Walking into Richard K. Shafer’s modest home, one immediately steps into a kind of overview of local contemporary art. In the kitchen hang four pieces by Overstreet Ducasse. A Roosevelt Watson III piece is suspended in the opposite corner. His living room showcases works by Princess Simpson Rashid, Lee Harvey, Marsha Hatcher, Peter Blunt, Helen Cowart and Rhonda Bristol.
As Shafer gives me a tour through his two-story, two-bedroom Baymeadows apartment, I do a total count of the art, ranging from painting and prints to furniture and sculpture. “Now it’s like the Phillips Collection [Washington, D.C.], I have to swap things out,” he says, of some 60-plus pieces populating his home. “But if there’s a piece that I really have to have, I’ll probably buy it even if there’s no space for it.”
There are a staggering 20 works in Shafer’s bedroom alone, including sculptures by Ed Malesky and Jeremiah Douglas. An Annelies Dykgraaf print compliments the four other pieces hanging in the upstairs hallway. “Nobody does woodcuts. She’s fantastic,” Shafer says. In the stairwell hang a Clark Creamer piece (“My white man art!” he laughs.) and a massive Ducasse work.
Shafer has been buying works directly from local artists since 2006 and in that time his love for their art has been reciprocated with the artists’ affections for him. And his interactions with Northeast Florida artists are much deeper than a mere collector-artist relationship.
“I think the rapport that I have with artists is not due to the fact that I’m buying their art,” says Shafer. “It’s really because, once we get to know each other, we really become friends. I think we’d be like that whether I was buying their art or not.”
A particularly strong friendship that has developed over the years is that of Shafer and Ducasse, whom Shafer calls “‘Street.” “If I had not met ‘Street, we would not be having this conversation.” Ducasse, who is undoubtedly one of the most incomparable painters currently working in this area, is known for creating works that address political injustice, social intolerance and even metaphysical concepts. Imbued with his own symbology, Ducasse’s pieces are visually powerful and thematically esoteric.
Yet whether through their friendship, Shafer’s discernment, or a combination thereof, the 57-year-old collector has a savvy sense of what is conveyed in the dozen Ducasse pieces that he currently owns. “Overstreet is always painting things where only he understands what it means,” Shafer laughs.
Yet back in the kitchen, Shafer decodes Ducasse paintings for me, pointing out the hidden anti-Tea Party message in one and the anti-war message in another from the artist’s Rock Paper Scissors series. “This is unusual for ‘Street because there’s humor in it. The rock becomes a rocket, the scissors become the rotaries of a helicopter and the paper becomes a paper airplane. And they’re attacking each other.”
In hindsight, the bond between Shafer and Ducasse seems like kismet. The first piece of local art Shafer bought was a small painting titled Haitian Heart. Priced at $80, it was hanging at Stephen Dare’s Boomtown restaurant-theater space in 2006. “I asked ‘Street, ‘Do you know who the artist is?’ And he said, ‘Yes. It’s me.’ We were meant to meet. I bought it three years before I even knew him.”
Shafer grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, where his mother encouraged his creative side. “My mom was artistic. She took us to ceramics classes. You know, it was the ’70s,” he laughs. “But she’d also buy prints. One time, when my dad was away on business, she painted this one wall a glossy black and she put prints on it that just popped and I thought it was just awesome. Then Dad came home and we had wallpaper within a month.” His mother also took the young Shafer to MoMA in Manhattan, a visit that had an influential effect on his worldview. “I saw Picasso’s Guernica and Three Musicians. That really started my real love affair with art.”
Shafer eventually joined the U.S. Air Force, where he worked as a software programmer-developer. Last stationed at NSA in Fort Meade, Maryland, after 20 years he retired and in 2000 moved to Jacksonville. He now works as a software tester. “I like to be on the testing side. It’s less stressful.”
As Shafer continues to guide me through his home-slash-gallery, his passion for these works is evident. Princess Simpson Rashid’s Stanton Lines, a large-scale acrylic in the living room, is a particularly prized work. “I obsessed over having this,” he says of a piece that features small figures ascending a stairwell emblazoned with the text, “history,” “education” “society” and “freedman.” The title alludes to the original Stanton School, the first school for African-American children in Jacksonville.
Shafer originally saw the painting in 2013 but it took him two years to save up the $3,000 asking price. “I think Princess held onto this piece for good reason. Sometimes artists have pieces that are really special to them: They have an idea and it works and it’s beautiful and they really don’t want to sell it. But they’ll sell those pieces to me. Because they know that I love it and will honor it.”
Mere feet away hang three canvasses by the late painter/arts-agitator Lee Harvey, who died from cancer last November. A larger still life of flowers is flanked by two smaller studies with the same theme. Since Harvey was known as such a longtime agent provocateur of the area arts scene, producing incendiary works that attacked religious zealots, the wealthy elite and delusional patriotism, these meditative pieces offer another insight to his overall body of work.
“Lee painted those in memoriam to himself because he had cancer. Thankfully, that went into remission and he had a few years to live in New York, which was wonderful. And then he went back to painting decapitated strippers over and over and over,” he laughs. “But this is some of the most creative work I’d ever seen him do.”
A Rhonda Bristol portrait of MaVynee Betsch, “The Beach Lady,” hangs over the mantle. “She watches over me,” Shafer explains. In the corner stands a large, custom-made bookshelf. A collaboration between furniture artist Peter Blunt and Ducasse, this is the sole work that Shafer commissioned. “When people think of art, they invariably think of painting and maybe sculpture. But let me tell you, Peter Blunt is one of the best artists working in Jacksonville,” says Shafer. “He’s a wonderful craftsman but everything is made with a level of artistry and a dose of whimsy. He’s like part Ethan Allen and part Dr. Seuss.”
An elaborate series of shelves hold Shafer’s books, CDs and DVDs. Each side of the piece features original paintings by Ducasse that are depictions of milestones of his friendship with Shafer, including an image of the pair at Art Basel Miami Beach.
Many of the artists Shafer collects are featured in this year’s Through Our Eyes exhibit, a much-anticipated show presented at the Ritz Theatre & Museum that each year features works by local African-American artists. At the Ritz on April 21, Shafer discusses his philosophy and gives advice on collecting art. “I never buy art as an investment. I think that’s bullshit. I buy art for love.”
An hour after our exhaustive tour of what will surely be called the Shafer Collection is finished, he wraps up this walkthrough. Shafer admits he’s baffled as to why others aren’t snapping up all of this local art, “But you know what? That’s great news for me. That’s how I can buy all of this art; because people don’t realize how good these damn artists are.”
Until Shafer’s collection outgrows this current place, he will keep his eye out for more art to pick up, while deepening his already-strong bonds with area artists, the very people who bring this arts-based enrichment into his life. “Man, buy work because you love it, you feel connected to it and because it will make your life happier. And you know what? My art makes my life happier.”