The ALCHEMY of Art

It is a marriage of the syncretic and the mystic, a fruitful and longstanding union where the radical meets the reverent. The artwork of Dustin Harewood is a visual mashup that tethers together everything from the nautical realm, pan-ethnic heritage, and signifiers forged in the subconscious to resolute activism and an innovative use of textures and tonalities. Coral-like structures anchor washes of aquamarines and earth tones. A blue Oni (a Japanese folk demon) leers across a flurry of circular motifs floating across a sky-like background. A checkered grid and newsprint explode from an impossible galaxy of stars and a miasma of bloody red flecks.

Harewood, with his fusion of the metaphysical, human and animistic, is, if nothing else, a child of the universe — or at least a well-traveled global citizen with bulletproof bona fides. His life’s arc has taken him from Brooklyn to Barbados, Japan to Jacksonville, and back again. An artist and educator, Harewood has assuredly ascended up the ladder of local art. Yet he seems immune, if not oblivious, to any kind of hosannas.

Now Harewood is readying for his forthcoming exhibit How To Now. The three-person show, which includes new paintings by Mark Creegan and Joanne Cellar, opens on Friday, Oct. 14. Thirty paintings are expected to be displayed as the flagship show in a new space on San Marco’s Southbank, whose name is simply its street address: 1057 Kings Avenue.

Every artist is, arguably, at a crossroads. Whether they stand in place, make that shaky deal with some kind of devil, or use that very same nexus as a launch pad for greater creative growth is purely on them. Harewood is a mover and traveler, staying in motion in the studio and in his personal life. And local savvy art lovers’ anticipation of seeing his latest work is met directly by Harewood’s own expectation of surpassing what hangs on yesterday’s — and today’s — gallery walls.


Dustin Harewood and his two children greet me at the door. His son, Hinata, aged six, and three-year-old daughter, Mei, are felony-level cute, intrigued by this person here to interrogate their dad.

Now in the living room, the television fills with the blaring evening news. Harewood quickly steps over and clicks it off. “Man, I haven’t watched the news in years,” he says with a laugh, pulling down the ever-present cap that holds his long dreadlocks. Soon attention is drawn to the impromptu floorshow as Mei, and then Hinata, appear again by my side to again scrutinize the hillbilly journalist.

“How was your Friday, Mei? How was work?” I ask, breaking the ice.

“Fine … don’t step on my foot,” Mei responds.

“I won’t.”

“Can I show you how to fight?”

“I’m a pacifist, but you can show me. Where did you learn this?”

“I didn’t learn it anywhere! I just know it.”

“Well, I’m staying outta the way of
that tornado.”

Plastic nunchakus are revealed in Hinata’s hands as he, eyes intent, uses tiny hands and feet to issue expert blows to invisible adversaries in the air. The 38-year-old Harewood explains that the two younger Harewoods are studying the Brazilian martial arts discipline of Capoeira, which merges acrobatics and dance. Encouraged by the presence of a houseguest, Hinata and Mei are wired for sound as their battle stances degrade into wobbly cartwheels and funky dance moves. “I got them into Bruce Lee movies,” explains Harewood. “That’s where all of this comes from.”

The Harewoods live in Cedar Hills, a kind of DMZ neighborhood between the tony grounds of Ortega and full-tilt “Westside” honky-tonk. “You know, this is a calm area and you then take a left at the strip club … ” Harewood laughs. “Florida’s weird.”

The home’s décor is a comfortable blend of contemporary style, visual art, which adorns seemingly every wall, and an absolute family vibe. A Harewood illustration of true reggae mystic Lee “Scratch” Perry seems to stare over at a Mark George neo-pop piece. In the hallway, a piece by Maya Hayuk, which Harewood purchased in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District, creates a kind of visual transition to the opposing rooms. Meanwhile, on the living room floor, a Hinata-and-Mei-made crash pad of couch cushions is splayed out. The family moved here last December; Harewood explains that it was a step up from their 1,000-square-foot home in Murray Hill.

Within 10 minutes of my arrival, Harewood is interviewing me. “What makes for a good, epic interview? What are the ingredients?” Legal stimulants, an open heart, humor and the avoidance of any home court advantage, I say. In that last regard, Harewood has the edge. When the interview subject and interviewer are both out of their elements, disarmed in a neutral environment, gross or subtle maneuverings or reinforcements are rarely in play. But the reality is that Harewood is a friend, so neutrality might have blown out the window when I rolled up the driveway at dusk.

