The Empowerment People Feel When They Are Included - 10 Questions with Kate and Kenny Rouh of RouxArt
The City of Jacksonville, through its Art in Public Places Program as administered by the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville, maintains a permanent public collection of more than 115 artworks and memorials throughout Duval County. For those who may not be familiar with the term "public art," public art refers to art in any media, including murals, sculpture, memorials, integrated or landscaped architectural work, photography, digital media, and mosaics, that has been planned and executed with the intention of being staged in the physical public domain. Public art is most impactful when it is site-specific, meaning it has been designed in response to the place and community in which it resides. It can be a powerful tool to communicate the history of a place, its people, and even address social or environmental issues. Because it is public, the art is free and accessible to everyone.
Of the City's collection, no piece may be more iconic than "Mirrored River: Where Do You See Yourself." Created in 2015 along Jacksonville's Southbank, "Mirrored River" is a tile, mirror, and pebble mosaic of the St. Johns River. For an especially enchanting experience, view the artwork at sunset to be engulfed in a combination of soothing colors as both the skyline, river, and surrounding blue lights reflect off the mirrors and enhance the blue and green tiles that create the artwork. Examine the piece with a closer eye and hidden within it you will find five quotes about the St. Johns River.
"Mirrored River" was designed by Kate and Kenny Rouh, who are also known as RouxArt. This wife and husband duo have made a name for themselves by creating works that are accessible to the public and accentuate Jacksonville's visual landscape. What makes their projects even more impactful is that they always invite residents and visitors of Jacksonville to participate in the creative process. When creating "Mirrored River," during a span of 42 days, more than 70 community members participated in creating the mosaic that is 64 feet in length and 7 feet in height.
Starting in 2017, RouxArt is working with Groundwork Jacksonville to implement a mosaic along the S-Line Urban Greenway, a 4.8-mile rails-to-trails multi-use path that connects New Town, Durkeeville, and Sugar Hill with Springfield and Brentwood. Over the past several months, RouxArt has hosted mosaic workshops, both at their studio in Springfield and along the S-Line, and have invited members of the community to participate as co-creators. Before starting the project, both Groundwork Jacksonville and RouxArt engaged the community and asked for input regarding the mosaic design. In addition to verbal feedback, RouxArt took note of visuals that were already present along the S-Line, including a piece of street art that depicted a smiling face that read "All Lives" and "Love." In a beautiful gesture, this image has been incorporated into the design of the public art project.
Soon you will see RouxArt working with artists Amanda Holloway and Suzanne Pickett to extend the mosaic work currently found in Main Street Park in Jacksonville's urban core. RouxArt first started adding mosaics to the park's retaining walls in 2014. Now thanks to additional funding, the mosaic project can be extended. As with all their projects, look for opportunities to participate and contribute.
10 Questions with RouxArt
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
Conversations with the stakeholders help us understand their vision for the project. Simple sketches follow. I enjoy gathering my color palette of materials - tile, glass, and mirror. Then, we set up a skeleton design framework from which we can involve the public. We make certain that participants are sufficiently trained to enjoy their involvement and make a meaningful contribution.
What have you learned about yourselves through your artistic and cultural endeavors?
Kenny and I became a mosaic-making duo very naturally. He assisted me as soon as my first mosaic grew bigger than I could easily handle on my own. His love for me grew to include a great appreciation for what I made. Our complimentary gifts in vision, creativity, design, people skills, education, and business evolved into our partnership that we now call RouxArt. We have learned that together we are complete!
How do you define success in what you do?
It is rewarding to guide "non-artists" as they participate and to feel their growing excitement. Frequently, people comment that the mosaic-making process has a therapeutic effect. It is gratifying to witness people inhabiting these mosaic environments with their own personal celebrations, wedding ceremonies, and various kinds of photo shoots. (We just wish they'd all #RouxArt!)
You invite the public to participate in the process when creating public art. What do you feel are the benefits of participatory and collaborative arts activities?
Immediately we sense the empowerment people feel when they are included. Being part of a large art project makes you a member of a team, a part of something larger than yourself. You meet people outside of your own little world and build friendships. Participation establishes oneself as a stakeholder in the project while gaining further understanding of the artistic process.
RouxArt has worked extensively with schools in Duval County, City departments, and private property owners. What advise would you give to artists who are interested in evolving their studio practices and exploring the world of public art?
Artists could experiment to see if their process is suitable by conducting free workshops once they have identified people with whom they might collaborate. For example, we took a mosaic project to a retirement home and engaged the residents. Similarly, we recruited the teens at our church to give mosaics a try. These experiences solidified our concept of community mosaic.
For an artist to consider doing public art, it requires a surface or a wall and therefore a property owner to be involved and persuaded to buy into and support the project. This is where the artist must be able to redirect his/her focus to develop a business proposition, or to partner with someone who can.
Has the S-Line project presented any unique challenges when compared to past projects? Additionally, how has the Sugar Hill community responded to public art being created in their neighborhood?
A unique challenge is to create such a large mosaic (approx. 120 feet) on about 40 3'x5' sheets that will be affixed to the concrete structure to meet the requirements of Florida DOT. However, this has also provided opportunity allowing flexibility of where and when we can work on the mosaic, either on site or in our studio. Some residents made individual mosaic medallions that have been incorporated into the design. Others have participated when they just happened by while we were on the S-Line for a workshop.
They are curious and respond enthusiastically!
In a Daily Record article, you once stated that you want to build something that lasts forever and cited mosaics in the Middle East that are 2,000 and 3,000 years old. If archeologists of the future were to discover your work several thousand years from now, what do you think they would deduce about Jacksonville and its residents?
They might draw the conclusion that the people of Jacksonville appreciate art that draws them in, speaks to them, and makes them a part of. Archeologists would read names and quotations and see evidence of what is important to our culture now. They could reason that residents enjoyed engaging with the mosaics.
Isaiah Zagar is perhaps one of the most iconic contemporary mosaic artists. His work in Philadelphia has become a destination place for tourists. Who are three other artists or artist groups, whether in the US or abroad, that you think are creating truly fascinating works?
Sayaka Ganz - takes discarded plastic objects and gives them new life.
Kumi Yamashita - uses material (objects) and immaterial (light and shadow) to create imagery.
Naomi Zettl & Andreas Kunert - work in stone and it relates to our processes.
What is the greatest challenge(s) you face as an artist team working in Northeast Florida?
Obtaining walls (or other concrete surfaces) owned by committed property owners who are willing to engage in and support the process of public art. There are so many abandoned, unused buildings in Jacksonville. So much concrete! Imagine the impact if all (or most) of the building owners got involved!
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow Jacksonville's arts and cultural sector?
Continue the efforts to ask property owners for suitable surfaces for public art, building an "inventory" of potential "canvases" for individual artists and artist teams. Encourage young artists and art administrators at the high school and college levels to become involved in public art. Capitalize on their requirement for Community Service Hours by supporting Community Art Projects.