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Felicia Feaster


60 Voices: Atlanta’s rising creative class is gaining new recognition on the national scene

T. Lang
T. Lang

Photograph by Audra Melton

T. Lang | choreographer, dancer, owner of the Movement Lab incubator; artistic director of T. Lang Dance

Chicago native T. Lang chose to radically change her life with a move to Atlanta 12 years ago after living in New York City. And she’s now firmly enmeshed in a changed South where her family formerly dwelled for decades. “This is my home,” she says. “I own property, I own space, I’m a tenured professor at Spelman.” For Lang, Atlanta is a place of possibility, for both Black and white people, to reclaim and remake the notion of the South for the greater good.

What keeps me here is this notion of returning back to the South and returning back to where my family felt the need to flee for liberation, autonomy, dignity, and that “American dream.” What keeps me here is the fact that, as an artist and choreographer—who thought she was going to live and die in New York—I see a plethora of Blackness here along with all types of cultural backgrounds and socioeconomic difference just in our little bubble of Atlanta, in the South. It still excites me. There’s still this danger and progression and radical feeling I have about living in this city. It feels bigger than the moment is.

I would love to see rural and metropolitan counties coming together to have real conversations about reconciliation and understanding and empathy and new practices and approaches to get to that level of healing—which is messy. It’s not clean and neat, but [it’s] necessary work.

Sarah Kennel | photography curator, High Museum

Though she’s only been in Atlanta for a year and a half after taking her position as the High Museum of Art’s Donald and Marilyn Keough Family Curator of Photography, Los Angeles native Kennel and her young family have found plenty of inspiration and creative nourishment in their neighborhood of Oakhurst in Decatur. Southern quirk abounds: Goats trim area lawns and one of her neighbors has created a vibrant, built environment reminiscent of the High’s folk and self-taught art collection. Her time in Atlanta has already changed how she views her work growing the High’s photography collection.

It feels like a young city. The energy of all the students—and the fact that it is an incredibly diverse city and majority African American—also makes it really interesting for what I do in photography at this moment. Especially in photography, so much interesting work is being done by artists of color or artists who are exploring the history and legacy of the United States.

Atlanta is such an interesting place to be at this moment. The historic shift in politics that we witnessed here really suggests that this is a place where a lot of different people are trying to find a way to live together, which could be a model for this country. As much as we loved living in Marblehead, Massachusetts, that was a small, old, established, majority-white, New England seaside town and its identity is so rooted in the past. Atlanta feels very different.

I think that it’s partly the city, and it’s partly the people I’ve met, but I definitely think I’ve grown more and more interested in and engaged with artists working in this region, in Atlanta, or more broadly in the South. That’s partly because it’s one of the missions of our photography collection—we are strongest in Southern work. But also because I think there’s a lot of interesting art being done here. And I think my focus is more on emerging and midcareer artists than I had anticipated. I had previously thought about historic collections, but I think what I see happening within this field and what I think might be very exciting for the various artists we serve at the High are a mix that brings in more of the younger, emerging artists.

Atlanta is really centered around creative Black culture. Black creativity is celebrated in Atlanta in a way that is not the same as in Los Angeles, and that’s exciting and interesting and really important. And I think it makes the city distinctive and a leader in many ways.

Layla Felder | collector, artist, and advocate

A junior at the Atlanta International School, Felder discovered a love of opera at age two via Sesame Street and, in the second grade, started a club, Kids Opera & Art Posse, which still encourages younger audiences to engage with the arts. An actress herself, she’s appeared in locally made short films, has a recurring role on the Golden Globe–nominated TV series The Sinner, and has interned at the Metropolitan Opera and with Atlanta artist Fabian Williams. She also has a pretty serious art collection with works by Wini McQueen, Grace Kisa, and Fahamu Pecou.

For a long time, people have viewed opera houses, concert halls, and museums as very elitist places where, if you’re not of a certain economic demographic or racial demographic or certain age demographic, you’re not welcome. But really, it is for anyone. It’s not intimidating inherently. I know I’ve been to a couple of opera houses where I sit down next to someone and they look at me like a baby on a plane.

