‘Guardian Angels’ add second mural to Willow Branch Park

‘Guardian Angels’ add second mural to Willow Branch Park
Basketball players at Willow Branch Park will be playing above Keith Doles’ mural of a pond with koi fish once the art is completed in October.

Since 2019, members of the AIDS Memorial Project of Northeast Florida have been steadfastly improving Willow Branch Park in Riverside to commemorate those in the community who have died of HIV/AIDS. This year, they are eagerly anticipating the completion of a mural called “The Pond” by local artist Keith Doles. It will be painted on the park’s 50 x 94 square foot basketball court and ready for public viewing by October, if the weather cooperates.

“It is a semi-realistic koi pond with a variety of multicolored fish,” said Richard Ceriello, who is founder and president of the nonprofit. “Keith’s art is whimsical and lively, but it also shares a deeper message that, like the fish in the mural, we are all beautiful fish with different colors, stripes and types swimming in the same pool together. We must all learn to swim together, or we won’t survive.”

Doles is creating the mural with the help of associate artists Adrian Rhodes, Ramses Allen and Iven Gillespie. His painting style includes influences from Cubism and Abstract Expressionism where geometric shapes are layered in perspective with expressive color.

In 2020 Doles painted the culvert across the creek that flows the width of the park from Sydney Street to Park Street with a sunflower mural. In addition to the murals, the nonprofit has planted trees, created a butterfly garden, installed a gate to keep cars out of the park and, in general, overseen the beauty, cleanliness and safety of the park.

Stonewall Sports — Jacksonville, an LGBTQIA & Ally nonprofit sports league, regularly uses the park for competition kickball.

“They are committed to keeping the park clean and require everyone who comes to their events to pick up after themselves,” Ceriello said.

“The park is now a safe location for families to enjoy,” Ceriello said.

In 1978 Willow Branch Park was the site of Jacksonville’s first Gay Pride Festival. Ceriello recalls that in the early 1980s, Willow Branch Park was essentially Ground Zero for the HIV/AIDS.

“Almost all of the people infected with HIV/AIDS in Jacksonville lived within a mile or so of the park,” he said. People died in scores, leaving almost no neighborhood block around the park unaffected. The disease was characterized as a gay disease or a drug user disease, even though it affected all segments of the population.

The group continues to raise funds to realize its plans for a permanent memorial in the park, what it hopes will be the second memorial in the Southeastern United States to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

As of January 2020, one in seven people in the United States were living with HIV and were unaware of their infection. In 2018, the Florida Department of Health reported more than 7,600 people living with HIV in Northeast Florida. Of the 344 newly diagnosed cases, about 86 percent of people lived in Duval County.

Learn more about the AIDS Memorial Project of Northeast Florida at www.JaxAIDSMemorialProject.com.

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