The walls of the second floor of the New York Steam Laundry building in Downtown Jacksonville are replete with long, snaking cracks and veins of escaping mortar among stacks of brown and grey bricks meticulously placed nearly a century ago. It's early evening and only darkness is visible through a row of windows that face south across East Forsyth Street. One of the windows is hung with the aid of two rudimentary-looking two-by-fours.
Leaning against the room's westward wall is a stack of several four-foot-by-four-foot canvases, each covered in broad strokes of purples and blues and thin drips of colors within the same spectrum. Strewn about are several smaller canvases displaying many similar markings, made with hushed oranges and muted blues, soft pinks and whites. The rest of the cavernous room is virtually empty, however, save for scattered piles of empty picture frames, a blue velvet couch, a few folded easels, and a singular red hand-truck. All these taken together, within the 5,000-square-foot space, the resultant pastiche is evidence of the last few years of local artist Wyatt Parlette's work.
Tall and thin, Parlette has boyish features, belied by stubble surrounding the deep indent in his long chin. He thumbs through a stack of canvases - each aggressively scored and scratched with black and grey markings - before organizing them against the wall so that no space exists between each piece. After taking a few sips of red wine from a small plastic cup, he unrolls four large dropcloth canvases saturated with layers of paint from a palette spread with various shades of skins, and puts them on the concrete floor, side by side. There appears to be a lifetime's worth of epidermis on each cloth: flesh and bone, skin and lips, worn down from cuts, bruises, sun exposure and natural aging.
"With abstract work, you're always starting with color theory and composition," Parlette says. "Then, in between that, is the emotion. You can throw your emotion on a canvas and it feels good."
Seeing so many of Parlette's pieces in one place, one notices he deploys a few mark-making techniques with a method approaching consistency, if not pattern.
"In middle school and high school, like everybody else, I was into graffiti script," he says. "My friends and I would sit in class and make graffiti alphabets, make up our own tags, and whatever. I still think, subconsciously, I'll make a line and it's, like, ‘There's my graffiti A!'"
Many of the pieces will soon be on display in one form or another in the DIY gallery just below - The Space Gallery.
Space - an artist-run venue Parlette opened with fellow artist Matthew Bennett and Bennett's wife Laura - is enjoying the kind of buzz that isn't common for new galleries in Northeast Florida. Since opening in late October, the site has been host to four well-received shows that featured the works of dozens of artists, each show attracting larger and larger crowds. When those who run the gallery extended her an open invitation, in February former Cummer director Hope McMath curated her first show since last summer's much-talked about LIFT exhibition.
McMath's show at Space, A More Perfect Union, was an extension of LIFT, of sorts, as it spotlighted the issues addressed in the Cummer show, specifically social injustice and racial equity, and showcased some of the same artists, including Overstreet Ducasse, Princess Simpson Rashid and Chip Southworth.
The opening for More Perfect drew hundreds of interested art lovers and earned rave reviews on social media - and increased Space's visibility across the region.
While it may seem like a swift ascension, Parlette's March show, tentatively titled The Crucifixion of Self, is the culmination of years of planning, set in motion from the passenger seat of a U-Haul truck.
Inside The Space Gallery's vault, artist Josh Gaston, gallery runners Matthew and Laura Bennett, and Parlette talk in near-whispers, pausing intently between each sentence.
"The vault makes you talk a certain way," explains Matthew. "Because of the echo, people seem to instinctively talk lower and slower. It almost encourages thoughtful discussion. You have to pause and think more."
"It's so claustrophobic," Gaston drawls. Gaston, a woodworker and decorative concrete artist, was invited to participate in Crucifixion after contacting the gallery runners through Facebook. He's here planning his installation.
"When you're in [this vault], there's no other stimulation. [The artwork] is in your face. It forces you to confront your emotions. There's no avoiding it."
Plastered on the vault's walls are hundreds of eroded beige flyers bearing the skeletal countenance of a small person staring through hollow, black-eye sockets. The image, taken from an early 1900s textbook, is of a member of an ethnic group known as the Philippine Negrito, which was ravaged by disease and ethnic cleansing by European colonists in the early 17th century.
