Shaun Thurston: Crystalized Movements
The career of muralist Shaun Thurston continues to rise with his colossal crystal-themed installation at Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville
By Daniel A. Brown
The work of Shaun Thurston is moving way beyond surface appeal. The Northeast Florida-based artist is known for creating inventive paintings, vibrant street art and murals that are a celebration of the natural world filtered through the vision of a fantasist. Now with his recent #ProjectAtrium: One Spark installation at Museum of Contemporary of Art Jacksonville (MOCA Jax), Thurston is enjoying the transition of moving through the nebulous fourth wall of an emerging artist and the shift into becoming a notable figure in contemporary arts in the Southeast.
The MOCA installation is the result of an interesting blend of Thurston’s hard-won successes, crowdfunding and even secrecy. Thurston is a two-time winner of the One Spark festival, a five-day event first presented in downtown Jacksonville last year. The world’s only crowdfunding festival, the basic premise of One Spark is that individuals and organizations, including artists, inventors and socially conscious groups, pitch their ideas to the attending crowd. That same audience then casts their ballots towards their specific favorites or five categories via a smartphone app. Those votes are then parlayed into dollars that are awarded to the winners. Held in a 20-block square radius, last year’s festival galvanized the community and brought international attention to Jacksonville’s rising status as a cultural stronghold. This year’s event was held from April 9 - 13, featured 610 creator projects, and boasted 260,000-plus attendees, the largest single gathering in the history of downtown Jacksonville.
Thurston’s previous 2013 win of $4,100 helped fund his ambitious 20 Murals in a Year, a commitment to create public art in the greater Jacksonville area. He had completed seven or eight of the pieces when he was contacted by MOCA curator Ben Thompson. “Ben and I had lunch in Miami during Art Basel  to talk about the upcoming festival,” explains Thurston. “We finally signed contracts at the end of January. I continued working on my 20-murals goal until I had five left to do; those would ultimately be the Satellite pieces, with number 20 being the Atrium installation.” The Satellite pieces are anonymous works painted on various buildings downtown. “The project was meant to be kept a secret even while I was working on the pieces in the street. My identity and the focus of the work were all meant to be hidden until we were less than three weeks from One Spark.”
A devout lover of nature, Thurston’s murals have primarily featured flora and fauna, at times rendered with elements that touch on the dream-like and otherworldly. At press time, Thurston has created an estimated 30 murals, the largest at The Blind Fig gastropub in Jacksonville’s Riverside-Avondale district. The composition features a gigantic tree as its focal point, while the wraparound of the piece is embellished by a giant pheasant taking flight in a swirling vortex of bluish-gray clouds and airstreams. Another prominent work, funded by the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville by the Art in Public Places program, is Floating Land, which adorns the popular bookstore and casual gathering place Chamblin Bookmine. This piece is indicative of the artist’s public and gallery pieces: a series of suspended landscapes hang in mid-air, floating over a cityscape. Welcome to Florida is a humorous, ecological allegory featuring a baffled fisherman cradled in the hands of a gigantic frog rising from a marshland. “The giant frog coming up from the swamp is the closest to my personal drawings, and I would love to work in that way all the time if I could.” explains Thurston. Yet the artist acknowledges that “every piece has surprise endings and solutions that I didn’t anticipate. The final decisions of any piece are spontaneous additions that elevate the work beyond the original sketch, like a reaction to the surface already saturated with color.”
The artist is equally known for using these same themes, albeit on a smaller scale, with his gallery works, which present bucolic landscapes morphed through the revelations of a surrealist. “They are two completely different directions that fuel each other for me,” he says of the delineation between works hung on studio walls and those that uplift the aesthetic quality of businesses, community centers and schools. “When I’ve spent months in a row painting outdoors, I am ready to spend a week relaxing in my air-conditioned studio, or even my backyard workshop, and mentally reset while I experiment with new ideas.”