Be more welcoming—now more than ever—to all demographics. I just want the Atlanta art scene to put more energy towards that. What I do love about Atlanta is it’s really intimate here. It’s really easy to meet the people behind the music and the people behind the art. For instance, I go to a lot of lectures at the High or Spelman, and it’s really easy to get a front-row seat. And after the talk, the artists are just hanging around, and it’s really easy to go and talk to them. In New York or Los Angeles, there would be handlers or they would be rushed out right after the lecture’s over.

Rocio Rodriguez
Rocio Rodriguez

Photograph by Audra Melton

Rocio Rodriguez | visual artist

A prolific and respected abstract painter who recently has dipped a toe into “skyscapes” after time in New Mexico, Rodriguez has work in the collections of the High Museum of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and Savannah’s Telfair Museums. Born in Cuba, she has lived in Atlanta since 1985—long enough to measure the ebb and flow of its arts scene. But as the city grows, she’s also seen artists have less desire to jump ship for a bigger pond like New York or Los Angeles and instead dig in here.

In the art community, I’ve seen people staying here. Back 35 years ago when I came here, artists used to think a lot about leaving and some left—heading to New York and elsewhere. They felt that there was not much opportunity to have a career here. I won’t dispute that: I’ve seen things here go up and down, up and down. Back then, I used to go to art openings, and I knew everyone there. It was a small community. But now, I don’t know half of the people that I see at an art gallery, art events, museum openings—and that’s a good thing. The community has grown, and younger folks are sticking around, creating opportunities for themselves instead of leaving. Things are still difficult, particularly with the pandemic, and I worry about the viability and survival of commercial galleries here due to the economic downturn that this virus has inflicted upon many businesses.

There is money here, real money, but the question is whether there is an ongoing interest in the arts. Yes, Atlanta—or Georgia, rather—has attracted the film industry, and that is good. Also, the music business here has flourished with Atlanta’s rise to prominence with hip-hop and R&B labels, and notable international music artists live and work here. But in the visual arts, that’s been a more difficult journey.

Will Packer | founder and CEO of Will Packer Productions

Will Packer moved to Atlanta in 1996 straight out of Florida A&M University. Anxious to address an underrepresented audience of Black moviegoers, Packer set out to create entertainment that foreshadowed today’s quest for a more diverse audience and voices. In the interim, he has transformed himself into an entertainment mogul. The producer of wildfire hits like Girls Trip, Ride Along, and Straight Outta Compton, his entire slate of films has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide, and Packer has entered into long-term partnerships with Discovery, Inc. and Universal Pictures.

I initially chose Atlanta because I was looking for a place to launch my production company that wasn’t L.A. or New York. At the time I moved, right after college, the music scene was exploding and seemed like a great industry to form symbiotic relationships within. Later, when my career gained steam and I could live anywhere, I came to realize that the culture of Atlanta was a great one for raising well-rounded and well-grounded kids. I knew I was here to stay.

Like any major city, Atlanta is going to have its growing pains. Crime, affordable housing, transportation infrastructure— this city isn’t immune to those types of challenges. But I think the key to a progressive, sustainable future here is a shared sense of community. One of Atlanta’s great strengths is its diversity. Sometimes, having folks from varied backgrounds and cultures can fracture a community and lead to ethnocentrism. But in the ideal scenario, we would have a community built on the common ideal of doing what’s fair and just for the least of us—doing so with a feeling of being on this journey for a better future, together.

It may seem counterintuitive but one of the strengths Atlanta has when it comes to bigger cities is that it’s not a bigger city. New York and L.A. are in so many ways defined by their overpopulated metropolises and sprawling geographies. Atlanta still in many ways feels like a small Southern town with big buildings. That has a lot of appeal to folks like myself.

Okorie “OkCello” Johnson

Photograph by Audra Melton

Okorie “OkCello” Johnson | musician

Cellist and Reynoldstown resident Johnson and his wife, Heather Infantry—the executive director at Atlanta city-planning think tank Generator—met in Atlanta when Johnson was at Morehouse. They bounced between his hometown of Washington, D.C., and Atlanta before deciding that the combination of affordability, a nurturing community, and a past, present, and future of Black creativity have made this city the right place to raise their two daughters and carve out careers in the arts. Of primary importance to Johnson is holding onto that affordability that once lured him to Atlanta but has become imperiled by the city’s rapid growth and gentrification.

