THE BURDEN AND THE TRUTH
There's no one in Jacksonville more ubiquitous or enigmatic than Wayne Wood
CHAPTER I: THE EMPTY CHAIR
December 2013. CoRK Arts District.
Wayne Wood’s head hasn’t moved, nor has his body. He reclines in a folding chair, his legs outstretched, his ankles crossed. His torso is straight and sturdy, his arms folded across his chest. His eyeballs roll up. His lids close.
Wood is a member of an advisory board for a theatrical project I’m working on. This meeting is one of many that the 68-year-old retired optometrist and self-proclaimed “Arts Agitator” (it’s on his Facebook page) committed to today. It’s sandwiched between a date with the publisher of his latest book and a speaking engagement at an architectural conference Downtown. He’d originally shown up two hours early for this meeting, but seemed neither irritated nor relieved as he left. Now he’s back, and asleep.
Wood supports my project and many other artistic, historic and cultural projects in Jacksonville. He has more than a few of his own as well. One of them is a multifaceted pitch to the city in which he and his partners, Friends of Hemming Park, will transform Hemming Plaza from a mecca for the homeless into a thriving, vital centerpiece of the Downtown core.
Admirers and friends, of which he has scads, agree that if anyone can do it, it’s Wayne Wood. And so does Wayne Wood. “Everyone’s been telling me that — that I’m the only one who can do this,” he says. “It’s both a burden and kind of the truth, too.”
Wood’s no stranger to seemingly impossible feats. Riverside Avondale Preservation and Riverside Arts Market are among the highlights of an extensive list of accomplishments throughout his biography. Projects that illuminate our history, embrace our architecture, arts and artists, and historic places are Wayne’s thing — but only if it’s fun. “If it’s not fun, I’m not gonna do it,” Wood says with a Willy Wonka mischievousness. “If it is fun I’ll do it. I’ll walk 10 miles to go do something fun.”
Apparently my presentation today doesn’t meet this criterion. Fifteen minutes before the meeting’s end, I see that the Arts Agitator’s chair is empty. I didn’t see him wake up, or leave, but somehow he’s vanished, on to his next endeavor.
Wayne Wood’s renowned slate of “fun” projects this past year included judging a tattoo fashion show; creating for One Spark a 300-photo wall of blown-up portraits of artists and creators ranging from sculptors to drag queens; and launching the Casket Factory Halloween Party, billed as the “greatest Halloween party in Jacksonville’s history,” a fund-raiser for the restoration and maintenance of Old St. Luke’s Hospital, a National Register landmark constructed in 1878 and owned by the Jacksonville Historical Society. The nearby casket factory had been closed for 50 years. Wood and his many volunteers transformed the space into a haunted house. He was involved in every detail.
“Wayne is the greatest idea person in town, so we start there,” says Emily Lisska, executive director of the Jacksonville Historical Society. The two have worked together on a number of projects since the mid-’90s, including Wood’s book, The Jacksonville Family Album: 150 years of the Art of Photography. Throughout that process, Lisska says, Wood was reluctant to gratuitously invoke his family’s longstanding connection to the city:
“Wayne was very modest — well, I don’t know if ‘modest’ and Wayne are synonymous, but he actually holds back. People don’t think of Wayne as holding back, but he does. He deserves credit for so many of the accomplishments of the city that he hasn’t been given credit for, as much as he has been applauded and lauded.”
Indeed he has been. There are few characters in Jacksonville more ubiquitous or enigmatic. Wood has fingers, and thumbs and toes and other assorted digits, in an astounding number of projects — if something important is going on somewhere in Jacksonville, chances are, somehow, some way, Wayne Wood is involved, and possibly the force behind it.
CHAPTER II: The House
Wood has called this celebrated, century-old Riverside house his home for more than 15 years. It’s Gatsbyesque, walled and gated, vivacious and trustworthy, the kind of house that trick-or-treaters want to visit, and aren’t disappointed when they do. Its landscaped entrance is impressive but not intimidating. Wood’s house is known to many, and often doubles as a venue for various artists’ projects. He gives informal as well as formal tours, and astutely describes the history of the design and the pieces of historic façades he’s collected.
During one of these events several months back, guests and performers were treated to a tour that included a visit upstairs. Wood bemusedly pointed out the original bathtub, which has a faucet in the middle, instead of at one end. “They were intelligent back then,” he quipped. “They made tubs like this for two people, so they could have fun in there without anyone getting a faucet in the back.”
Guests marveled at the master bedroom, which included another large tub with an adjacent fireplace, as well as a large mirror on the ceiling (installed by a previous owner and since removed, he says).