Now it’s just us in the living room, and the conversation shifts to How To Now. “With the title we’re not declaring what painting is supposed to be,” says Harewood, who created the exhibit’s theme. “However, it is about being aware of the context of where we lie in the history of painting. And how does that affect the choices we make when we make the things we make?”

Abruptly, the kids are back. Harewood asks them to be quieter as we’re now deep in interview mode. “You should go meditate like Bruce Lee. That’s a main tenet of martial arts,” I suggest. Hinata and Mei issue blank stares and do a high-stepping skip out of the room.

Harewood explains that How To Now is a continuation of his work recently featured at Bold Bean Coffee Roasters in Jacksonville Beach, as well as his submission to LIFT: Contemporary Expressions of the African-American Experience, the acclaimed group exhibit currently on display at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens. LIFT features 10 local artists, from the established to the emerging, creating ruminative works on the African-American identity, heritage, present and a hopeful future.

Harewood’s work runs the gamut from the radical to the reverent. And, at times, blurs the line between. His piece at the Cummer, Out of the Gloomy Past, bears this out, featuring a triptych-like composition of three large-scale paintings on the wall. Before each painting, roughly six feet away, is a floating 2D head encased in a rounded glass, with different, corresponding organic material peppered along the base. The three disembodied portraits are Peter Tosh, Kendrick Lamar and Nina Simone.

“Peter Tosh is combined with brown sugar from the West Indies. In Barbados, that was our main export. Kendrick Lamar is cotton. And Nina Simone is tobacco; she’s from North Carolina. It’s commodities and why are we really here?” Harewood believes that his current foray into abstractions are an aesthetic continuation of the work he did for now-former Cummer museum director Hope McMath and longtime curator Holly Keris with LIFT. “That show has given me so much exposure,” says Harewood.

Dinner is served. We’re all seated in the dining room, both the kids swinging their legs under their chairs. His wife Yuki has whipped up a simple yet impressive meal of fried fish, sautéed peppers and rice. Mei explains that before one eats, they should say, “Itadakimasu,” roughly the Japanese equivalent of saying grace or “Bon appétit.”

Talk lessens as we dig in. Mei eyes me and smiles between gulps of milk; Hinata reveals himself to be a kind of quiet observer, more concerned with navigating his fork through rice and fish and listening.

“I like milk and cartwheels,” announces Mei. “Daddy, can I show him ballet now?” She answers her own question, leaving the table, lifting her hands high as she pirouettes, closing with a bow to her seated audience. Then she zips back to her seat.

“I feel so funny because this is what all artists are like,” laughs Harewood, watching Mei dance across the carpet. “’Look at me! Look at me!’ And then waiting around … ‘How was that?’”

Harewood and Yuki met in 2005 when she worked at Reddi-Arts. “I used to send my students there to pick up supplies and I always talked on the phone,” he adds, with a laugh, “Initially we met as friends. I don’t really remember at what point we ‘crossed over’.”

“Dustin and I also have a different memory of how we met,” laughs Yuki.

Originally from Amoroi, a small prefecture in northern Japan, Yuki laughs as she calls herself “a country girl,” albeit a country girl who is well-versed in the world of visual arts.

Every other year, the family alternates between vacationing with relatives in either Barbados or Japan. “When we’re in Japan, I go out with the family and Dustin stays at the house and watches TV,” Yuki deadpans. “And when we go to Barbados, I go out with the family and Dustin stays at the house and watches TV.”

Yet whether home or abroad, the couple agrees that, in Harewood’s words, they’re “super introverts.”

“You’re the second guest we’ve had over.”

The plates on the table now emptied, Yuki and the kids get up and head for other rooms. Mei hustles toward the wooden, sliding living room door, before smiling over her shoulder.

“I’m so excited to have eaten with you.”

The chatter and laughter of the family dinner has ended and Harewood looks over with an almost preoccupied expression.

“Now I’m realizing that the art is reflecting my current circumstances. You know? You see those kids? One summer we’re in Barbados, and it’s deep into Crop Over Festival,” says Harewood, of a harvest festival that originated from the slaves on the island in the 17th century. “And this past summer we’re in Japan. Life has gotten quite surreal. Because my kids find it very normal to be going back and forth to those places and then living here. And I find that a lot of my work has become this hybrid of me being Caribbean, West Indian and black American.”

