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Shaun Thurston balances big murals with ‘hidden’ projects

January 17, 2017 // by Denise M. Reagan

Wherever you go in Jacksonville, you'll see Shaun Thurston's work: downtown on Chamblin's Uptown bookstore, Jacksonville Beach on the side of Green Room Brewing, Riverside at The Blind Rabbit restaurant, Northside at No More Homeless Pets Thrift Store, Southside at the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership, and many, many more.

Shaun Thurston Bold Bean Coffee Cup
"Seeing some of my work in the places that I hang out is closer to a studio visit than a gallery visit," Shaun Thurston says, "and I try to make the work available so my friends and neighbors can see them." Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.
Shaun Thurston Floating Land 2014
Shaun Thurston's Floating Land (2014) appears above Chamblin's Uptown bookstore in downtown Jacksonville. Image courtesy of Doug Eng.
Shaun Thurston Fig and Pheasant 2014
Shaun Thurston's Fig and Pheasant (2014) stretches across the wall of The Blind Rabbit in Riverside. Image courtesy of Doug Eng.
Shaun Thurston Welcome To Florida 2014
Shaun Thurston's Welcome To Florida (2014) appears on the corner of Newnan and Adam streets in downtown Jacksonville. Image courtesy of Doug Eng.
Shaun Thurston Nudibranch 2014
Shaun Thurston's Nudibranch (2014) appears on the exterior of Green Room Brewing in Jacksonville Beach. Image courtesy of Doug Eng.

But the artist whose public art drew so many admirers gained even more acclaim with his 2014 Project Atrium mural at MOCA Jacksonville, which also earned him a One Spark prize. More high-profile murals followed at Hemming Park and the  Museum of Science and History. He recently finished  a new mural on the side of Crispy's, a new restaurant, gallery, and bar opening in May on Main Street in Springfield.

Sometimes Thurston enjoys working out of the spotlight on more intimate, smaller-scale work like the pieces now on display at Bold Bean Coffee Roasters in San Marco. The exhibition of drawings, paintings, and assemblages represents his experimentation in the studio. Elements of naturalism, surrealism, and fantasy create a signature style that defies any of those categories.

We asked Thurston about his work since his Project Atrium exhibition.

Shaun Thurston Project Atrium 2014
Shaun Thurston's Project Atrium mural appears at MOCA Jacksonville in 2014. Image courtesy of Doug Eng.

How did Project Atrium affect your career?

I think it was the ceiling for working in Jacksonville and being told I'm a local artist, or a Jacksonville artist. Each public piece I do becomes the only reason some people will know of me. That's normal. I think I was asked to be an Atrium Gallery artist because of everything I had done before that moment, but the people who never saw or paid attention to my paintings became aware of me overnight. In that sense, it was a very quick expansion of the awareness of my art and took me from being a few people's favorite obscure painter to the general public's popular choice. I won a voter's poll in Folio Weekly for best artist and best exhibition because of it. That brought me from the intimate circles of the Riverside arts community and into the everyday education of what's currently happening in this city. There have been introductions that were made during that time from which I am still receiving opportunities.

Project Atrium: One Spark featuring Shaun Thurston from MOCA Jacksonville on Vimeo.

 

What are some of the main projects you have worked on since Project Atrium?

Getting the outside of the Museum of Science and History was a longtime goal, and that was my biggest surface area and tallest building that I have painted.

I've traveled a lot and to West Coast a couple of times since that. Travel is always so inspiring. I want more and more privacy as I paint, so going after high profile projects isn't as interesting to me as painting my friends' new building or a private wall in an Ortega garden. High-profile work is necessary, challenging, and very rewarding, so I will have something in the works every year, but I love to get back to hidden places to paint for only the few who stumble along. 

Many of your wall murals have become treasured landmarks in Jacksonville. You have a philosophy for how you approach these works, right?

During my life, building owners in Jacksonville, as I've mentioned in other interviews, were very closed-minded when it came to accepting art as the expression of an individual or a community that didn't contribute to the expected image of a Southern Baptist space that put business, consumerism, and Jesus first. Profit-driven decision makers told me local art was cute, but not important. I knew that the bridge between art, religion, and the South was built of natural imagery. Sadly, investing is linked to a quantifiable metric of return. It took many years and many people to get this city open to murals as a valid way to spend time and resources, so I was doing it for free, out of pocket, and spending way too much time on each project.

I wanted to remind the public that doesn't venture into a gallery or a museum regularly that art is a universal language, and like basic instructions or rich textural poetry, there is a place for all of it to be relevant. If my murals have become treasured it might be because they represent the desires that most of us have for living in a diverse, culturally stimulating environment that nurtures creative forms of expression. Art should be an act of giving, and it's hard to reconcile with such a self-motivated ego driven pursuit. I'm always trying to see the work through the eyes of the oldest and the youngest humans with the understanding that I have been and will be all of them at some point in my existence. So I aim to make something totally unique to each space, which can only be done by spending some time and effort understanding the street and community where the work will live. At the same time, historic imagery and the expected ideas of art accompanying a well-known local story will not be painted by me. It's too obvious.

