By Glenda Winders
While the beaches may be the draw for a lot of visitors to Jacksonville, Florida, my husband and I purposely came in the off-season to explore the visual art scene. We didn't have far to look because art is everywhere - in the usual museums and galleries, of course, but also in unexpected places that we found delightful: murals on the sides of downtown buildings, paintings on display in coffee shops and the public library, and bright designs on the columns supporting the highways that run through the city.
We started planning our art immersion before we ever left home at the website operated by the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville. The site lists all kinds of cultural venues and events and provides a map of public art spots - places that are free and available to everyone.
Our first stop was the stately Cummer Museum, "a center of beauty and culture," according to its founder, Ninah May Holden Cummer, who hoped it would "benefit all people." The museum boasts traveling exhibits and luxurious gardens as well as a permanent collection of 5,000 pieces that date back as far as 2100 B.C. These include paintings by Winslow Homer, Peter Paul Rubens, Andy Worhal and Norman Rockwell, among many others, as well as the elegant Wark Collection of Early Meissen Porcelain.
While the Cummer has some modern pieces, most notably the bright, colorful abstracts by British artist Trevor Bell, for more we headed downtown to MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art that is part of the University of Northern Florida. The museum has much to speak for it, beginning with a permanent collection that is assembled around six themes that range from "Art as Social Commentary" to "Material as Meaning." Some are dazzling, others - as a docent warned us - disturbing, but it's all worth a look.
An atrium at the heart of the museum is the site of changing installations produced by artists from all over the world to fill the massive space, and unlike with most exhibits, the area remains open during construction so that museum-goers can enjoy watching the new display take shape. Another lively, interactive spot is in the top floor children's area, where students of all ages can explore art principles and children can attend camps and workshops during school breaks.
Just outside is Hemming Park, the city's oldest, with its several sculptures and monuments. Our favorite was a huge human face with a wide-open mouth that now serves as the park's entrance but was once the entryway to an exhibit about the human body at the city's Museum of Science and History.
Around the corner is a three-story candy shop that qualifies as an art form all of its own. Sweet Pete's is housed in an old mansion that was once a men's social club, and it is as close to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory as anyone is likely ever to get. The whimsical decor recalls the home's heyday with black-and-white tile floors and colorful chandeliers, and the candies made onsite - especially the sea-salt caramels - are worth the trip. We were able to watch the confectioners at work pulling taffy and creating other sweets from a viewing platform where the aroma of buttery peppermint was positively intoxicating.
On the first Wednesday of each month a group called Downtown Vision Inc. puts on an art walk in this area from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., where participants can eat, drink, shop for art and meet local artists. Every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. the Riverside Arts Market sets up shop under the Fuller Warren Bridge on the St. Johns River. This is another opportunity to see art and meet its creators as well as to buy fresh produce from local farmers.
Jacksonville is home to many art galleries, but we only had time for one. On the advice of a local artist friend we headed to historic and artsy San Marco Square and The Vault at 1930. He didn't steer us wrong: Rula Carr, the gallery's proprietor, curates her contemporary offerings so carefully that we wanted everything we saw, and many pieces were quite affordable. In fact, one painting that we decided we couldn't live without came home in the car with us and is now hanging on our living room wall.
WHEN YOU GO
For general information: www.visitjacksonville.com
For art information: www.culturalcouncil.org/artandculture/html
Cummer Museum: www.cummermuseum.org
Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville: www.mocajacksonville.unf.edu
Sweet Pete's: www.sweetpetescandy.com
First Wednesday Art Walk: www.jacksonvilleartwalk.com
Riverside Arts Market: www.ram.riversideavon.org
The Vault at 1930: www.thevaultat1930.com
We stayed at the Lexington Hotel Jacksonville Riverwalk, which gave us access to the River Walk along the St. Johns River: www.redlion.com/Jacksonville-riverwalk.
Our favorite place to eat was B.B.'s, which we discovered just two blocks away from the hotel when we were taking a walk. We liked it so much we went back the next evening, too, and both times we had the Key Lime Pie: www.bbsrestaurant.com. Another find near our hotel was Sake House Japanese Grill and Sushi Bar: www.sakehousejax2.com.
Glenda Winders is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.