The first and largest of the murals by artist Gabriela Jaxon has drawn attention to the Thom Downs Antiques building on North Florida Avenue.
LAKELAND — A colorful mural has interrupted Lakeland’s business-as-usual traffic flow on North Florida Avenue, as motorists slow, even stop, to admire its beauty.
The mural, painted by artist Gabriela Jaxon, reaches 34 feet up the side of the Thom Downs Antiques building at 235 N. Florida Ave. The work was commissioned by the Lakeland Community Redevelopment Agency as one of three such murals to be painted by the end of January.
Facing the side parking lot, a woman’s face peers down from the wall, her four eyes seeming almost otherworldly, a burst of contrast from the ordinary downtown area.
When the Lakeland CRA was approached by several property owners about creating an art platform this summer, it sent out requests for proposals from artists, and ultimately approved the creation of three murals.
The second mural will be painted by Tim Haas at Southside Cleaners on South Florida Avenue. Haas is a prolific artist whose work can be seen alongside the pool at the Kelly Recreation Center, on Headley Insurance Agency located north of the Polk Parkway on South Florida Avenue, and south of the parkway on the wall of the Mahoney Group building on South Florida Avenue.
The third new will be located at the Boring Business Center on East Main Street by Ahmad Taylor, who also has completed the mural at the CRA’s urban garden.
Jaxon’s mural is the first of the three to be painted, and the largest.
“Gabriela had a very talented portfolio, with her work in Miami and Brooklyn, New York,” said Valerie Ferrell, the CRA’s downtown project manager.
The mural, she added, “really does give a profound impression on Florida Avenue.”
Each artist is commissioned for a rate of $5,000 and a deadline of Jan. 31 to finish their work.
Ferrell noted it is a “pilot program,” which may in the future be modified for other forms or smaller amounts of art.
“We are just trying it out to see how it takes, how the public responds,” she said.
Jaxon spent years of her childhood in Peru in a neighborhood so dangerous it was not safe to play outside.
So she turned to sketching.
“Art was an escape for me,” she said. Painted by free hand with spray paint, using a rented lift to help her reach the height of the wall, Jaxon said she is “obsessed” with Peruvian colors and textiles, which the Thom Downs Antiques mural showcases.
Jaxon moved to Lakeland when she was 8 years old, later attending Southwest Middle School, and then Harrison School of the Arts.
“I was just one of those kids who did art and hung out with skateboarders,” she said.
She says her parents were overprotective, “because they were Hispanic,” but they said, “well, let her stay after school for art club, she is doing good things.”
Her art morphed from sketches to collage work with wheat paste and making collages, which she enjoys because she can combine several elements in one piece.
After Harrison, she headed to Florida Southern College, majoring in psychology.
Then she was faced with a choice: stay in the field of psychology or follow her artistic dreams.
When she started getting serious, or as she says, “disciplined,” about her art, she spent much time researching how much money could be made just doing art full time. One connection she eventually wants to explore is art therapy.
One of her teachers told her to go to New York or Miami, where her art was appreciated.
Using spray paint for her artwork, she started doing murals and canvas painting.
“I hung out with graffiti artists in New York, and learned from the best,” Jaxon said. “I used what I saw and I already had it in me.”
The last two years, she has traveled back and forth between Lakeland and New York.
“I always really liked fashion design, and thought I was going to be a fashion designer,” she said.
But the art captivated her, and it seems others were likewise captivated by her art.
“I excelled at it, I just kept going,” Jaxon said. “People started buying my artwork. It just kept escalating, and I was like, there must be something going on here, that I am good at it.”
Her father, Pedro Molleda, has his own painting business, Pedro’s Painting, and helped her prepare the wall for this mural. She used to help him paint as well. “I definitely learned a lot from him,” she said.
One pedestrian, Franklin Winston Patrick, was out for a walk, and hailed Jaxon, saying “Congratulations!” Patrick told Jaxon he was from Bucyrus, Ohio, which he says is known for its murals. “If you go on the web, you will see our murals there,” he said.
Jaxon says it is her hope that her art inspires women to be themselves, to pursue their dreams and passions.
“That is what I want my heart to be perceived to be, like yes, girls may look a little odd here and there in an image I am making,” she said. “But we are still beautiful … it’s a breath of fresh air to be able to be as we are without being put in a box or judged.”