Next to the bed against the wall that night were dozens of pairs of immaculately kept women’s shoes, tenderly arranged, as if at any moment a woman may emerge from the tub, put on a white terrycloth robe and carefully select her evening’s foot attire. His tone became softer, discreet. The shoes belonged to his wife, he said. Gini had passed away some months before. Wood told his female guests that should their shoe size match, they could take any pair they like. He planned to give them away soon anyway.
Earlier that evening, before the guests had arrived, as he arranged coffee cups in the butler’s pantry, I’d asked him how he was, how his grieving process was going. He seemed taken aback. “People don’t usually ask me that.”
CHAPTER III: “Gini Died”
It’s months later, a sunny winter afternoon.
A man pressure-cleans the front walkway of Wood’s house. An astounding teepee on the front lawn rivals the house for attention. Wood smiles. “This caused a little controversy with some neighbors, but we got a permit, and it will be here,” he says. There are floral and fake-leopard-skin pillows strewn on a mat on the ground inside. Wood explains, with expert detail, the process of building a teepee, as well as its architectural origins. His brother built this one, and once built another three times its size for Bob Dylan.
“It was going to be a One Spark venue for an artist I was working with, but that fell through,” he tells me. “Now, [local blogger] Kerry Speckman is going to use it during One Spark. She’s going to sleep in it, too.”
Another man arrives to deliver Wood’s new book, Flying Colors: The Life & Work of Courtney Hunt, hot off the press. It’s about the life of the late Julian Courtney Hunt, a prolific portrait painter and aviator. While researching the book, Wood, who knew and admired Hunt, spent a year or more tracking down, purchasing and borrowing Hunt’s paintings for an exhibition and book signing at the St. Augustine Art Association. He stops to sign for the books, and then helps the man unload each box, one by one. Inside the house, walls are warmed with the deep oranges, purples and reds of the many collected Hunt paintings, as well as works from Wood’s own extensive collection. Rich and sturdy mahogany trim adorns the ceilings. The house is full of light.
He stacks the boxes of books in the front hall, opens one box carefully, inspects a book and returns it, with little fanfare. He goes the freezer to find ice for his Diet Coke and offers me a drink. The freezer’s contents include various flavored pints of Ben and Jerry’s, a dozen or more Zip-Loc bags of unmarked leftovers, ice and a blue bottle of Bombay gin, all haphazardly packed inside.
Wood hands me a six-page, typed printout of his year’s most important events, which he’s prepared for our interview. He reclines in his chair, his ankles crossed. His arms fold across his chest.
“March 2013” reads:
1. Led the parade for the opening day at RAM
2. Moved Gini to hospice
3. Made photos of 100 people in the creative community for upcoming One Spark exhibit
4. Organized my class reunion at World Golf Village
5. Gini died
Gini passed away March 20, 2013, after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. Throughout her illness, Wood took care of her in their home until he no longer could. In her final weeks, he moved her into an Alzheimer’s facility, along with her favorite paintings, Oriental carpets, antique furniture and dog, complete with a dog-walking service. These details are included on the list.
“Before we married, we used to walk through the neighborhood in search of our dream home,” he tells me. “We put together a list of homes we would like to have. None of them were for sale. This is one of those homes. We bought it. We got married on New Year’s Eve right over there.” He points to a large room at the entrance to the home. “No one knew it was a wedding they were attending. They thought that it was a New Year’s Eve party.”
Gini was a therapist and art collector. She never knew she had Alzheimer’s. “I kept her illness from her,” he says. “She had a very tough childhood. I wanted her to have dignity. We’d go to dinner, and before going in I’d remind her of our friends’ names, and who they were, to make it easier for her to participate in the conversation. She got gypped — taken too early.”
CHAPTER IV: Hats
“You have to love Wayne,” says longtime friend and collaborator Doug Coleman, organizer of TedX Jacksonville and executive vice president of the Jacksonville Sister Cities Association. Coleman and Wood met in the late 1970s. Wood was his optometrist. Together, they helped found Riverside Avondale Preservation.
“I hear people say that Wayne’s just doing this for publicity,” Coleman says. “I can’t believe that. He gets lots of credit, but he deserves all of it. He’s always a lot of fun. He’s got a lot of showmanship in him. He’s a little bit crazy at times. He’ll wear some of the strangest hats you can imagine.”
This is true. Wayne Wood wears many hats — literally and figuratively: Canadian Mountie hats, Viking hats, Conquistador hats; author, poet, curator, photographer, architectural expert, historian, writer of underground comics, father, brother, grandfather, bachelor, mentor, physician. “He wore a different hat every Saturday for the two years I worked with him at RAM,” says Tony Allegretti, incoming executive director of the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. “He’s gotta have 80 or more — no, definitely more.”