Shaun Thurston MOSH
Shaun Thurston's mural appears on the facade of the Museum of Science & History on Jacksonville's Southbank. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.

How did the MOSH mural come about?

Christian Harden of The Elements board at MOSH had been asking me to do something on the side of the museum since the first One Spark. That was when I painted the Earth Gods piece with the frog holding the fisherman on Adams Street. Once Crystal Floyd joined the board and their conversations turned towards completing a big project as the Elements, she signed me on before we could even talk about a budget. Of course I'm going to do it if she says so because we live together and I love her. The real miracle was getting the Savage Brothers Painting company to do all of the pre-treatment and base coats for the mural and having Sunbelt rentals give us a sixty-foot boom lift for five weeks on top of Sherwin-Williams donating all the paint and UV protection. I completed the wall in three weeks but had been through many meetings with the museum staff about the ideal situation and what would need to be put in place before painting began. They had everything ready on time, on budget, and with complete accommodation of my schedule. Other than working with MOCA, the museum was the most streamlined mural I've done from start to finish, which is totally due to the staff at both institutions.

Shaun Thurston Slow Motion Explosions
Shaun Thurston's Slow Motion Explosions hangs in Bold Bean Coffee Roasters in San Marco. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.

Tell us about your studio space at Phoenix.

Christy Frazier, was the first person in Jacksonville to commission a mural from me. I painted the back patio of her club, the Art Bar in Riverside, with John O'Brian. That was almost twenty years ago, and we've all been friends since; so when she moved into a giant warehouse with the plans for it to be an art district, I was one of the first artists she called.  I was still renting a studio in CoRK and not looking for a place to work. I also have my backyard and a drawing studio in my house, so the need to be somewhere else would only be for large-scale work, which is typically a mural on location. My CoRK studio had once again become an expensive storage space since I was so busy working on other walls, and I ultimately decided to move everything back to my house and work out of the backyard studio. That's when she extended the offer to paint in her space at Phoenix. I went in and cleared a big area in the back and ran a bunch of extension cords and lights through the open space until it started to feel like a sanctuary.

There have been a couple events there, and there seems to always be a photo shoot of some kind in the back alley or the hidden spots inside, so it doesn't really have the secluded feel I was hoping for when I moved out there. I love working and hanging out with everybody involved in the space, but what I need in terms of a quiet space where I can make huge messes and live in chaos without anybody else walking through or being affected by my work flow is not really available there. It's more of a group space where everybody is experimenting all of the time. It's where Bless Your Heart Crew was born, and as long as that's still going we will meet there to plan most future projects.

Shaun Thurston Quantum States
Shaun Thurston's triptych Quantum States hangs in Bold Bean Coffee Roasters in San Marco. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.

How would you describe the work on display at Bold Bean Coffee Roasters in San Marco?

When I was first asked to do the show I was given the choice of the Riverside location or the new San Marco location, which had not even been built. I chose the Riverside location because it was small, close to my house and familiar. I framed ten pieces and chose six of them that would work well in the intimate space. At that point, I was done with the bulk of the planning. I kept working in the Phoenix studio on experimental pieces and assemblages that were more the result of curiosity than planning, and after a month I had much more work that I was enthusiastic to show.

Once I saw how big the San Marco Bold Bean is, I knew that I could bring a lot of work and edit it down to a cohesive show in the space. Most of the work has never been shown other than an Instagram or Facebook image, even if it's been completed for years.

Everything that I have done for museums or galleries is not going to be shown at the coffee shop. I keep those worlds separate and it makes things like pricing and collections easier. If a piece has been in a museum like the Cummer or MOCA, then it's rare and I hold on to it until the right person comes along that connects with the piece and the experience. They will never be available through a coffee shop or in a store. Seeing some of my work in the places that I hang out is closer to a studio visit than a gallery visit, and I try to make the work available so my friends and neighbors can see them.

Shaun Thurston Bold Bean Sold Red Dot
Shaun Thurston marks one of his artworks sold at Bold Bean Coffee Roasters in San Marco. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.

What are you working on now?

Right now I'm painting for a show in Atlanta which will be more figurative work. I just completed a mural in Springfield about embracing the moment while considering the future from an unfamiliar space. My mural at Nighthawks in Riverside is an ongoing process with color changing lights and curved walls that should be finished by the middle of this year.

Shaun Thurston Bold Bean 2
Shaun Thurston created a series of works combining found wood from his studio, paint, and drawings on transparencies he uses for large-scale murals. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.
Shaun Thurston Bold Bean 1
Shaun Thurston's work on display at Bold Bean Coffee Roasters in San Marco. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.
Shaun Thurston Bold Bean 3
A series of Shaun Thurston's paintings hangs in Bold Bean Coffee Roasters in San Marco. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.
Shaun Thurston Bold Bean 4
Shaun Thurston's wok hangs in Bold Bean Coffee Roasters in San Marco. Image courtesy of Denise M. Reagan.

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