APRIL 9, 2014 - JULY 6, 2014

Shaun Thurston, the artist who has been transforming walls all over Jacksonville, has taken over MOCA Jacksonville's Atrium Gallery for his latest work for Project Atrium.

For several weeks, MOCA has hinted at the identity of the “Mystery Artist” who has entered his work in the One Spark crowdfunding festival April 9-13. Thurston officially started painting in the Haskell Atrium Gallery on March 19. Unlike other Project Atrium exhibitions, Thurston is working behind a giant curtain to keep the artwork cloaked in secrecy until its big reveal at 7:45 p.m. April 9.

For the inaugural One Spark in 2013, Thurston entered a project called 20 Murals in a Year, pledging to those who voted for him that he would use the crowdfunding money to cover the city in art. He placed fourth overall and earned about $4,100, which helped pay for materials. His Project Atrium mural is the culmination of that project.

As a way of continuing to pay it forward, Thurston is donating half of any One Spark crowdfunding money for Project Atrium back to MOCA to give future artists the same opportunity he received.

In the year around the first One Spark, Thurston completed murals in Five Points, Riverside, Jacksonville Beach, the Northside, the Southside and downtown. He completed four satellite murals as studies leading up to Project Atrium: 937 Main Street, 1100 Main Street, 632 West Forsyth Street, and 801 West Forsyth Street. The walls popped up around downtown as a link between Thurston's street aesthetic and the formal Museum space, a connection between the community and MOCA, and an invitation to come inside. He said the approach, material, and environment dictated the style of each satellite as well as the atrium mural. Thurston also completed four large panels that will be exhibited in MOCA.

Although he will work behind a curtain to create an element of surprise, he said he's keenly aware of the pressure—from the public, other artists, himself--of exhibiting in MOCA.

“I feel the weight of their expectations,” Thurston said before starting the project. “I want to do the art community proud with what I'm going to do.”

His murals have become Northeast Florida landmarks, from the floating islands above Chamblin's Uptown in downtown Jacksonville to the 150-foot-wide fig tree gracing the outside of The Blind Fig in Riverside.

Born in 1979 in Jacksonville, Thurston attended Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville and Florida School of the Arts in Palatka. He moved to Atlanta for a stint in 2007 and left his mark: three walls in The Argosy gastropub in East Atlanta Village, a giant cobra in Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School's gym, an Oakhurst Community Garden mural for the first Living Walls conference, a fox and dragon wall outside of The Argosy, as well as a few street spots he scribbled on that haven't been covered.

Thurston participated in the Co11ective show in the Wynwood Design District during Miami's Art Basel in 2011. He and ten other artists installed works in the Kohn Compound at 215 Northwest 24th Street. He completed four eight-by-four-foot paintings exploring “spirit animals"—crow, bear, wolf, and alligator—using subtle colors that set his work apart from the bright hues that saturate the work of other graffiti artists.

Thurston was one of thirty-four Northeast Florida artists to contribute to the Our Shared Past exhibition, based on old 8mm home movies of Jefree Shalev's family, on view at The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens December 2013 through May 2014. Pastel Pool, an oil on panel based on the film still Only Lonely When I'm Not Alone, features a girl playing alone in a pool of water.

When presented with the prospect of creating a Project Atrium exhibition, Thurston knew what the subject would be. As a child, he collected rocks and stones, cherishing pyrite and malachite with the same value as gold and diamonds.

“They are perfect little sculptures on their own,” Thurston said.

As he studied crystals in preparation for Project Atrium, he observed that the way books describe certain varieties often differs from how crystals behave in reality. Impurities cause delightful defects and diversions from their original state, much like an artist learns to incorporate mistakes into the final work.

“So when I paint them, I'm not trying to make it perfect,” he said. “I'm trying to make it look like the piece that I'm holding.”Imperfection is an apt metaphor for someone who has specialized in street art, first as an unauthorized apprentice, then as a commissioned professional. Often the size of the wall and speed of the work dictate a less meticulous approach. Add to that dicey outdoor weather, laborious trips up and down ladders, sloshing buckets of paint and crows or dogs stealing lunches.

“Being outdoors, it's always kind of a shoestring,” he said.

But that's nearly imperceptible when viewing Thurston's line work, which seems nearly impossible to have come from a spray nozzle. He described it as “drawing with spray paint.”

Indeed, when you watch Thurston work, the spray can seems like an extension of his fingers. He controls the stream of paint with the precision of a brush.

Thurston said the current climate is advantageous for art in Jacksonville--much like the conducive environment required for crystals to grow.

“Right now the city is ripe for the expression of art,” Thurston said.


headshot of Shaun Thurston


Shaun Thurston was born in 1979 in Jacksonville, Florida. After graduating from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts in Jacksonville, he attended Florida School of the Arts in Palatka then transferred to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia with a portfolio scholarship. But he left when a professor told him he didn't need a degree and student loan debt to make a living with his art. He has completed more than fifty commissions since his early twenties, as well as hundreds of personal and public works. His artwork has been included in exhibitions at The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens and Art Basel in Miami. His murals appear throughout Jacksonville and Atlanta.

Image courtesy of Thomas Hager.