It’s no surprise that much of Sarah Crooks’ art reflects the natural environment around her Jacksonville, Florida, home — the St. Johns River, bears and butterflies, grasses and trees. Art, she says, is both a means of communicating our inner expression and a way to pay homage to something you love. And Crooks loves the natural world, where she has found beauty and wonder since she was young.
The East Coast Greenway Alliance, in partnership with the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, has named Crooks an artist-in-residence for our April 2020 Southeast Greenways & Trails Summit in Jacksonville. We’ll feature her art on summit materials, and Crooks will be on hand at the summit expo so attendees can meet her, see more of her work, and create their own contributions to an artwork commissioned for the East Coast Greenway.
“I’ve always been a maker,” says Crooks, who has spent most of her life in northeast Florida. An early mentor encouraged her in the practice of observing things that she loved, then drawing them. She thought she would study environmental sciences in college, but “I was much too emotional to be a scientist,” she laughs. Instead she earned a B.A. in fine arts from the University of North Florida. At one point, living in New York City, she trained as a botanical illustrator. “I was hungry for a direct connection with the natural environment,” she remembers, so she’d take the subway out to the Bronx and find plants to draw. “You’re supposed to render a perfect version of the plant as a representative sample. I appreciated learning to draw authentically, but it’s not where I stayed.”
Back home in Florida, Crooks began working on community projects. “I have an urge to empower people or things that don’t have a voice,” she says, from rivers and oyster beds to domestic violence survivors. In 1989 she helped an artist friend who was working at the local YWCA with women in transition from homelessness, most of them having experienced domestic violence. Her friend taught the women to weave baskets but was looking for new ideas, and Crooks had been making nests. Their project evolved into making a giant nest, six feet in diameter, from sticks and other bits and pieces. The women wove fabric strips to make an inner cushion for the nest. Crooks was struck by how the women’s impulse was to wrap the pointy ends of the nest’s sticks to soften them, coming from their experience of trying to protect their children from harm. In the natural world, the outside of the nest has pointy parts to defend the nest, protect the nest, Crooks told them. The nest project offered a form of what would now be called biomimicry: imitating models, systems, and elements of nature to start conversations and solve human problems.
“I really believe in the power of hands,” Crooks says. “Working together and working with our hands, we can achieve great conversation and intimacy.”
That first nest evolved into an even larger nest, big enough for five people to sit inside, that was part of a Jacksonville festival. “The women who had worked with us on the earlier nest became the experts, showing others how to build and weave and co-create a public sculpture. We were raising awareness of homelessness and bringing together people from different walks of life.”
Since then, directors of hospitals, libraries, science centers, environmental organizations and healing spaces have commissioned works by Crooks. This year she brings a 10-year project to fruition. “RED Pearl River” stands for Redirecting my Energy Daily, her intention to “turn my activity and thinking towards positive change.” She has created a suite of tapestries “like giant cave paintings” -- printed, dyed, and sewn by hand -- depicting a narrative of the world where culture and nature live in harmony rather than domination. She’ll travel the length of the St. Johns River in 2020 giving a series of pop-up workshops called Home is Here: A Return To Source.
Another long-term project, “Flock,” grew out of an installation of monarch butterflies she created from recycled magazine pages and love letters, each one silkscreened and hand cut. She pinned those first hundred or so butterflies “as a private prayer” flying out of a book she made to commemorate her biological grandmother, who died of breast cancer. She invited gallery visitors to pin their own butterflies, representing something they wanted to let go of, heal from, or somehow transform. Eventually 1,000 butterflies “were flying all over the gallery,” she remembers.
A few years later, her husband was diagnosed with colon cancer. Butterflies became part of his healing journey as Crooks “flocked” his room. “Putting the butterflies in unexpected environments like a hospital room immediately lifted his spirits,” she says — not to mention the spirits of hospital staff members.
The monarch butterflies will be part of her East Coast Greenway installation, a metaphor for the way the trail transforms open spaces and communities. Crooks loves the concept of the Greenway, how it connects people to place and how it’s being developed by working with local communities and existing infrastructure, then building links.
In 2014, Crooks earned certification as a Florida Master Naturalist and was later hired by the City of Jacksonville to talk about the local ecosystems while taking people for walks in the woods. “I can talk about the science of butterflies, for instance, their life cycle and migration, their objective qualities, but also the artistic ones, the metaphors,” she says.
Walking is one of the best ways she knows to connect people to the natural world and to each other by teaching us to pay attention. Crooks walks every day with her dog, enjoying a 100-year-old urban park near her home and following a creek that eventually empties into the St. Johns River. One day recently she saw otters playing in the creek. If she’d been driving by in a car she would have missed them. But because she was strolling by and paying attention to the surface of the water, she was treated to the moment of joy.
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