Wood began wearing and collecting these hats, he says, “to remember not to take myself so seriously.”
In a similar vein, he says that after he dies, he wants his ashes compounded into a brick.
Wood describes his decision to become an optometrist as one made out of necessity, in order to have a comfortable living practicing an area of medicine that didn’t involve any blood or death. “I love optometry because you don’t get bloody, and no one dies from it,” he says. His career lasted nearly 40 years, and he enjoyed it, but in his version of his life story, the years of work he put into his occupation are but minor details, steps toward becoming a community activist and arts supporter “without worrying about having to get paid.”
The path began with a bachelor’s in English from Emory University in 1967, and later a doctorate in optometry from the University of Houston in 1971.
Wood and his first wife, Shirley Webb, raised their children not far from his current home. Divorced for more than two decades, Wood and Webb, executive director of The Women’s Center of Jacksonville, remain neighbors and friends. He thanked and recognized her in Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage: Landmarks for the Future, the 422-page mammoth reference book published by University Press of Florida in 1989.
The Epoch Project
In 2011, Wood, Coleman and artist Dolf James sat down together with an idea for something they called The Epoch Project. Coleman had recently returned from Grand Rapids, Mich., a nearly bankrupt city that had successfully launched ArtPrize, a crowdfunding event that generated millions for the city and large cash prizes for its winners.
That was an idea they thought they could replicate here. The goal was for Jacksonville to be appreciated, known for and supportive of its creative community. They knew it would be a tough sell, but Wood built a rapport with city officials, and he’s a good salesman.
“That’s not something that everybody can do,” Coleman says. “We were presenting a progressive idea that was on the cutting edge. Many of the ideas that are part of The Epoch Project are Wayne’s. We met with [One Spark co-founder] Elton Rivas. He said he had wanted to do statewide contests that ended in Jacksonville. Participants would present start-up business ideas, and the winners would get prizes through votes. We asked Elton to get involved.”
Wood says it’s not important to have his name attached to every project he supports or spearheads, and insists he doesn’t want credit for One Spark. Epoch’s early goal, he says, was to “make it about creativity. We worked it very hard for six months. The goal was to raise $1 million. We got to about $300,000 and were stuck. In order to take it to the next level and engage some big investors, we needed more funding. We encouraged Elton Rivas to take over. He was able to succeed where we failed.”
Vince Cavin, director of operations and finance at One Spark (and a Friends of Hemming Park board member), recalls being asked by Rivas to go to Wood’s house and “get his blessing” for One Spark.
“I sat in his parlor with Victorian chairs, like a meeting with a diplomat,” he remembers. He was surprised and somewhat relieved to be greeted by Wood, who was wearing shorts and a Grateful Dead T-shirt.
Rivas’ LinkedIn page lists his title as “Co-Founder & Humble Leader” of One Spark and describes the festival as being “created in 2011 by three friends who wanted to connect ideas with resources.”
“Wayne had every reason in the world to be upset with Elton and his crew because they never gave him any credit,” Coleman says. “They’ve always said the idea was all theirs, but that is really not true. The One Spark deal was a project Elton created largely to inspire start-up businesses in Jacksonville, because that’s his business. Wayne never got upset — or if he did, he kept it to himself. Even though we were asked not to do anything with One Spark, because the One Spark crew wanted it to be their project and we understood that, Wayne still got involved and did a lot of the stuff that made One Spark good.”
When I asked Rivas about this, he replied that he isn’t sure if Wood is due credit or not, but he doesn’t think that people like Wood and Coleman do things to get credit. Until two years ago, he adds, he and Wood had never crossed paths. In Rivas’ account, One Spark and Epoch were two projects that evolved at the same time and “converged.”
Passing the baton, Wood tells me with a grin, freed him up to participate as a creator. He approached the largest venue (the Jacksonville Public Library) about hosting his project, Creative Community, his photo wall. He donated his winnings to RAM.
“The Biggest Thing I’ve Ever Done”
It’s February, two months since Friends of Hemming Park bid on the city’s planned renovation of that space.
The bid’s price tag is high — more than $4 million over five years, of which about $2.2 million will come from the city — the result of decades of neglect and poor decisions that have made the plaza a black hole Downtown. Wood’s goal isn’t to gentrify — to simply run out the scores of homeless who populate the park. “We don’t want to tread on anyone’s right to be there,” he says. “Our mission is not to eradicate the rights of those who want to hang out in the park.”