The installation is local street artist Duval Destroyer's contribution to the A More Perfect Union show.
"I hadn't originally thought of the vault as a place to hang art," Bennett says. "But I was thinking that if we had Duval Destroyer's work, it should be confronting and unavoidable. It should be in a space that's kind of singular."
Outside the vault, the gallery's open floor plan is interrupted only by brick pillars and podiums holding sculptures by University of North Florida professor Jenny Hager-Vickery. One area is occupied by a mixed-media installation by Ducasse; on the other side of the gallery hang paintings by Southworth and Rashid. The capacious space with colossally high ceilings (and enough exposed brick to make any avid Pinterest user weak in the knees) is filled with gorgeous, powerful and moving works.
Bennett's contribution to the show is an oil painting of an African-American woman dressed as the D.C. Comics heroine Wonder Woman. The model wears a red corset with a gold, winged design pushing up her breasts. She leans against a trash bin, svelte, muscular shoulders pressed backward as she stares contemplatively at something outside the frame. At her feet are three spray cans - one yellow, one blue, one red - labeled "justice," "equity" and "truth," respectively. Behind her, two sentences read, "You are terrifying and strange and beautiful. Not something everyone knows how to love," a quotation from a poem by Somali poet Warsan Shire.
"I really love this piece," Laura says. "And not just because my husband painted it."
"One of the primary conversations around this piece was the story," she continues. "This woman [the model] made a decision to not travel on her vacation day. She had to work a later shift and she didn't feel safe traveling at night."
Laura looks at her husband. He smiles and nods.
"As a white person, I probably don't have a great understanding of what she was going through," she says. "With this painting, I was particularly concerned about a white man painting about a black woman's experience. I was, like, ‘Dude, what the fuck do you know about this?'"
"My personality pushes against criticism," Matthew interjects. "I take [Laura's criticisms] into consideration, but ultimately it only strengthens my resolve."
"And I'm probably his worst critic," Laura says. "Only because I want him
to be understood. I want the artwork to be understood."
"Like the [Warsan Shire] quote he used," Laura continues. "I was really concerned about the perception of a white man including this [quote] in his painting. But that quote has been so powerful to so many people who've looked at the painting."
"I think the quote applies to so many themes of the show," Matthew says. "I think a lot of our problems with issues surrounding human rights and social justice stem from a lack of empathy and a lack of understanding. If you can put yourself in somebody else's shoes, even fall in love with them for a little bit, I think we'd all be in a much better place."
"I always learn something about my husband through his paintings," Laura says, smiling. "We've been together almost 23 years."
In November 2014, Parlette and his wife Rozy loaded a U-Haul with whatever was worth salvaging from their short stint in Brooklyn and headed south.
"Rozy was driving and I was looking at Facebook on my phone," Parlette says, sitting on a stool at Space. "All my friends were going crazy over this Clay Yarborough thing," he says, referencing the brouhaha over then-Jacksonville City Council president's letter urging that the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville's funding be cut for including a nude photograph in its Project Atrium exhibit.
"I asked Rozy, ‘Are we making a mistake moving back?'"
"My head was spinning," he continues. "We were going back to place where a nude photo in a contemporary art museum is controversial."
In New York, he'd shown works at several galleries, including the Greenpoint Gallery in Brooklyn, and was eager to build on the momentum he'd built. However trepidatious, Parlette planned to hit the ground running. He shared his vision with a few friends, including artist John Ross Tooke.
"We had some good ideas for an exhibition, but we didn't want to put it somewhere just to put it up," Parlette says.
Parlette's time in Brooklyn coincided with the last few years of a much-publicized DIY movement in which warehouses and rundown buildings across the borough were hosting art and cultural events.
"I would go to these openings, all of them in nontraditional venues," he says. "I was so inspired to see not just the quality of work on display night in and night out, but the commitment to theme. There were entire buildings transformed in service of the art on the walls."
Parlette had taken a few curatorial studies courses while earning an art degree at UNF. And he was well aware of the vast number of empty, dilapidated buildings in Jacksonville's urban core, as well as the headway the city was making filling those vacancies through programs like Off the Grid. He thought he'd be able to secure a site for a show and, possibly, a place to curate more shows, moving forward.
