The artists behind the murals

When COVID came to town and the lockdown began in earnest, Seck37 picked up his paints and went to work on a blank wall … perhaps for the last time.

“The wall was donated, and I wanted to paint something bright and beautiful for Gainesville,” he recalled. “It was a complete ghost town and the streets were empty. Cops were asking me what I was doing.

“I said I was painting a mural as a gift to the city just to keep everybody’s spirits up.”

That “gift” was “One Love Gainesville,” a bold yellow and green composition of hearts and palm fronds that is still on display at the corner of Main Street and Northeast 10th Avenue.

Like many in town, Seck37 — aka Jesus Martinez — and his wife, Carrie, were contemplating hard times.

They had come to Gainesville from San Francisco to open Visionary Cross Fit — an eclectic combination fitness center, art gallery, music venue and more. But COVID-19 forced it to close and the pair was in the process of selling their building.

“I didn’t know if I would ever paint a mural again,” Jesus recalled. “But while I was painting ‘One Love,’ people kept coming by and offering donations for what I was doing.”

And then something even more remarkable happened. Having been forced out of the fitness business, Jesus and Carrie suddenly found their talents as muralists very much in demand.

“We decided, ‘let’s adapt to this new world,’ and, amazingly, the offers came in full force,” Carrie Martinez said. “We were flourishing; businesses wanted art.”

You have almost certainly seen their work around town. And If the names Seck37 or Carrie Martinez ring no bells, that’s because they sign their murals “Visionary Fam.”

Those cool dogs wearing sunglasses on Main Street? Visionary Fam. That ferocious gator at Swamp Boil? Visionary Fam. Likewise the lady holding the marijuana buds in Swamp City, the goddess cradling the galaxy at High Dive, the groovy pink flamingos at the diner in High Springs, the Mexican Day of the Dead dolls at Flaco’s, the sword-drawing Samurai guarding the skate shop in Grove Street, the otherworldly landscape behind Simons and the Tom Petty wildflowers scene at Sidney Lanier.

Just to name a few.

Nor are they the only local muralists who have, unexpectedly, found new opportunities in the wake of the pandemic.

“When COVID happened, it didn’t rock my world the way it was rocking other peoples’ worlds,” said Jenna Horner, whose murals also can be found on walls all over Gainesville. “What was fascinating, what I didn’t expect, was the tremendous amount of work that came in so quickly. All of a sudden it was just a rush from one project to the next.”

This at a time when many in the artistic community — actors, dancers, musicians and performance artists — were mostly out of work and struggling to make ends meet.

Partly what was going on was that many businesses, forced to temporarily close, decided to use the downtime to improve their premises … and enhance customer draw.

“I thought a cool masked samurai would help convince the kids who come here to put on their masks,” said Billy Rohan, owner of Samurai Skate Shop. “I contacted Visionary Fam because I’d seen their work all over town and was blown away by it.”

Since then Rohan has sponsored another Visionary Fam mural — a social justice theme featuring skateboarders — at Possum Creek Skate Park.

“Skateboarders are a very accepting community, and all over the country they are doing ‘Push for Peace’ events,” Rohan said. “I wanted to celebrate that here in Gainesville.”

But it wasn’t just COVID-19 that helped pump up the volume on mural production in Gainesville. It was, rather, something of a ripple effect that began five years ago and has been steadily spreading out into the community ever since.

It started when the city of Gainesville launched its 352Walls project and began to engage muralists from around the world, and around town, to create public art on walls all over town.

Indeed, both Visionary Fam and Horner got their start as Gainesville muralists by landing 352Walls work.

“I didn’t know anything about murals,” Horner recalled. “I just knew I wanted to make my living as an artist.”

Her first project was a mystic tribal figure on the wall at the corner of Main Street and Depot Avenue.