It’s not cheap. And that’s going to change things. It’s going to change who can come here and experiment and grow and fly and test their wings, so that’s something that’s changing. I think the great tragedy would be if somehow the city became so expensive that it lost its creative class. Right now, Atlanta is the heartbeat, the pulse of the country, and that kind of life is fragile. And the lifeblood of that is affordability.

This is a place where people from all across the country—but particularly African Americans from all across the country—can come for some opportunity and possibility for success. But I don’t hear the same kinds of stories particularly for migrating African American communities and families about other cities. So, that’s one of the things that I think we’re going to have to preserve is making this an affordable city.

There’s no other city in which I can imagine myself becoming the person that I am. This is the place that makes me feel like I have a future: a creative and fertile future. I haven’t had that feeling of possibility in any other city like I’ve had here in Atlanta.

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

60 Voices: Susan Bridges and Monica Campana on art in Atlanta

Atlanta 500: Susan BridgesA former advertising professional who started in the art world by staging pop-up exhibitions around the city, Susan Bridges is currently the owner of the contemporary art gallery Whitespace, which occupies a converted 1893 carriage house behind her Inman Park Victorian. At Whitespace, she’s helped launch the careers of emerging Atlanta artists, including Whitney Stansell, Zipporah Camille Thompson, and Sarah Emerson.

Atlanta 500: Monica CampanaPeruvian native Monica Campana came here in 2007 to attend SCAD, and she’s made an indelible impact on the city with her innovative mural program, Living Walls. Campana has introduced Atlanta to the merits of curated, conceptually solid, artistically powerful public art. She has also highlighted the city’s cultural complexity, presenting work by diverse female artists such as Yehimi Cambrón, Neka King, and Dianna Settles. Her legacy includes more than 100 murals here and collaborative projects around the world, from South Africa to Moscow.

MC: In the last five years, most of the small DIY gallery spaces closed. We are in a city that, in the last 10 years, is growing so much in a way that is violent. Rent is so expensive.

SB: It’s barely affordable for anybody. The number-one problem is artists have very few places to work. Everybody’s getting pushed out from the center of the city.

MC: Even though the city is growing so much, and there are so many businesses and young professionals coming to the city, there’s still a lack of understanding of the value of arts and culture. You would think at this point that, because of how much the city’s growing, there would be more support for artists, art institutions, or small galleries.

SB: I guess that’s one of my pet peeves is that the artists in Atlanta are certainly as talented as anywhere in the United States—or the world, for that matter. But their value is perceived as less because they’re not in New York or Miami or L.A. I have a real problem with that.

MC: When we started Living Walls, we used to work a lot with international artists. And now, we rarely work with international artists, because we have such incredible talent here. And it’s just so hard to see that there’s not enough support.

In 2015, I went to Philadelphia and worked for the Mural Arts Philadelphia program. What was really incredible for me was that I went from Atlanta, managing, at most, $250,000 dollars for a whole year of operations, murals, and conferences, to managing a budget that was over a million dollars for only 13 pieces of public art. And that to me was such a wake-up call. For the first time in my life, I was able to pay artists for their work and offer them actual support.

SB: I think one of the reasons that we don’t have that much interest in the arts in Atlanta is because we don’t have much public art. You’ve changed the face of public art through murals and that’s amazing. But I’m talking about other forms of public art: pieces like the Anish Kapoor “Bean” in Chicago. We don’t have anything that’s this amazing thing that people want to come here to see.

MC: Where do I see Living Walls in the future? I don’t know how to answer that, because I’m honestly exhausted. And I feel like a lot of people might feel this way especially after 2020 and Covid.

If we don’t take care of the people that make this place so awesome and exciting and diverse, then we’re going to lose them.

SB: For me, I feel like it’s my job to just support my artists. And I know that some are having a really hard time. But I think one of the things that we always have to be aware of is in order to grow, we do have to change. I think things are going to be very different in the next, say, five years. I don’t know if artists are even going to want galleries. But I hope so. I’m just going to roll with it and see what happens.