Parlette set up meetings with Cultural Council representatives. He traded emails with Downtown Vision Inc. He called on various landlords and real estate agents. He had many seemingly productive meetings, each time anticipating the best outcome.
But one by one, the doors closed.
"I'm not sure why it never gained any traction," he says. "No one was rude or dismissive. But no one was all that helpful either."
In the meantime, he produced two solo shows at Rain Dogs in Five Points. The first featured abstract work he'd created in Brooklyn. The second, called Rio De St. Johns, was of a much grander scale and included abstract and mixed-media pieces, as well as a truckload of found objects (trash he collected along the banks of the St. Johns River). Rain Dogs provided him a venue for thematic exhibitions of an individual artist, but he had greater ambitions.
"I'm very grateful that [Rain Dogs co-owner] Christina [Wagner] allowed me to show my work," he says. "We are very lucky that there are so many business owners in this town who are willing to display the work of local artists. But I think artists in this community have gotten so used to showing their work in restaurants and cafés that we forget that that's not all there is."
The Florida Theatre casts a long shadow on East Forsyth Street. Save for two years in the early 1980s, the lights from the nearly 100-year-old theater's ornate marquee have burned brightly even as the urban core has declined around it.
Though far less ostentatious than its historic neighbor, built in 1925, The New York Steam Laundry Building at 120 E. Forsyth St. is nearly as old.
The first floor housed the Old Republic Title Company for many years. In 2014, developer Mike Langton purchased the 11,000-square-foot property and removed the 1950s-office-style interior. Langton shopped the space around, trying to lure an upscale tenant for the bottom floor. While in negotiations with reality show Top Chef cheftestant Kenny Gilbert, Langton secured a six-figure loan from the Downtown Investment Authority to sweeten the pot. The deal fell through, however. Chef Gilbert ended up opening his restaurant on Southside Boulevard. Consequently, 120 E. Forsyth remained dormant, its cracked, naked walls a reminder of Downtown's embarrassingly slow rebirth.
Laura and Matthew met as 19-year-old undergraduates at Pennsylvania State University. Matthew was studying painting. Laura was in the U.S. Navy ROTC program.
"She was stalking me," Matthew says, smiling.
"I would say I was somewhat curious and concerned," Laura laughs.
According to Laura, she noticed Matthew seemed particularly keen on provoking one fire-and-brimstone-spewing campus preacher. Growing up in a strict Catholic household, Laura was intrigued by Matthew's rebellious streak.
"It was certainly nothing I'd ever been exposed to," she says.
"You mean you didn't grow up yelling at preachers?" Matthew jokes.
"We've been together ever since," Laura says.
After college, Laura's Navy career took the couple around the globe and back, with multiple stints in Japan and Jacksonville. After the birth of the couple's second child, Matthew took on the role of stay-at-home dad, continuing to create and show his artwork, while Laura ascended the military ranks, eventually retiring in 2014 as a lieutenant commander.
During the couple's last tour in Jacksonville circa 2010, Matthew was making inroads in the Northeast Florida arts scene, showing regularly at galleries in St. Augustine. He took advantage of the Off the Grid program which allowed artists to show their works in vacant buildings during First Wednesday Art Walk and began working out of a studio on Bay Street.
"The last time we were here, I felt like the arts scene had a lot of momentum," Matthew says. "I started coming [Downtown] and meeting people. I felt like the scene was Downtown. I really loved it."
When the Bennetts returned in 2013, Matthew says he was surprised to find that momentum had shifted away from the urban core. "The studios that were here for Off the Grid were mostly gone. Most of the artists had moved out to CoRK. And there just was not a central art location Downtown like there had been. The footprint had shrunk."
As Matthew and Laura settled into their home in Arlington, Matthew was eager to get something going Downtown. But it wasn't until the end of 2016 that an opportunity presented itself.
In the fall, a group of artists was invited to meet with realtor Margie Seaman of Seaman Realty & Management Co. According to Matthew, Seaman had multiple listings in Jacksonville's urban core and, drawing on her experience leasing unique properties in New York City, was developing a creative approach to marketing these Jacksonville listings.