Harewood is not only proud of, but energized by, his multi-hued genealogy, his children’s similar heritage, and the family’s collective and ongoing journey through experienced and applied multiculturalism. This whole world of different homelands, ethnicities, experiences and possibilities has only honed his sense of identity.

“I just say I’m black. It actually gets tiring when people ask,” he says, lifting his open hands upward for emphasis. “Especially when I really just consider myself an artist.”

Dustin Harewood was born in 1978 in New York City, specifically in Brooklyn. “I almost don’t want to say it,” he grins, lowering his voice to a whisper. “It’s like the most pretentious thing to say because all of the artists are congregating there. I’m more east New York, near Canarsie, in Starrett City. It was a lot of Polish and Jewish people — Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Harewood and his younger sister Danielle were raised in a solidly upper-middle-class home with their mother Cheryl, then a stay-at-home-mom and their father Phil, an accountant. Harewood grew up in an absolute diverse NYC experience, living on a “good block,” with projects right on the edge of that same block. His first creative influences came from Garbage Pail Kids trading cards and comic books. When he was in the second grade, his teacher made a suggestion to his parents — they should send their young son to private Saturday morning art classes at the Brooklyn Museum. “When I started taking those classes, that’s when art really became something different for me.” Harewood eventually joined the museum as a junior member.

During the ’80s, the NYC art scene was on fire, the flames fanned by street-level iconoclasts like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The Lower East Side art and music scene spread its influence through the five boroughs and beyond the city’s confines. Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman and Robert Mapplethorpe continued to force open the respective doors of illustration and photography, while tackling ideas of gender, race and even mortality, due in no small part to the plague-like outbreak of AIDS.

Meanwhile, graffiti and street art blurred the confines of the gallery and museum walls. “My sister and I had this game, where every time we’d drive in the car and see graffiti in the city, we’d shout it out. And whoever saw the most won the game,” he laughs. “And I imagine that my parents up in the front seat must have lost their minds.”

The ’80s in NYC also saw the dawn of what Harewood calls the “crack generation.” “My dad’s car radio was constantly getting ripped off. Man, it was rough.”

At the age of 11, Harewood and his family moved to Christchurch, Barbados. “When I was leaving elementary school, the middle school was going to be a little rough, so they thought it was the perfect time to go back to Barbados.” While there, Harewood was educated through the British school system, trading A’s and B’s for GCE academics and O levels. “The situation is that I grew up in New York City. I left as a kid and then went to Barbados, but that was more of a British experience.”

That experience included wearing epaulets, khaki shorts, knee-high socks, and learning the proper way to polish one’s shoes. “It was 1986, the second time of the ‘Miracle Mets’ at the World Series, and then suddenly I turn around and I’m playing cricket.” Because his family had strongly suggested that he become a doctor, Harewood studied art and science.

When Dustin was 16, Harewood’s dad figured out a loophole to expedite his son’s passage into college. Because Harewood was an American living in Barbados, he could forgo taking the British-structured O levels, and simply take the SAT. “So I started college early. Not because I was brilliant or anything. Just because my dad realized that I could do that.”

Harewood attended North Carolina Central University, a historically African-American school. “It’s in the shadow of Duke and Chapel Hill,” he laughs. “I gotta give them a shout-out.” He graduated with a BA in graphic design and then earned an MFA in painting and drawing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

In 2004, Harewood began teaching at FSCJ Kent Campus. “I kind of want this off the record and on the record: I want to be considered an artist first, who teaches,” says Harewood. “I don’t want to be the teacher who makes art. Because that’s wack to me.”

In conversation, Harewood surely comes across as more of a dream-driven visual artist than an educational facilitator. Yet he lights up when speaking about teaching and his students, past and present.

“I’m pretty sure it was Deepak Chopra who said that ‘the surest way to achieve your dreams is to assist other people in achieving theirs,’” Harewood says. Harewood teaches advanced drawing, painting, 2D design and introduction to computer imaging. It seems that if he has a teaching ethos for all of the above, it’s that we’re all teaching and learning at some points in our life, sometimes at the same time.

