Fantasies of stumbling upon some long, lost treasure buried in the sand is a place most minds wander when walking the beaches of Florida. Sometimes, though, the very sand is the treasure and it only takes a little reminder to remember that.
Such was the case for Jacksonville artist, Roosevelt Watson III. The reminder he needed came in the form of a small, cast iron sign. The sign is roughly 8 inches wide and 3 inches tall and is adorned by a marlin and a bikini-clad beauty. At dead center, it proudly boasts the three-letter abbreviation of the state of Florida and just below all that, a reminder of what Florida was in 1935 when American Beach was founded. It reads “Negro Ocean Playground.”
Above photo: Artists Overstreet Ducasse (left) and Roosevelt Watson III at CoRK Labs where they both have studio space. Below photo: Ducasse gave Watson a metal license plate frame from American Beach, which Watson used as the inspiration for a series of artworks, some of which are currently on display in the Lift exhibition at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens.
The sign is rare and coming upon it was mere happenstance for Watson. Fellow Jacksonville artist, Overstreet Ducasse, had it nestled in a collection of found objects in his CoRK Labs studio located in the East Building of the CoRK Arts District. “I am fortunate that as a mixed-media artist,” Ducasse says, “people give me stuff all the time.” His studio, a crowded testament to a supportive community, is exactly where Watson found the sign and in that moment recalled his youth.
“When I saw the sign, I was immediately 9 years old again. I was on the sand with my family again,” Watson says. The memory hit him hard, but he downplayed his reaction, hoping to secure the item from his friend without too much bargaining. None was needed.
Ducasse generously passed the sign along without a second thought. At the time, he muses, he was not fully aware of what the sign meant other than being a relic of a segregated South. Soon, he came to know Watson’s story, and the connection he had to American Beach. “He [Watson] took the sign and ran with it in his art work,” says Ducasse.
For Watson, running with it meant using the relic to open conversations about the history and impact of American Beach. “Something like this comes around into your life, and you have to figure out how to use it and open the dialogue,” he says.
Watson started by making a cast of the sign and producing foam-rubber replicas that he incorporates into his mixed-media works. “American Beach is displayed in my work to remind us that American Beach is still there,” he says.
Today the prime, beachfront property is experiencing the economic encroachment that occurs along much of Florida’s coastline. With new development often comes the vanishing of the history of the founding community. Yet, due to efforts of artists and activists like Watson and the National Park Service, which in 2002 placed American Beach on the National Register of Historic Places, the storied shoreline is experiencing a resurgence of popularity and a reintroduction into our collective history.
“I want the conversation to happen,” Watson says, referring to both the history and current state of American Beach. “For me, it was where I spent my weekends and summers,” he continues, “and it has an energy and spirit that should be celebrated. This sign and this artwork I am creating is about that energy, spirit and history.”
“For me, it was where I spent my weekends and summers and it has an energy and spirit that should be celebrated. This sign and this artwork I am creating is about that energy, spirit and history.”
— Roosevelt Watson III
Roosevelt Watson III with one of the small pieces he has made to be sold in the gift shop at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens incorporating a portion of the cast from the American Beach license plate topper and sand and shells from American Beach.
Watson made plaster casts of the sign which he incorporated into his artwork.
To learn more about artists Roosevelt Watson III and Overstreet Ducasse check out their profiles at corkartsdistrict.com or visit cummermuseum.org and the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens to see their works at the Lift exhibition which runs through February.