by Tim Gilmore, 11/21/2015
When the Waterspirit emerged from the Main Library, its great green wild-eyed head leading its winding 35-foot body through the city’s most central streets, when the primitive drums sounded and Kim Ramsey’s otherworldly chanting
and singing began and Sarah Crooks Flaire invoked the narrative of the Waterspirit, when the Waterspirit, the scales of its sinuous body made of recyclable bottles, circled inward around and throughout Hemming Park, searching for its pearl, I felt chills on the back of my neck and my chest heaved.
I didn’t know that Saturday morning’s street performance—May 2, 2015—only represented Part IV of environmental artist Sarah Crooks Flaire’s strange saga In the Mouth, the Oyster and I.
I still don’t know what to call it. It’s musical (reminded me instantly of George Crumb’s 1970 lyric song cycle epic based on the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, Voices of Ancient Children). It’s obviously highly visual. It’s theatre, yes: there is no “breaking of the fourth wall,” because it does away with walls (Walt Whitman: “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!”). It invites the audience to follow its winding route and become part of the Waterspirit’s tail in doing so.
And it’s literary throughout.
Which is why I asked Sarah that morning in Hemming Park if she’d be willing to direct a performance of the Waterspirit for Jax by Jax 2015. The first Jax by Jax literary arts festival, named for “Jacksonville Writers Writing Jacksonville,” had drawn about 500 attendees to hear 15 writers in the middle of Riverside the previous November.
Sarah said she’d think about it. She thought about it. A lot. Mulled it and mulled and considered and considered. Then she invited Jax by Jax to visit the home of the Waterspirit instead.
* * *
Sarah Crooks and Olivier Flaire were here at the corner of Rosselle and King Streets for more than a decade before it became the Corner of Rosselle and King, which is to say CoRK, the largest arts district in Jacksonville, housed in a complex of old industrial spaces and warehouses in North Riverside.
But Sarah’s just recently begun to open her studio space, her sanctum sanctorum, so publically. The new 12 foot tall phoenix mosaic beside the Rosselle Street door heralds Sarah’s new opening to the city.
When she does an event downtown, she can just go home. When she does the event from her own studio space, she’s invited the public to encroach on her own sacred and artistic boundaries. But don’t think Sarah’s some prima donna. Jacksonville’s greatest artists are the least pretentious people you’ll ever meet, but their calling is a calling, and Sarah’s is a sacred one.
The red labyrinths and birds and spirals on tattered prayer flags in the courtyard attest. So do the large tapestries of “Red Pearl River,” of which the Waterspirit is the keeper. So do the butterflies she’s cut from tin cans. So does the 1800-lb nest she built of poetry and various recycled materials.
And as with Jeff Whipple’s and Liz Gibson’s art just over the railroad tracks at MetaCusp, across from CoRK proper, I’m reminded again how literary is so much of Jacksonville’s visual art. Not only has this old Bible Belt working-class industrial town become more artistic than all its naysayers imagined, but Jacksonville’s now surprisingly literary—even in its painters and sculptors. “Surprisingly,” I say. In the way James Joyce might now be surprised to find his dirty old Dublin a UNESCO “City of Literature.”
Sarah’s three-story tower, which opens into Olivier’s space and the lovely courtyard with its dozen or so potted citrus trees and its old French four-faced seasonal-and-directional head on a column, has become Evervess Art Studio.
Sarah named her studio for the facility that originally occupied her tower to bottle Evervess tonic and mixer in the 1920s. But effervescing / evervessing is precisely what Sarah Crooks Flaire’s art does. Compost yields crops. The earth always ascends from the ruins of the world, spring from winter. The Waterspirit rises.
* * *
So the Flaires invited Jax by Jax 2015 into the Waterspirit’s den. And MetaCusp’s Jeff Whipple and Liz Gibson were both featured writers on November 14th. After 750 people came to hear 24 featured writers in 12 intimate venues at Jax by Jax, more than 100 people came to the afterparty at Evervess Art Studio.
The day before, my wife Jo organized book inventories, Olivier supervised student volunteers who dusted antique French bureaus and set up tables and chairs, Sarah pointed out what would happen where and mopped, and I moved a tall ladder across the courtyard to string icicle lights through the trees.
At the afterparty, the Ouija Brothers improvised and jammed on guitar and drums framed before tall beveled-glass doors, Ryan Reid mobilized his new Hemming Park restaurant Folkfood to cater us, and people bought books like Matt Lany’s The Tree or HeartCockVaginaMind, Sohrab Fracis’s Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America, Tangela Floyd’s Introducing the Black Superheroes, Frances Driscoll’s The Rape Poems, H.K. Rainey’s These Hours of
Bone and Ash (She unrolled a large canvas map of the novel’s landscapes while I sat on a large couch deep in the cavernous studio and gawked.), Heather Peters’s Sinking in the Stillness (She found Georgia clay in Provence.), Tim Gilmore’s The Mad Atlas of Virginia King, April Gray Wilder’s illustrated short story postcards, Raleigh Rand’s Brightleaf, Jordan Logue’s One Fiddle Too Many, Michaela Tashjian’s Your Scheherazade, or Bridge Eight Magazine.
I thought this whole night about my friend, a former student, Connor St. George. Jax by Jax follows the Friday the 13th terrorist attacks in Paris. I thought of art and violence, creativity and destruction, though I’m wary of glib binaries and know artists can be violent and monsters can make beauty.
Connor had been so excited to be a Jax by Jax “venue liaison.” These are the people who coordinate with individual venues—Silver Cow Watering Hole or Jacksonville Magazine’s offices or Sunday Tattoo or Superhero Hive comic book store or Riverside Liquors—and the two writers who share each venue and rotate 15-minute performances each half hour.
So I mentioned Connor St. George when invited to make acknowledgements from Olivier’s antique French pulpit. The day before, Connor’s best friend’s sister and her father and twin nieces had been murdered by her boyfriend who then shot himself.
And I apologize now to Sarah Crooks Flaire. She tells stories of rising, of resurrection, of ouroboric springtime renewal. Her whole life and art represents that flowering, that eternal life.
But I could not fail to say, “Connor St. George” from behind that 200 year old French pulpit. And Sarah Crooks Flaire cannot fail to resurrect Jacksonville brilliant and blithe and celebratory in the spirits she rises from its pollution to track their pearls. That’s why she was chosen the Florida artist, one per state, to deck the White House Christmas Tree, which she chose to do with representations of the Timucuans Indians who lived where Evervess Art Studio today stands when the Egyptian pyramids were built at Giza.