And his students are teaching him about the anxieties of being a burgeoning artist in the early 21st century. “With social media they’re so concerned that they’ll forever be defined by one picture that they post on Facebook of their work,” he says. “Can you believe that? At first I laughed, but that really worries them.” At times he’ll put them in check. “Jacksonville is larger than Barbados. So imagine being surrounded by water and needing a visa to leave,” he says. “Sometimes my students complain about how hard everything is and I ask them, ‘How many schools are in Jacksonville?’ Barbados has one university, so you gotta be on it to get in there. Lemme tell you, man, I love America. I love this country.”

After teaching for a dozen years, Harewood remains fired up about what he does. “I appreciate the opportunity. And I am grateful to have contributed to the culture of Jacksonville over the years.”

It was at Kent Campus that Harewood met Mark Creegan. Known for a truly mercurial approach to visual art, Creegan is renowned for creating works by toggling, and discarding, fresh media at a breakneck speed, using everything from dried paint drippings to graph paper. “Yeah, Mark and I have a deep, deep bond,” says Harewood.

The pair has curated captivating shows at the school’s gallery space, successfully counterbalancing disparate artists like Madeleine Peck Wagner and Kurt Polkey. Their recent show featuring Russell Maycumber and Micoel Fuentes continues this tradition. “When you take the energies and following of one artist, and mash them together with another artist,” says Harewood, “you create an even bigger impact.”

The next incoming impact on the local arts scene will be felt at the upcoming How To Now exhibit. While Creegan and Harewood are longtime established artists and educators, Cellar is a lesser-known quotient on the arts scene. Harewood hopes that this show will in part draw more attention toward Cellar. “She paints with just a pallet knife, and does figurative abstractions, and they’re so beautiful,” says Harewood. “I feel almost protective of her since I think she’s an incredible artist who needs to be presented in the right way.” And while Creegan needs no introduction to the gallery scene, Harewood is decidedly his vocal champion. “Mark is way too humble,” Harewood laughs. “When I started the idea for this show, I told him, ‘You will be in this show, too.’ And I think he’s way above most artists here.”

Ideas, views and beliefs ricochet back and forth over the course of our conversation. Formal questions from writer to artist are forgotten altogether, yet the conversation continually returns to art.

“This is the time of the big takeover,” says Harewood of the current local arts scene. “I feel like the Jacksonville arts scene is on its ‘come up’ and I feel like people need to stop comparing it to New York and LA, Chicago and Atlanta. People put too much pressure on it. ‘Oh, it sucks here.’ Why? Because we’re our own city. Does it need to be the center of the arts world to be considered successful? I don’t think so.”

Harewood cites the return of curators/arts agitators Aaron Lee Garvey and Stevie Garvey and their Long Road Projects as one thing that has fanned the flames of the arts community. Along with his upcoming show, Harewood is involved with the new, semi-anonymous, five-person street art collective Bless Your Heart Crew, which is currently working on a warehouse commissioned by Birdie’s owner/arts supporter Christy Frazier. Harewood also cites Shaun Thurston as an artist with whom he feels a particular kinship. “You know sometimes people think Shaun is distant or aloof, but he’s really not at all,” says Harewood of the much-respected, local graffiti artist/muralist. “He’s just the kind of guy who won’t talk when he doesn’t want to talk! He’s all about the work.”

As is Harewood. A good portion of his artwork is executed through a couple of ongoing series. “I have one with these floating heads, or dead reefs, and there are these abstract paintings. And I find myself jumping back and forth throughout them. And I enjoy revisiting these three motifs a lot.”

More motifs penetrate Harewood’s work even in the form of a luminous mushroom reappropriated from the classic ’80s video game, Mario Brothers. In Harewood’s view, none of these mergers is accidental. “We tend to separate everything. But are they really separate?” he asks. “You and I were part of the first video game generation, so Mario Brothers was in there. It’s at my core. And those stories. It’s about mythology, and that was the first time you were able to participate in the mythos. Those Mario references were me being honest with myself and putting down all of the MFA bullshit about being a ‘serious artist.’ There’s this pressure to carry on the lineage but the reality is: Pop Art destroys Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism destroys Pop, etc. I remember coming out of school feeling all of that pressure,” he says. “And there comes a point where you realize that no one really cares.”

The initial question of the interview — how do you describe your art? – was derailed by the kids’ spontaneous martial arts expo hours earlier. Now pressed, Harewood becomes playfully deflective. “That’s the hardest thing to do,” he laughs. “How would you describe it?” Though hardly being coy, he also doesn’t try to pull a Jedi mind trick by speaking in “artist statement” talk. He does allow that he wants to be a part of the greater dialogue. “Otherwise, you’re just doing what Jerry Saltz calls ‘zombie art’.”