Instead, his plan includes a social worker to help deal with the homeless, and he thinks the more disruptive elements will diminish as the park becomes a hub of activity. To that end, Friends plans to create lush landscapes and offer engaging events with food, entertainment and security year-round. Whether the city bites on his bid to oversee the park’s larger restoration remains to be seen. (Given the pedigrees of Friends’ board of directors — Wood, Cavin, Terry Lorince of Downtown Vision Inc., Diane Brunet-Garcia of the Cultural Council, Bill Prescott of Heritage Capital Group — it certainly seems plausible.)
“We won’t know for a while if it will work,” Wood says. “If it does, though, it will be the biggest thing I’ve ever done.”
Allegretti cites Wood’s success founding Riverside Arts Market — navigating 17 years and countless state and city agencies — as evidence that he can get the job done. “Right now, Hemming is just a weird complex puzzle where, like, half the pieces are squared-off jagged edges and half are rounded,” he says. “It needs a master programmer. It needs an architect of what it is going to be. Wayne is perfect for that.”
If RAM is able to generate substantial revenue as a weekly event, Allegretti adds, there’s even greater potential for Hemming Plaza. “It’s pro-art, pro-quality of life,” he says of the Friends’ plan. “It’s an idea that most people can get with. I’m very bullish that he’ll be able to pull it off.”
Late last month, Wells Fargo cut Friends a $35,000 check to landscape and beautify Hemming Park ahead of One Spark. On March 22, Wood and some 150 volunteers, including Mayor Alvin Brown, in collaboration with several local organizations and backed by bands and corporate sponsors, descended on Downtown to clean up the park, part of what Wood considers a demonstration of the community’s hunger for revitalization.
“If we can do that in one weekend,” he says, “imagine what is possible with a year of work.”
Abigail Wright, a 28-year-old Downtown advocate (and Folio Weekly contributor), first met Wood last July at a speech atop the JEA building. She was immediately engaged and inspired by his message about the urban core’s renaissance and the young heart of Hemming Park. Today she considers him a mentor.
“Wayne’s inspirational to my generation,” she says. “What he wants to leave behind isn’t tangible. It’s just inspiration.”
Wood suggested that Wright take part in our interview. He notes that she calls him “Mr. Jacksonville,” though he says he’s not comfortable with the title.
“Yes, Wayne is transparent, it’s true, when he wants something,” Wright says with a laugh. She says that nickname isn’t her doing, but rather something she read in a long-ago article about him. She assumed that’s what people call him, so she did, too.
Although he’s seemingly on the forefront of just about everything, Wright says, “I call him ‘the man behind the curtain.’ He is behind so many projects, but lets you think you are doing it. He doesn’t claim credit for that. He lets you think you did it yourself. He’s a backseat driver, not in a bad way.”
“I want to spread creative DNA,” Wood says. “There’s a whole new generation of leaders coming up of energetic and inspiring people aiming to change the city in ways that some of us did back in the ’70s and ’80s. To give them encouragement and inspiration is a project in itself.”
“That Dude Is Just Crazy”
March 2014. Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Kent Campus.
Spring has sprung. The sun pours in through the large floor-to-ceiling windows. My presentation today, on a rock opera that examines the lives of the Timucua, French and Spanish at Fort Caroline 450 years ago, is going well. No one is asleep. The audience is made up of dozens of college students.
I’m surprised to see the Arts Agitator among them.
With considerably more than a generation between him and the audience, you’d think he’d stick out. He doesn’t. He’s at home. He’s refreshed, engaged and alert. There’s something new. He looks younger these days, as do his collaborators, escorts and friends. He’s rejuvenated. His pale blue jeans and the morning sun are reflected in his sparkling eyes.
He busily snaps pictures throughout the presentation. Afterward, I ask if we can talk a little more for this story. He agrees, but clearly he’s busy. He has another meeting. I offer to work around his “little plans” for the weekend.
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly call her a little plan,” he says. There’s a gleam in his smile. And with that, he takes my photo. He’s turned the interviewer into the interviewee.
“This will be on the cover,” he says. “I don’t know what cover, but probably the cover of something.”
He’s still waiting on the city’s final answer for the Hemming Plaza proposal, he tells me. “I just want to make things happen. Jacksonville has been very good to me, and I want to pay back. I just like making stuff.”
With that, he disappears into the morning sun — off to the next thing, whatever that is.
“Wayne’s not the type to be at the pub at 5,” Allegretti says. “He’s working on projects. If Wayne’s not in action, he’s in traction. I hope one day that I’ll have accomplished in my lifetime what Wayne accomplished in one decade. ’Cause that dude is just crazy. I mean, he’s just killing it.”
Folio Weekly writer Jennifer Chase is a playwright and musician, and a professor at FSCJ.
Note: The original version of this story reported on the competition Wayne Wood was involved in as "The Epic Project." It was called "The Epoch Project."