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In Jacksonville, Rediscovering a City’s Heart Through Public Art

Jan Mercker

A public art movement is telling the forgotten stories of Jacksonville’s Black History

Jessica Santiago wants to help Jacksonville find its soul. And she thinks the best way to do it is through public art.

The sprawling North Florida city has experienced something of an identity crisis in recent years. Santiago, founder of the creative agency ArtRepublic, wants to solve it–one mural at a time.

Santiago and ArtRepublic are behind an impressive new initiative this summer and fall. The Lift Every Voice and Sing project spotlights the city’s top public artists and emerging talent with a series of murals paying tribute to Jacksonville’s rich Black history, a history Santiago says has been ignored for too long.

“I started really diving into the history of the city, and it blew me away how rich the African American history is and how rich the culture is,” Santiago said. “And nobody knew. Nobody that lives here knew. Nobody that grew up here knew. The Lift Every Voice project was designed to start bringing some of these icons who have contributed to culture—not just in Jacksonville but in our entire country—to light.”

‘Lift every voice and sing’

Santiago, who was born and raised in Jacksonville, says her city’s history as a thriving African American cultural capital in the early 20th century has been stamped out. And now is the time to bring it back.

Last November, she started work on a project to celebrate the city–and the centennial of the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem, written by Jacksonville native James Weldon Johnson in 1900. Santiago assembled a top-notch team of creative directors: Jacksonville artist and community leader Malcolm Jackson, the noted Los Angeles-based artist Christopher Parsons and planner Ennis Davis of the Jax Chamber to plan a series of stellar murals paying tribute to the city’s surprisingly diverse artistic history.

The project features work from the acclaimed Jacksonville-based Momo, along with fellow Jacksonville artists Toni Smailagic, Anthony Rooney and Christopher Clark, Miami muralist Ruben Ubiera and other national and international talent.

The murals pay tribute to the city’s cultural icons, including the acclaimed writer Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson and his brother, the composer J. Rosamond Johnson who wrote the music for “Lift Every Voice” and the Negro League baseball star and Jacksonville NAACP leader Rutledge Pearson.

The project, funded by local businesses and philanthropists, goes beyond painting walls, Santiago says. She and her collaborators have made programming to engage the community a priority.

“We’re meeting with historians, we’re meeting with the people. We’re looking at who goes into the murals,” Santiago said. “We’re bringing youth out there to meet the artists. At the same time we really do a deep dive with creative content so that these stories live on and they’re able to be amplified through films and documentaries.”

The Harlem of the South

In the 1920s, Jacksonville was known as the “Harlem of the South” for its thriving arts and culture scene. Home to musicians, writers and artists, the city boasted a booming pre-Hollywood film industry. But that culture was largely erased by white leaders in the mid-20th century, Santiago says.

“From the late 1800s right up until the 1920s, Jacksonville was a thriving cultural capital,” Santiago said. “It was a very progressive city because you had so much industry flowing in and out.”

Jacksonville was alas the “winter film capital of the world.” Northeastern film studios operated there in the early 1900s, before momentum shifted to Hollywood in the following decade. For Santiago, city leaders “very intentionally destroyed and suppressed” Jacksonville’s vibrant Black culture from the 1930s to the 1960s. It led to the departure of Black intellectuals to Harlem and other cities, stunting the Jacksonville’s cultural growth.

Getting authentic through public art

In the second half of the 20th century, Jacksonville developed a reputation as a mostly white city with attitudes that were more in line with the Deep South than cosmopolitan South Florida.

White flight and urban sprawl took root, creating what’s now the largest city by area in the continental U.S. 

“Jacksonville is a city of suburbs with no real cultural epicenter,” Santiago said. “Downtown has struggled to revive for 15 years.”

But diversity is on the upswing, she says, and Jacksonville is a young city with a median age of just 34. Santiago says these are both elements the city needs to embrace to rebuild its tourism industry. And public art plays a big role in the revival.

“You look around and you would never guess that this city has an average age of 34, has an African American population of 31 percent, has a huge Latino and Filipino population. There’s no way to see that, and that’s why it’s struggled with an identity. Until you really are able to get authentic, you’re never going to be able to have a soul that people can feel,” Santiago said. “If you’re authentic, people are going to go there and love it…You’re experiencing something that’s human and real.”

Supporting street artists

Santiago started her career in finance and business consulting. Then health issues prompted her to shift focus and follow her passion for art. Santiago started a career as an art dealer, working with her South Florida mentor, the noted gallerist Mary Ann Cohen of Mac Art Galleries in Fort Lauderdale.

“Going into the art industry was completely an inspired thought during my healing process,” she said. “It’s changed my life completely.” 

Santiago initially focused on corporate collections but shifted her focus to bringing public art to her hometown after being inspired by her experience with Miami’s vibrant and diverse public art scene, from the Art Basel international art fair in Miami Beach to the Wynwood Walls urban graffiti museum in the city’s Wynwood Warehouse District.

Santiago launched ArtRepublic in 2016 with a goal of promoting and supporting public artists by connecting them with private and municipal clients. From the outset, her focus has been making sure street artists, like other contemporary artists, were getting paid for their work.

“Street artists were moving and people were beginning to see their value in a different way. Cities were using them as a marketing tool and PR tool,” she said. “But at the same time, they don’t always have a lot of resources to grow.”

‘The artists are on fire’

The Lift Every Voice project as been in the planning stages since late 2019. It kicked off last month and continues through October. But in light of the COVID pandemic and a national reckoning on race, the project couldn’t be more timely, Santiago says.

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“Our young community here is wildly creative. There are so many great musicians and poets and writers here today…We were interested to see how they would take it working as a collective, with a common goal of bringing this soul and history back to life.”

Santiago underscores that the city itself isn’t funding the murals. Instead, philanthropists and businesses like the VyStar Credit Union and Jacksonville Transportation Authority are jumping in.

“They all believe in the work. They really believe in downtown,” Santiago said. “They see the value in it and they’ve been able to make huge strides in not only the downtown revitalization but keeping our project going.”

For Santiago, who was inspired by the Italian Renaissance and the powerful arts patronage of the Medici family in launching her company, connecting artists with civic-minded businesses and philanthropists is a natural role.

“When we started ArtRepublic, it was completely inspired by [the Renaissance], by taking art into the public realm, having this sense of equality among the people and the powers that be and letting people live with beauty.”

And the comparisons are even more apt in a world rocked by a pandemic. Like the plague years in Europe, she says, COVID is creating a “massive shift in perspective on what we value in life.”

And for Santiago and her artists, there’s no looking back.

“On top of that, having the Black Lives Matter movement that has forever changed the expectations on inclusivity and diversity,” she said. “The artists are on fire.”

See a guide to Jacksonville’s 30-plus public murals here.

More Artistic Fuel:

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