by D. Amari Jackson
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” – Toni Morrison
“Being an artist means forever healing your own wounds and at the same time endlessly exposing them.” – Annette Messager
It all began 13 years ago when the Weinaug family, strong advocates for the arts and the environment, acquired an old marina on the scenic Wekiva River in Central Florida. Its patriarch, Bill, envisioned a unique and ecologically sustainable destination that would serve as a model for human beings existing within nature in a healthy, environmentally conducive fashion. Despite the marina’s shabby state at the time of the 2008 purchase, the abundance of natural features—the pristine waters of the Wekiva, its natural springs, its vibrant and diverse plant and wildlife—greatly encouraged Bill’s vision and, within the year, the rebranded “Wekiva Island” offered tourists, artists, and community members a place to learn about sustainable living in an interactive and engaging way.
From the start, there was art. While Gallery CERO, which opened last month on July 4th, was always part of the long-term plan for the island, the family has offered monthly art classes for the public from the beginning along with an open air invitational called the “Wekiva Paint Out.” The annual event draws artists from about the nation to set up their easels along the Wekiva while supporting efforts to preserve the health of the river, its associated wildlife, and ecosystems.
In 2020, in an effort to document the pandemic through art and introduce a similar concept online, the Weinaugs created The Great American Paint In™ as a digital platform for artists to share their emotions through paint from any location in the world.
“Art is really at the core of who we are so we were trying to find a way to stay relevant and connected with our audience, given everything in person had to close,” says Ashley Weinaug, program director for Wekiva Island. “So we created this collection that showcased the emotion and experience from artists around the United States during the pandemic,” explains Weinaug, noting there are currently over 300 artists in the collection and their work will be further showcased in an upcoming book derived from the project. “Our goal was to get at least one artist from every single state in the U.S., which we did.”
For the 2021 The Great American Paint In™, submissions are still open. After clarifying there are no “strict rules” and that artists can even submit older pieces that are in some way relevant to the pandemic experience, Weinaug stresses the need for more diversity in this year’s applicant pool. “Regarding where the artists are from, and the type of artwork that was submitted, it was very diverse, very across the board,” she acknowledges. However, when it came to the artists themselves, it was not. “We wanted to make sure the collection was as representative as possible of artists from all walks of life, all backgrounds,” promotes Weinaug. “But we saw that there was a big gap, and we wanted to make sure we were telling the true full story of the American people.”
To do so, the Weinaugs have run numerous ads with print and online platforms that cater to artists of color, basically saying, “Hey, this is the collection, this is what we’re about, this is what our mission is, we’d love for you to join, and there is no cost,” says Weinaug, emphasizing that “a large portion of the proceeds of a piece sold on our website does go directly back to that artist.”
The Great American Paint In book will serve as an additional means of promoting these artists and their pandemic-based works, historically documenting the global crisis through the eyes of American artists in all 50 states. The project further reflects the “three pillars” driving Wekiva Island as a whole—sustainability, education, and art—and their activation by the establishment of an exemplary green business, a hands-on center for natural education, and by “imparting more beauty into the world than we found.” Consistently, given the commonly-held belief that art is most necessary at the most challenging times, as is the ongoing quest for beauty and sustainability, the project represents a form of healing, both individual and collective, along with a viable path forward. While benefiting from paid advertising in print and online, along with the broader reach provided by the project, artists will receive a 65 percent commission on the pieces sold through these efforts.
“We have so many artists in our network that we’re connected to, and we just saw all of their shows getting canceled,” reports Weinaug, stressing “they had tours set up, they had lessons to give, they were displaying in different galleries, and that was all closing. And as with many professions, these artists just didn’t know how they were going to support themselves, or if they were going to even be in a good head space to be creative. Obviously, every single state had a different lockdown experience, but others were stuck at home and some people were stuck in their homes by themselves.”
“We really wanted to, number one, support the artists, and then curate a collection that showcased what was happening during this time,” says Weinaug, noting her family had not seen such a project “anywhere else in the news or on the internet. So we wanted to be that kind of platform for artists, and also for collectors and people in general to go back, reference, and see what it was like, what that emotion was like, what that experience was like.”
That said, Weinaug adds, “It’s a great way for the artists to get their work out there as well.”
For more information on The Great American Paint In™ and how you can submit your work, please click here.
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AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.
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