Nearly a dozen artists met at 120 E. Forsyth St. to tour the building and brainstorm ways to transform it into a temporary gallery.
"The original idea was going to be a co-op," Matthew says. "The meetings were hard, though. There were a lot of opinions and ideas."
"This place was in rough shape," Laura says. "It needed a lot of work and I'm not sure it was reasonable to ask the artists to provide the resources necessary."
Even before the second meeting, Matthew says, many artists had lost interest. However, someone still seemed energized by the possibilities.
"I had never met Wyatt before," Matthew says of his first encounter with Parlette. "He came to the second meeting and people were throwing out ideas for what to do with the space. Wyatt stood up and was, like, ‘What if we only showed one artist at a time?'"
The room fell silent, Matthew remembers.
"We were all looking at him like he was crazy. Like, ‘Why would you even say that?'"
With the meeting falling apart, the artists dispersed. Both Parlette and Bennett ended up across the street at a bar, Dos Gatos. They talked about life, art, the meeting and the space at 120 E. Forsyth.
"Wyatt was excited about it," Matthew says. "And that's been my one stipulation when I work with people. I'm not snobbish as far as the artists being popular, or whatever. I just need them to be excited."
"My experience has always been the co-op workspace thing," Matthew continues. "But Wyatt had a very clear vision of wanting to curate shows, make the shows cohesive, if not thematic."
Matthew and Parlette were energized. But Laura still had reservations.
"We talked about it and I didn't feel great," Laura says of the property. "The other artists had backed out and Matt was thinking about taking it on himself. It was going to be a lot of work."
Laura, having just retired from the Navy, was considering all of the directions her post-military career could take.
"Matt felt really inspired by this opportunity," she says. "And I trusted him. Plus, he's been following me around for 20 years. I felt like I should be supportive of this."
Days after their discussion at Dos Gatos, Bennett and Parlette had the keys to 120 E. Forsyth St. in hand. With little else to limit what they were allowed to do with to the space (aside from an agreement to pay the electric bill), Parlette and the Bennetts went to work cleaning up the downstairs unit. They strung lights, cobbled together some furniture and used old drop cloths to cover a few sections of exposed wood framing.
During this period, the trio would exchange text messages. "I'm headed to the space," one of them might say. "See you at the space," was a consistent response.
When it came time to pick a name, the choice seemed obvious: The Space Gallery.
Laura, who postponed her post-retirement plans, including developing mindfulness training for both public and private organizations, to focus on the gallery, took over the business and marketing side, taking to social media and becoming the point of contact for local artists hoping to display their works.
She turned her attention to a weeklong billing of conferences taking place in the urban core - Jax Innovation Week, culminating with a TEDx event at The Florida Theatre.
"I thought if we could be open by then, [...] it might be a good way of generating some interest in the gallery," she says.
With the conference a mere three weeks away, they scrambled to get the venue ready.
"We came out of pocket quite a bit," Matthew says. Bennett, who works part-time at Trader Joe's, cut down to two days a week. "I was here all hours of the night just scrubbing the walls."
Parlette contributed abstract expressionist pieces and Bennett shared representative oil paintings, and then they invited five other artists - Jan Tomlinson Master, Sylvi Herrick, Heather Blanton, Tony Rodrigues and Ross Tooke - to exhibit.
The ambitious timeline pushed everyone to the brink, but making the venue presentable in time for a soft opening during Jax Innovation Week did allow for at least one moment of serendipity.
"I'd never met Hope," Matthew says of McMath, who was attending the TEDx conference. "I had this idea that she should curate a show at our gallery. My feeling was, she might have some more to say since leaving the Cummer."
Bennett invited McMath next door.
"It sounds really trite, but I loved the space," McMath says. "Not only was the interior really interesting, but the exhibition that was up was really high-quality work and it was artists we don't see that often."
"I didn't feel like I was in Jacksonville," she continues. "It's the kind of thing that we always assign to other cities - Brooklyn, Miami, Los Angeles."
While McMath began planning the show she would curate at Space, the Bennetts and Parlette facilitated two more shows. The December opening featured sculptures of fabricated steel, cast iron and bronze, and wood created by guest artist Ian Skinner. The January show was a passion project of sorts for Matthew; it featured photography by Tiffany Manning, Ana Kamiar, Leigh Ann
McDaniel Sullivan, Toni Smailagic, Luis Rivera and Michael Glinski.