“I recently revisited that wall intentionally for first time in five years, just to see how I tried to do a new thing,” said Horner, who had grown up in Gainesville and had recently graduated from the University of Florida’s fine arts program when she landed the 352Walls gig. “I had absolutely no expectations when I did it, but it changed my life.”

That muralists are increasingly in demand in Gainesville comes as no surprise to Russell Etling, 352Walls manager.

“I think one of the things that was not as well known about urban art is that the murals themselves are really calling cards for the artists and a way for them to gain both local and international exposure,” he said. “An artist might be paid little or nothing for their gargantuan mural, but the famous muralists get five and six figures for their studio work.”

Indeed, Seck37 recalls being paid $450 for a 352Walls project, while the city was spending far more to bring in internationally known muralists.

“We didn’t think it was fair,” he said. “But it pushed us to do our best work to show that local artists have talent too. It lit a fire under us to do better paintings.”

The city had a reason for importing muralists. When 352Walls began, Etling recalled, “we had a few murals in town, but not really that many. We engaged local artists, as well as bringing in 12 internationally known muralists.

“By bringing in visiting artists, you raise the awareness of the potential for muralist here. But it also put the community on an international map as a result of the social media presence” of well-known muralists.

Horner also discovered that 352Walls was a springboard. Working for the city, she has paintings in the downtown parking garage, on the Fifth Avenue GRU wall and elsewhere. But she also has done murals for REI at Butler Plaza, Wards Grocery, Flower Pot Bakery, Lululemon apparel and several other businesses.

Not least of which is First Magnitude Brewery, which names Horner as its “artist in residence.”

“It’s awesome. They were the company that first gave me more artistic freedom because they trusted me,” she said.

In front of First Mag is a Horner mural depicting cyclists racing across Paynes Prairie, which she said “reflects the brewery’s theme of community and the outdoors. It was a colorful, funky version of people coming in off the trail.”

She also painted the brewery’s beer garden performance stage to resemble an explosion of colorful flowers, plants and flowing water.

“That was an extremely challenging mural because it was all on the ground for the most part. Painting a floor is totally different from painting a wall, so it was another learning experience,” she said.

As for Seck37 and Carrie Martinez, their mural work has brought them full circle. Having moved out of their building after their fitness business failed, they would later be invited back by the new proprietors … to paint murals.

“We love art and we wanted a style that is unique for our business model,” said Tony Phillips, owner of Swamp City, a cannabis business. “Art and music go along 100 percent with the cannabis culture. Jesus and Carrie are amazing and share our vision.”

For Swamp City, Visionary Fam created a stark, black-and-white mural of Charlotte Figi, a pioneering Colorado cannabis activist, as well as a much more colorful work depicting a young woman with flowing hair and a purple gown grasping marijuana leaves.

Visionary Fam also has formed a rather close attachment to Tom Petty and his legacy. Not only did they paint the Sidney Lanier Petty wildflowers mural, but they also do the artwork for the annual Tom Petty Birthday Bash music festival.

Oh, and they put a mural of Gainesville’s favorite guitar hero in their own front yard … which just happens to be the same northeast Gainesville house that Tom Petty grew up in.

“It was coincidental. We didn’t even know it as his house when we rented it,” Jesus Martinez said. “Once we moved in here, we started noticing that every day we’d see his fans coming to photograph the house. So we put Petty out in the front yard. The fans love it.”

As for Etling’s point about local muralists gaining more stature and reputation as a result of 352Walls exposure, both Horner and the Martinez duo are already thinking about broadening their horizons.

“We’ve made a name for ourselves, and we may run out of walls” in Gainesville, Carrie Martinez said. “We don’t know how long we’re going to be here, maybe until our kids get out of high school.”

Horner agrees: “Gainesville is a great city. It’s very progressive. But there are only so many walks in this town.

“I feel a pretty big itch to be moving and traveling a little more. St. Petersburg is a great mural city. Miami is a huge mural city. But it’s awesome to be in Gainesville because people here know your name.”

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