With the Satellite murals, Thurston utilized crystal formations. The artist was drawn to the idea of “impurities” and behavior of crystals, inspired by collecting rocks and stones in his excursions into nature. “I’m not a scientist, but I love science, and crystals have been studied so thoroughly and seem to have scales and classifications for every conceivable attribute.” This motif culminated in the monolithic work in MOCA’s 38-foot-high by 30-foot-wide atrium space that encompasses three walls. If flattened out into a single image, the mural would cover 2,660 feet of square space.
While the piece is technically simply titled #ProjectAtrium, Thurston has his own name for this massive undertaking. “I secretly called it The Rose Window, in reference to cathedral windows in Gothic architecture.” Thurston’s tribute is a fitting description for the mural, which features explosions of crystals that spiral upward in luminous shards of yellows, blues, lime greens and magentas. The effect of viewing the finished work, set in the background of MOCA’s ground floor space, is impressive, as ambient light from the museum’s ceiling windows streams in and seems to pull these crystallized shapes ever upward.
MOCA curator Thompson believes the element of individual artist development is core to the Project Atrium concept, an ongoing project that since its inception in 2011 has previously featured internationally renowned artists including Sarah Emerson, Melanie Pullen and Gustavo Godoy. Thompson is equally excited about the opportunity that this project provides in the advancement of Thurston’s career, as well as the expansion of the project existing beyond the walls of the museum and into the community through the Satellite pieces. “Having an element of the work created outside of the museum, but in support of Project Atrium, is unique and key to this project,” Thompson says of the public being able to witness the creation and progress of Thurston’s work. Placed in context with the social media-driven crowdsourcing of One Spark, and the project’s build-up based on anonymity, Thompson stresses the groundbreaking aspect of Thurston’s mural commission with MOCA. “The fact that Shaun worked in the streets within the ‘public sphere’ while working out the concepts for the work is a first for the museum and very exciting.”
The now 34-year-old Thurston has been ardently creating murals in Jacksonville and Atlanta for more than a decade. This experience has made the artist savvy to the discipline, logistics and time requirements for every piece he creates. Consequently, #ProjectAtrium was completed in three weeks, ahead of the scheduled finish date. Aided by assistant Kemeys Goathe, Thurston navigated the wall space with a single lift that had to be repositioned on foot for every move. Unlike previous Project Atrium artists, Thurston worked on the #ProjectAtrium installation in complete concealment, painting behind a gigantic curtain. “All of the studies and street pieces were my way of working out the methods for painting in the Atrium,” says Thurston, believing that this approach helped him to work intuitively in conjunction with the initial sketches and plan for the finished installation. “The MOCA piece was also the first time I used the Montana markers. I mixed each color ink to work with the latex paint palette I developed for the lighting in the Atrium. I have learned how to work on large-scale pieces with spray paint, so I also use it whenever I can.”
Whether devoting his focus to contemplative studio work or imagery aimed at a public audience, Thurston is humbled by these accolades, prizes and opportunities. His 2014 One Spark winnings garnered the artist and project $12,313.40, half of which he is generously donating back into the donor-based Project Atrium series at MOCA. “They can use it effectively to continue the project. I think it’s important to support our museums in order to have any meaningful experience with them and develop a full appreciation of them as a resource.”
“Project Atrium: One Spark Featuring Artist Shaun Thurston” will be on view through July 6 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, 333 North Laura St., Jacksonville, Fla., 32202 / Phone: 904 366 9911 / mocajacksonville.org.
Daniel A. Brown is a musician and freelance writer who lives in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. A onetime bassist for Royal Trux and ‘68 Comeback, Brown is also a former arts and entertainment editor for Folio Weekly. Along with contributing previous work to ARTDISTRICTS, Brown has written for DownBeat Magazine, BURNAWAY, Cartwheel Art, Aesthetica, and American Airlines’ American Way Magazine. In addition, Brown maintains a visual arts site called STAREHOUSE (starehouse.com), which profiles Northeast Florida, national and international artists.