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

From Black Panther to Malcom X, Ruth E. Carter’s costumes on display at SCAD FASH

Ruth E. Carter SCAD
Carter with costumes from Black Panther

Photograph courtesy of SCAD

She’s worked with some of film’s biggest talents, including Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, Ryan Coogler, John Singleton and Ava DuVernay.

Longtime costume designer Ruth E. Carter’s over 30 year history in film is documented in the engaging SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film exhibition “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design” open through September 12, 2021.

In 2019, Carter made history by becoming the first Black costumer designer to win an Oscar, for the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther. Carter had been nominated for Oscars previously for her work on Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. Costumes from all three of those films are prominently featured at SCAD FASH. The show’s focus is on how Carter’s costumes tell a story of race in American cinema, from slavery to civil rights, from visions of Black strength in Black Panther to Spike Lee’s groundbreaking meditation on racism and police violence in Do the Right Thing.

“The study of history is the study of people and what they were up against,” says Carter, speaking via Zoom from her home in Los Angeles about her work and her many intersections with Atlanta, where her film career really began.

Ruth E. Carter SCAD
Costume designer Ruth E. Carter

Photograph courtesy of SCAD

Carter’s first film job was working with Spike Lee on his 1988 comedy School Daze about the Greek system and a hierarchy of skin color, hair texture, and social class among Black HBCU students.

School Daze was filmed at the Atlanta University Center and was the first of 12 film collaborations between Carter and the Morehouse-educated director. It also marked Carter’s career-long interest in expressing the complexity of Black experience via costume.

Though she grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, Carter often traveled to the South for summer visits with relatives in her family’s ancestral home of Newport News, Virginia.

“I have a great fascination and love for the South,” she says. “When I look at the people of the South I see my history, because I have studied so much of it.”

Ruth E. Carter SCAD
Costumes from Malcolm X

Photograph courtesy of SCAD

Carter reconnected with Atlanta on many subsequent occasions, including her work on the 2016 Gal Gadot spy comedy Keeping Up With the Joneses and the BET television series Being Mary Jane.

But Carter’s undoubtedly most profound interaction with the city was her work on Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. Carter and her team exhaustively researched traditional African dress from Kenya to South Africa to create the film’s visionary “Afrofuturist” mix of African past and utopian future.

The SCAD FASH show is only possible because of the archive of costumes Carter has collected over the years, costumes that used to be donated to churches or schools or sold off after a film wrapped. “It was like a sad death” says Carter of those lost costumes. So she began saving them. Like the filmmakers telling stories of America’s often overlooked history through Black eyes, Carter was insistent on preserving her own creative journey. “And I had those pieces that I felt were important to the history of the picture.”

Ruth E. Carter SCAD
Costumes from Amistad

Photograph courtesy of SCAD

“It was a wonderful trip through my past,” Carter says of putting the show together. “I could see where my blessings were. What I could be grateful for.”

Us Kids, a documentary about the Parkland school shooting survivors, plays tonight in Atlanta

Us Kids
David Hogg speaks alongside other Parkland survivors.

Photograph courtesy of Kim A Snyder Productions

Americans tend to usher out old traumas for fresh ones, so having a documentary about the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School roll into town during a pandemic and a summer of social upheaval over police violence and racism is both a blessing and a curse.

Us Kids, directed by Kim A. Snyder, makes a stop on its nine-city tour at the Plaza Theatre Drive-In at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, August 27. Samantha Fuentes and Alex Dworet, who both survived the Parkland, Florida, shooting, will be at the Plaza for a Q&A, along with a virtual appearance from Snyder. Tonight’s audience for Us Kids will undoubtedly find that socially distanced movie-going in the time of COVID-19 has its advantages. One of them is the ability to be with your emotions inside the protective shell of your own car.

The film follows a core group of Parkland shooting survivors—Emma Gonzalez, Samantha Fuentes, Alex Dworet, David Hogg, and Cameron Kasky—as well as young Black activists like Milwaukee’s Bria Smith, whose own community had been ravaged by gun violence, as they plan the summer March For Our Lives and Road to Change bus tour across America to inspire an end to gun violence and to motivate youth voter turnout in 2018.