Turnout increased with each opening. And though part of that could have been attributed to free booze, there was a palpable momentum leading up to A More Perfect Union.
With LIFT scheduled to close in February, McMath had been thinking a lot about the conversations that exhibit had generated.
"I didn't want the communities who got so behind [LIFT] to feel, like, ‘OK, this is now done,'" McMath says. "I wanted to find out how I could more independently continue to move some of that work ahead."
In light of the tumultuous political environment surrounding the election of President Donald Trump, McMath also thought that many artists might already be in the process of expressing some of their frustrations.
"I sensed that artists really needed to be part of the conversation that many were having about the threats that we saw in regards to basic human rights, at the time," she says. "I saw with The Space Gallery that it'd be possible to be responsive or reactive right in that moment to the things that were happening around us. It wasn't something that needed to go through a long vetting process. It wasn't something we needed to spend a year planning, which you have to do at a museum. We could plan it in a matter of months and have stuff on the walls."
Twenty-five artists submitted pieces for A More Perfect Union, with a few submitting more than four pieces. McMath had her curatorial work cut out for her, but she also had able and willing help.
"Wyatt and Matthew are artists in their own right and I thrive working with and around artists," McMath says. "But also, Laura, Matthew and Wyatt became equal partners in thinking through all the aspects of the show."
"Working with Hope has been invaluable," Laura says. "Because of my military background, I can be pretty rigid. Deadlines and working with artists aren't always compatible and I don't have enough experience to know everything is going to work out in the end."
"The thing about Hope is, aside from being a genuinely joyous person, she's passionate about things," Matthew says. "She is the best advocate for artists in Jacksonville, hands down. It's important to her for artists to succeed. Seeing her and the way she interacts and encourages artists, it's what you would hope the director of the Cummer would be."
The number of art enthusiasts for More Perfect more than doubled that of any of the exhibitions up to that point. When Matthew arrived to unlock the door at 4 p.m., people were already lined up outside.
"It was validating and intimidating," he laughs.
"I brought a little clicker to count the numbers, but it was too overwhelming,"
Above the gallery, Parlette rolls up his dropcloth canvases. He shows photos of the ostentatious décor of some European church, which he's saved on his phone as inspiration for his Crucifixion show.
Over the course of three years, the concept for Crucifixion has grown, morphed, diverged and resettled. Parlette's work will be joined by installations from Gaston, Ross Tooke and Christi Tamayo.
"We are still playing with the idea of crucifixion, but more in context of identity, personal suffering and sacrifice," Parlette says. Parlette's been casting friends' hands in plaster, making eerie candle-holders from gold-and-black hand-molds. He's been stretching some of his pieces over canvases, pinching and pinning others and hanging them as ornate draperies. As he works, the ecclesiastical themes of Crucifixion become more evident.
"Oh, there's definitely pressure," he says. "Hope's thing was beyond our wildest expectations. So, now it's, like, OK, this thing you've been stewing on for a couple of years, we are going to see if this has any merit to it."
For some, The Space Gallery has filled a literal and figurative vacancy in the Downtown arts scene. The gallery's success as a vibrant, inclusive community for artists has opened some eyes to the urban core's potential.
I ask Parlette if he's noticed that people who visit seem to love the venue itself, sometimes as much as the art that's in it.
"Personally, I'm a fan of the white cube, where you take everything out and just leave the artwork," he says, smiling.
"We have a really strong building," Parlette says, scanning the room. "But I never want to take away from the art."
He stares across the room, then looks up at the ceiling and lifts his hands, reminiscent of the way a priest might offer a blessing.
"Ultimately, a gallery elevates the art that is in it," Parlette continues. "Laura and Matt and I, we want this place to elevate the work of the artists who show here. We want the art to be number one. We want the art to vibrate off the walls."
An opening reception for the exhibit The Crucifixion of Self is held 5:30-9:30 p.m. March 3, The Space Gallery, 120 E. Forsyth St., Downtown, thespacegalleryjax.com.