Describing anyone’s visual art, let alone your own, can be truly difficult. “I don’t want to imprint an idea on the viewer,” says Harewood. “But there’s also a certain idea that I’m trying to convey.” That’s part and parcel of what Ram Dass calls “the dance,” of moving with, and kicking through, the illusion of individual subjectivity. Harewood dips into this spiritual-colored stream as he attempts to verbalize what ultimately doesn’t need verbalization. Art stands on its own, needless of aimed perceptions. “Let’s go to a whole other space,” he says. “Is it all random? Is this life really a dream and are we creating our reality as we go? You got me?”

The reality that Harewood manifests in his work ripples across the currents of contemporary art. Earlier pieces like Re-Blog and Neither Here Nor There, which seem grounded in the two-dimensional, physically rise out toward the viewer in a wave-like arc from the surface. “It’s the opposite of the whole Renaissance idea of creating a world where you’re supposed to break the plane of the flat surface and go into the world. A lot of African art is actually confrontational and it comes at you. It plays with that whole masculine and feminine way of viewing it.”

In much of Harewood’s works, there is a recurring use of dotted circles and diamond shapes. They create texture, movement and even cohesion in the paintings. Harewood cites prints from the Edo period (1615-1868) as highly influential on his paintings, and Japanese culture in general as an aesthetic source for his work. “Japanese imagery just seduces you. Like Van Gogh, that’s what happened to him, with all of these woodblock prints. I think it seduces almost every artist. And I fell victim because a lot of my patterns, with those diamonds and circles, were inspired by kimono patterns. I see it as tribalism and it almost makes me feel disconnected from my African roots, coming through this interesting filter.”

Calculation, through painting the aforementioned patterns as well as his fine-line, meticulous detail work, are offset with happenstance. Harewood also works in layers, what he calls “veils,” to invite, or even push, the viewer deeper into his work. “That’s the truth in all of this, the illusion of chaos. But in reality it all falls in line with precision.”

Though Harewood works in mixed media, he demurs when pressed about specific materials. “I work in acrylics because it has to dry faster. It also allows me to create collage and work with spray paint and be open to mixed media.” Harewood offers that now he makes as many trips to the hardware store as he does to the art store. “But I can’t reveal any more,” he laughs. “Because that’s part of the whole alchemy of it.”

In lieu of turning lead into gold, Harewood transmutes common materials into uncommon art. And like arcane mystics, Harewood is now experiencing the true goal: the interior transformation.

“The thing I love about art is that every year I feel like I’m ‘leveling up,’” says Harewood. “And it’s unlike athletics where you’ve got that one window. I feel so blessed to the fact that at this moment I feel like I’m making the best stuff that I’ve ever made in my life. And I’m so glad that I’m within a genre that allows that.  And why do artists ‘level up’? Because the experiences, to gain knowledge, all of that informs the work. And the work becomes more and more refined. And more powerful.”

Three hours later, we’re standing in the driveway, the neighborhood quiet in the moonlight. With a late summer breeze blowing through, we both seem exhausted from what is surely one of the cleanest, safest highs: a long conversation about art and the very things — identity, family, discipline, goals and vision — that make art even possible.

Our talk had morphed through everything from his story, my story, favorite artists, local artists, Warhol’s example of the inherent power of staying the course and doing the work, to our mutual issue of self-deprecation, God as intuition and conscience, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure impressions, the classic reggae film Rockers, Vedanta, and Aleister Crowley in the form of following your creative “will.” All tied together with good, loud laughter.

Suddenly pensive, Harewood looks away to the sky, starts to speak, and then pauses.

“I consider myself a private person and a lot of people that I know don’t even know these things,” he says softly. “A lot of my friends say that I’m really good about not speaking about myself. I know it sounds crazy, or even conceited, but you know how all artists want to present themselves. I want to be enigmatic but I really am a family man. It’s also who I am.”

“Well, let’s just say you’re a family man who makes enigmatic art,” I offer.

“You know what?” Harewood raises his head and smiles. “That will work.”

The opening reception for How To Now is held from 6-9 p.m. Oct. 14 at 1057 Kings Ave., on San Marco’s Southbank.