CoRK Arts District: Olivier Flaire’s Studio

by Tim Gilmore, 4/20/2014

The mouth hangs gaping above a pointed chin. The eyes stare upward in agony or ecstasy. Perhaps both. The visage is blurred and indeterminate. It’s a French depiction of an American Indian face from the late 19th century.

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Olivier imagines the influence of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows that traveled through Europe.

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Besides the Indian face, the late 19th century French mahogany armoire is carved with mustached Italian faces, round French faces, and a great eagle.

Olivier Flaire has housed his wholesale antique collection in the white stone industrial building built in 1919 at King and Rosselle Streets for almost 20 years.

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That intersection loosely attaches Flaire Antiques to CoRK, the art studio district short for Corner of Rosselle and King, but Olivier and his wife Sarah Crooks Flaire were here long before this old warehouse section of Riverside became hip.

Olivier and Sarah split two sides of the old industrial complex between them. Sarah, who directed Douglas Anderson School of the Arts students in the creation of a traveling mixed media mural of the St. Johns River that includes a mobile of the kinds of water bottles that pollute it and who created an 1800-pound nest constructed in part of sheets of poetry and dedicated to victims of domestic violence, occupies the three-story tower behind Olivier’s space.

The buildings once comprised a Pepsi Cola plant and bottling facility. The soft drink was produced in Sarah’s building and bottled in Olivier’s.

Olivier’s met people who remembered how, in the years after World War Two, couples made dates next door in the skating rink and bought Pepsi straight from the bottlers. The skating rink later became a plywood and lumber warehouse.

When Sarah made the old Pepsi plant her studio and Olivier made the bottling facility his wholesale antique warehouse, most of the buildings around them were empty. No one would deliver pizza. And the two of them had not yet met.

But Sarah spied down on Olivier through a window in her tower that admitted light and sight through an upper window of his warehouse. I met them because two decades later their daughter and my daughter are both Creative Writing students in the local arts middle school.

Now King Street’s line of galleries and restaurants and bars stretches all the way across Riverside from its wealthiest homes by the river to the 70 or so artists who have studios in CoRK warehouses and the breweries and taprooms. Until she was 12, my mother grew up in a house by the railroad tracks here on Ernest Street in a section called Silvertown, originally built for former slaves after the Civil War. Intuition Ale Works brews beers in another old industrial building a block from where my mother lived, including one called Silvertown Ale.

So Olivier and Sarah were pioneers. And it’s a happy accident Olivier is here. Maybe in more ways than one.

Two decades ago, when Olivier was in his 20s, having grown up south of Brittany on the West Coast of France, he responded to an ad for someone who could restore and repair old French furniture purchased and delivered to Jacksonville, Florida. So he came to Northeast Florida for a year to improve his English.

He’s still here. He loves his life, his family, his place. He loves what he does. He points out that so many people hate their jobs. Not him. At any moment, his eyes might grow big, he might enthusiastically point an index finger at your face, he might say—“You want to see something really cool?” and then herd you over to a recent purchase.

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It also says much about his vibrancy, his passion, his joie de vivre, that he jokes about another way he’s accidentally (or not, who can say?) here. He says he was out of commission for a few years, he had colon cancer, he received chemotherapy, and that’s he’s better, that all that is behind him. When I ask him how the economic downturn of recent years affected business, he jokes that even though he was young to get cancer, he got it at the just the right time and that his friends told him he didn’t really miss anything.

Now we’re looking at an old French shrine cabinet he salvaged from a church in Provence. Developers were converting the church into living spaces and they were selling old religious implements. They sold pews and statues. He bought the crosses from the tops of graves in the church cemetery, the only items legally removable.

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He bought a beautiful old pulpit with floral motifs and interlacing curvatures of angelic wings. He says it would make a great bar, and it would. It stands beside a four-faced directional guidepost whose Northern face is that of a Green Man.

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In the shrine cabinet once stood a Madonna. Now above and beneath faded light blue paint, within four skinny columns, stands a tall wooden tribal mask. I don’t know where it’s from. Nor the wooden African mask that hangs as centerpiece of the loft floor Olivier built above.

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But the faded Christian shrine cabinet with the wooden tribal mask and the decadent mahogany armoire with French and Italian and American Indian motifs grant me the wonder of a world that interacts with and recycles itself. I’m standing in an Old Southern Gothic town, district now progressive and artistic, talking to a French Jacksonville antique dealer who shows me a 1920s Mickey Mouse toy he found in a farm in rural France.

He says French farmers and the rural French are often standoffish. So you see when they have a great barn and you tell them you want to buy a chicken coop. They look at you like you’re crazy, but they let you into the barn. Then you see what else they have there, like the 1920s Mickey Mouse toy. When you’re willing to purchase something there they care little about, they invite you into the house for some of the wine they produce on their land. You have to go slow. When you’re in the farmhouse, you look around and see if there’s anything else for which you might make an offer. You have to be respectful and you have to go slow.

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For years he made three-week trips to France, filled up a freight container with purchases, unloaded the containers in Jacksonville, showed his wares to antique dealers and interior decorators, then spent a couple of months restoring and refinishing armoires and tables and statues prior to delivery.

We talk about CoRK and we talk about the history of the buildings and the district, but we spend as much time talking about our daughters and county curricula.

I ask him about what he thought of Jacksonville when he first got here. He creases his brow, but even in worry, his eyes look intelligent and kind. Then he says, “It was a very rough place, very conservative.”

Though he concedes that Jacksonville is still largely conservative, he says emphatically—and he says most things emphatically—the city’s changed a lot since he’s been here.

I joke with him. I can tell instantly that I can do that. I say, “So you took a lot of really cool stuff from your native country and brought it here to Florida?”

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He laughs. He says not all of it’s cool. You have to fill up a container. You fill it up with as much cool stuff as you can, and then you know you have to make money to keep doing this. So you might say, “Okay, I take 10 more armoire.”

But he’s also proud to show me a concrete statue of a purplish raccoon holding a corncob and a monkey holding above his head a book about understanding humans.

He shows me Charles and he shows me James. Both of them are mannequins. Charles is intact, spreading his limbs dramatically while seated in a large yellow urn. James’s lower half leans on a rail from the loft, while his upper half gesticulates over armoires and chairs and old clocks.

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I buy an old metal railroad sign in the shape of half a cross that says, “2 Tracks.” Old tracks run across Roselle and Gilmore Streets, beside Intuition Ale Works and Flaire Antiques. When I walk across the rail lines holding the sign, I feel like a signpost that’s suddenly grown feet. I think about the Robert Frost lines, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, / And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler, long I stood.” Now I’m a walking signpost making its own tracks.