“You people are crazy for not having written a story on me. I’m the realest person on the scene.”
This email, from local artist Cal Oglesby, ballsy and brief, has been burning a hole in Folio Weekly‘s inbox since spring, and we took it as a challenge. Game on. But when we arranged a meeting with Oglesby in an abandoned bar in the middle of Downtown, we weren’t exactly sure what we were going to find.
We initially met up with Oglesby at the space at 325 W. Forsyth St., where he was, until recently, squatting. (He now lives with his parents.) It’s gone by many names over the years, but perhaps the most notable is Thee Imperial. For many locals, it’s a time capsule of teenage memories shrouded in a haze of PBR, moshing and hardcore music. When Thee Imperial closed its doors in 2007, the space, and the scene, never fully recovered, despite a few attempts at reincarnation over the years. Now the stage is dark. A thick coat of dust blankets the bar and quiets the once-noisy venue.
Enter Oglesby, one of the most polarizing figures in the local arts community. Some artists characterize him as a positive and cheerful person, and praise his generous dedication to the city where he was born and spent much of his youth. Others describe encounters with him as uncomfortable, and note that he can be degrading and quick to judge. He says he feels slighted and jaded by an art scene that has largely dismissed, or dissed, him.
Yet his murals dot the urban landscape. A Buddha reclines Downtown on the corner of Julia and Forsyth. On the back of Wall Street in 5 Points, a black-and-gray scene of bustling New York City businessmen plays out for passersby. For the past six years, Oglesby has been painting walls. He rarely charges for his work except to occasionally pay for the supplies, and here in the rundown guts of 325 W. Forsyth St., he was filling every square inch of the space with his art. Although Oglesby no longer squats there, due in large part to the fact that the fire marshal condemned the place, his art remains.
“Painting these walls is a preservation of energy,” Oglesby says. “A wall is a sponge, and it absorbs all the energy stored in this building.”
Oglesby’s efforts are a study in what it means to keep the spirit of a place alive. Years of a thrashing, vibrant and sometimes violent music scene have left an imprint on the physical as well as the mental memory of Jacksonville in this all-but-forgotten little bar.
“These walls were begging to speak,” Oglesby says. “I was just chosen to help them speak. People who paint walls care a lot about energy. We are a kind of translator. The walls can’t speak, but they listen.”
He has transformed the abandoned space into a kind of punk rock cathedral. Evergreen Terrace lyrics drip down the walls in between paintings of snakes, skulls, abstract faces and female forms. Oglesby can walk from corner to corner, pointing out each brushstroke and explaining its significance. Sometimes measured and other times loquacious, he will readily talk about his approach to his work, then swiftly explain its connections to the spiritual universe.
“You build your own philosophy about the world,” he says. “You choose to believe what you want to believe about life. Everything is a result of your belief.”
He is both a believer in the arts and a man of religion. And sometimes these two things intersect. As he talks, he pours buckets of color from the roof of Thee Imperial, creating a dripping backdrop on the wall for a crucified Christ facing the courthouse. Although Oglesby doesn’t prescribe to one religion over another, he felt a Christian piece was appropriate in a Downtown area dominated by the massive First Baptist Church complex. The piece, in part, was a gesture of respect for the Christian community, he says.
Later, in the bathroom of Thee Imperial, among his own graffiti, he washes out his brushes. “People have been washing paint down these drains for the last two years,” Oglesby says, referring to other artists who have painted or erected work in the bar. “The water rises because it’s so clogged. I think our souls are like that. It’s good to get unclogged.”
Oglesby lives simply, reading paperback books, painting all day. In his free time, he likes to study different religions, “just finding truth in this dull world where we fight and there’s greed and sex rules everything.”
He views art as a kind of weight that levels the pendulum between radical hippie culture and the greed of capitalism. Thee Imperial represents a place of pure passion and dedication, something he finds too little of in Jacksonville.
“That building has energy in it, like a well,” Oglesby says. “I feel sometimes that there is a magnet under the ground and it’s my job to protect that magnetic energy.”
A few weeks later, we met Oglesby again, this time at his parents’ house on the outskirts of Macclenny, about 20 miles west of Jacksonville. On a day so gray that lightning was assured, we sat on his patio. He had a cigarette in his mouth, hand-rolled and irregular. The rain was about to come, and it was going to come in buckets. “Beautiful fucking weather. Beautiful wind right now. God loves us,” he says.
Oglesby’s spiritualism is heavily tied to the psychedelics he takes. His path as an artist and an outsider began with a combination of unusual occurrences when he was 16. “I did mushrooms and felt the Holy Spirit in a Pentecostal church for the first time within two days of each other,” he says. “I stared at myself in the mirror for two hours until I completely dissolved.”
Soon thereafter, Oglesby was an accomplice while his friends broke into a house. He faced a year of probation, was forced to go to an alternative school and lost all of his friends. Oglesby soon left traditional education altogether. He has no formal training in art.
“I don’t know shit about art,” Oglesby says. “I just try and stay close to the core of my true self. I think knowing nothing is a good foundation. The only thing I know for certain is that I am. Everything else changes.”
Oglesby says he doesn’t paint for the money or the recognition. “I just want to live right by God, whatever that means,” he says. “My intention is basic, to be the expression of the higher. The message is for each individual to interpret.”
“I did mushrooms and felt the Holy Spirit for the first time within two days of each other.”