kick-off event families will receive a treasure map in exchange for donating a water bottle. Musicians will create an audible flavor of mystery, reminding one of Jumanji or a Maurice Sendak books.

The map and rules of the game will also be available as a download on the artist’s website,, the St. Johns Riverkeeper’s,, and the Jacksonville Public Libraries’,, websites. The map can be printed at home, and it will guide families through the maze of downtown Jacksonville. Over the winter months, clues will be embedded in downtown streetscapes within the Spark District, which will provide information about the flora and fauna of the St. Johns.

Families can also join in a community painting project and will be asked to help decorate the bins that will be distributed around the city as collection sites for the 20 and 16-ounce clear plastic water bottles over the winter months. “I hope to collect hundreds of water bottles from community donations, as each will be woven into the body of a giant water spirit puppet,” Crooks Flaire says.

Family Water Spirit Weaving Workshops will be held at the Main Library downtown in March and April. Also on display will be Crooks Flaire’s monumental 16’ tapestry drawing,”Beasts of Burden from the Red Pearl River”. She will illustrate other views of the river and challenge us to rethink how our culture values water. “Where will the water spirit emerge? This mystery will be revealed in May of 2015 during ArtWalk,” she says. “Students led by Sifu David Kirn of the Taiji Kung Fu Academy will bring the water spirit to life in the Downtown Spark District in a lively street performance and the characters made-up by the participants become the real heroes, as they become aware, we all benefit.”

Inspired by the scavenger hunt and weaving workshops, children are encouraged to develop and name their own “characters” based on the estuary life of the St. Johns River. In a final Magic Circle these characters will join the artist in a celebration at the river where the “Mystery in the Mouth” is solved. Flaire will share her own hero of the estuary in a council of all beings on the Northbank River Walk during the Community First Saturday on June 6, 2015. Youth participants will have an opportunity to speak for their own river characters and the role they play in creating a healthy environment.

Crooks Flaire envisions kids finding creative ways to look into the river, its oyster beds, sandy bottoms, fast-moving fish, even bottle-nose dolphins, all which will provide imaginative characters as kids become fused into this event. Flaire can hardly wait to see what characters that kids have found and named to be part of their participation in this community event. Also, the artist hopes lots of little hands and hearts will be working hard to solve the “Mystery in the Mouth”.

The ultimate purpose of this multi-month, multi-disciplinary exhibit is a continuation of the artist’s Red River personal exploration, understanding “RED” stands for Redirecting my Energy Daily. “I think it’s important to make conscious choices of how to live my life in keeping with my values, and to be mindful and to pay attention to what’s important,” Crooks Flaire points out. She goes on to say that the building of the Water Spirit is intentional, as its purpose is to bring about mindfulness in communities by building awareness of the water around them. She hopes it will stimulate water conservation and recycling using the metaphor of the Water Spirit as encouragement to do what’s right in this world. By bringing the community together for a common goal of awareness is what the Cultural Council was looking for to invest in Flaire. The question ultimately is, “who is the hero?” The hero is in each of us. It is everyone.

Crooks Flaire hopes to further this project with a book on the project and is looking for a sponsor, and she may even engage audiences further and dovetail a story writing project into the experience. So, make plans to participate in one way or another with this fantastical project. Be a volunteer, a weaver and become involved with the artist’s Florida Blue Spark Grant Project.

“Sarah’s long-time delving into the environment of the river and her flow of creative associations from that qualifies her to animate the spirit of our river for children to experience within the Spark District,” says Mason Martin, manager of the Spark District grants for The Cultural Council. “We are pleased to have an artist of her caliber bringing life to important issues downtown through art in a way people of all ages can appreciate.”

About Joanelle Mulrain