Artist Karen Kurycki discusses The Sounds of Jacksonville

Tell us about the inspiration behind this project.

I was selected for this project about a year ago and was given the opportunity to create art based on the public’s feedback about Jacksonville. While I was unable to attend the community meeting in person, I am thankful for my sister, Katie Kurycki Mitura, who was able to attend and took very detailed notes of the discussion. Based on the feedback, it sounded like people were craving more of a connection to their city—that they love Jacksonville and know it has a lot of history, but a lot of that history has been forgotten over the years and they felt there was nothing that really defined us as a city.

After a lot of thought, discussion and research, I decided I wanted to celebrate the legacy of past and present Jacksonville musical artists from all different genres and eras—including Blues, Jazz, Southern Rock, Hip Hop and Pop—I want to celebrate the artists who are tied to Jacksonville but have made an impact far beyond this city. From the Johnson brothers’ Lift Every Voice, to Ma Rainey, Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Blake, and all of the amazing artists who came out of the early 1900s in LaVilla when it was considered the Harlem of the South, to the fact that Jacksonville is considered the birthplace of Southern Rock (Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band, and many more), to the Classics IV who wrote Spooky, Stormy, and Traces, to early/mid-90s Hip Hop and Miami Bass sound with the 69 Boyz, Quad City DJs and 95South. While the process for this project wasn’t always easy, I am so happy with how these turned out, and I am truly honored to call attention to some of this history through my art.

When researching the artists that wound up making it onto each box, did anything surprising jump out at you?

I learned SO many things through doing this project, I think the biggest surprise was finding out that the Classics IV started here—Dennis Yost and a couple of the band’s members attended Andrew Jackson High, which I featured architectural elements of on the design for their box. Who knew the people who wrote Spooky, Traces and Stormy were from right here in Jax?? I’m a sucker for that era of music, so I was especially stoked to find that out. I also knew that the 69 Boyz, the Quad City DJs and 95 South had ties to our city but didn’t realize Duval was their hometown, I was pleasantly surprised to find that out and include them in the project. I had some general knowledge about James Weldon Johnson/Lift Every Voice, Southern Rock and Jacksonville being known as the Harlem Renaissance of the South but I definitely did a much deeper dive researching those and gathering more specifics about those eras—I also met with (The Jaxson’s own) Ennis Davis who pointed me in the direction of other elements to consider, which was really helpful. (Thanks, Ennis!)

Some of the members of the 69 Boyz have already started to share your work on social media. What’s it like for some of the musicians to give you some recognition?

I think that has been the best part of this whole experience—some of these musicians’ reactions to and appreciation for the artwork. It has been great to hear from members of the 69 Boyz and Quad City DJs, who said that, while they’ve won several awards in the past, being recognized by your hometown is the best—that was pretty great to hear, as their music has not only contributed to Jax’s history but has also influenced 90s hip hop dance music all over the world.

What role do you see art playing in the continued revitalization of Downtown?

Personally, I think art is what makes a city a city. Can you imagine how boring it would be to visit a city that had no art, or appreciation for art, music, dance, hand-painted signs, design, handmade goods, architecture (and, yes, I know this is a touchy subject with Jax seemingly tearing down every historic building it can). Do I get sad driving around downtown and seeing empty lots of nothing? Of course, but then it gives me hope when I see a new mural put up by Art Republic or some of the new sculptures going up around town that bring life to a completely dead area. Art gives me hope that there could be something to come. It’s like planting a tree in the middle of nothing; it encourages things to grow around it.

You grew up in upstate New York, but now call Jacksonville your home. What makes this city special to you?

I moved here in 2004, right after graduating from Kent State University. When I graduated from college I wanted to move to a decent-sized city where I could be challenged but not swallowed up by the hustle and bustle of a huge city. Jacksonville allows you to do anything cool that you set your mind to. I know that might sound cheesy, but if you have a decent idea for an event or initiative with some effort you can usually convince others to jump on board to make it happen. I also love the people here. I’ve made some amazing friends over the past 15 years and continue to meet people who want to make the city better.

You work with some really large national brands like Nike and McDonalds, and your time is obviously stretched with the demands of your professional life. But you also find time to get involved with local causes like Rethreaded, the passage of the Human Rights Ordinance and the creation of the Jax Young Voters Coalition. Jacksonville has quite an inferiority complex, and sometimes people can become very indifferent about whether or not they can make a difference. What has been your experience with effecting change here in the Bold City?

Designing for good is just something I have always done. My talents are in art and design and so I do my best to use them as tools to try to call attention to and perhaps bring about change within the community. I feel we, as designers, have the responsibility and ability to help so many, whether it is by bringing awareness to issues, working with organizations to streamline their message, or mobilizing people to bring about change—the possibilities are endless for how we can work together to make our communities better. I also love to do things that challenge me—before working with Rethreaded to help them develop their brand I didn’t know a lot about sex trafficking and that it was a big issue right here in Jacksonville—I worked with Kristin Keen to create something that made the topic more approachable; it was definitely a challenge to make something so sensitive and awkward to talk about something that people in the community felt comfortable talking about and working hard to fix here. I helped start the Jax Young Voters Coalition with a great group of people because I didn’t know a ton about local politics and saw it as a challenge to try to get younger people involved in politics, approaching it from their point of view to make them care and see how it impacts them. This past local election I worked with candidate Sunny Gettinger to design her brand and all of her campaign materials, I had never worked on a campaign before but I knew that good brand and information design could have a huge impact on a local election. I knew it was going to be a challenge going in as Sunny was an underdog in a Republican district. She lost by 248 votes…that one is still a stinger. But I can’t imagine NOT trying, right? We only get one life, I try to make the most of it and put myself in challenging situations if I know it has the potential to effect change.

Anything you want to add?

Yes. Im sorry for not including you, Limp Bizkit, I ran out of traffic boxes. :(

Additional LaVilla Coverage

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Here is a plan to revive LaVilla

LaVilla: The rise and fall of a great black neighborhood

Memphis’ Beale Street an example for LaVilla?

Recalling Downtown’s Greek Railroad Row

Jacksonville’s early 20th century Chinese community

Remembering the Atlantic & East Coast Terminal Railroad

Ma Rainey: The Mother of the Blues

Writers of the First Coast: James Weldon Johnson

Unsung black women are notable in Jacksonville history

Article by Mike Field. Contact Mike at