Their caravan even comes to Atlanta (introduced, strangely, with a William Christenberry-evocative shot of wooden shacks and lonely country roads). It was a pivotal stop, Snyder tells Atlanta magazine, on the final leg of the Road to Change, which included a visit to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Snyder includes archival footage of high school activists in Birmingham during the 1960s civil rights movement to emphasize the history of youth-driven protest. Atlanta was decisive, says Snyder. “I think they could begin to step outside themselves and almost see themselves in historic hindsight.”

The tour stopped twice, in Atlanta and in Roswell, where future Georgia Congresswoman Lucy McBath, whose own son was a victim of gun violence, was in the crowd.

Milwaukee activist Bria Smith was especially affected by the Atlanta stop, says Snyder. “For Bria, there was a deep reckoning with her African American past, and her voice grew [stronger] each day as she was exposed to the footsteps of MLK (having met his son backstage in Atlanta) and the legacy in Atlanta.”

More than just an archeology of a protest movement, Us Kids is a deeply troubling look at something we tend to gloss over in our onward-and-upward culture: pain that doesn’t go away, that isn’t marched out, talked out, or moved past. It’s there in the way Fuentes vomits when she tries to talk about Parkland in front of a crowd. It’s there in Kasky’s disconcerting 1,000-yard stare. It’s there in the hoodie Dworet wears in the baking Florida heat to hide the scar from a bullet wound from the Parkland shooter, who killed his brother, Nick. PTSD isn’t just experienced by battle-scarred veterans and war refugees. It’s a cottage industry in America.

Snyder documents the ugliness of the post-Parkland events, when TV pundits called teenagers like Hogg “crisis actors” and death threats against the activists were common. But Synder isn’t after a Michael Moore wallow in performative outrage. She also shows Hogg and Kasky leaving their Road to Change bus to talk to Gadsden flag- and gun-toting protestors. An adrenaline hit of hope is clearly more important to Snyder than fanning flames.

Us KidsSnyder, a Peabody Award-winner, has made trauma a component of much of her filmmaking life, including her work as an associate producer on the 1994 Oscar-winning short film Trevor, about a suicidal gay teenager. And Snyder is no stranger to trauma’s personal toll. Her 2000 film I Remember Me documented an alienating experience in her thirties, coping with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. “Albeit traumatizing in very different ways, I think [it] left me with a sensitivity to chronic grief, hardship, and the kind of existential questioning that comes from years of unchosen solitude,” she says. She went on to make several films about school shootings, including 2016’s Newtown and 2018’s School Shooting: Notes from Dunblane.

Much of the film’s heart and soul belongs to survivor Fuentes, an artsy, vaping renegade with blue hair and a wicked sense of humor, who is wracked with survivor’s guilt. “I always wonder why it wasn’t me” Fuentes says about the loss of her friend Nick Dworet, Alex Dworet’s brother. When she’s not dancing or joking, Fuentes expresses lingering panic that some unseen shooter waits in every crowd.

The movie is a reckoning with the many pivotal American movements for change that were forged by kids, whether in the civil rights era or during the Vietnam protest movement. It’s also a reminder that America has a lot to fix.

Snyder thinks that Us Kids is more relevant than ever in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement—a kind of generational understanding of systemic American violence.

“The kids keenly understood from back when the March For Our Lives movement sparked, the intersectionality between racism and guns, between so many issues that cannot be isolated from one another,” says Snyder. “With gun sales skyrocketing since the pandemic began, suicide and domestic violence on the rise, and brutality to BIPOC communities by way of guns, if you didn’t think gun violence was a priority issue before, it is a very hard issue to ignore as we face these challenging times. The gun violence problem in this country continues to be a chronic public health crisis within a now acutely cataclysmic public health crisis.”

R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe: “I was a photo student before I was a music fan.”


Michael Stipe

Though he’s best known as the thoughtful, politically-outspoken lead singer of the influential Athens, Georgia-born band R.E.M., Michael Stipe has long nurtured a fertile side career as a music and film producer (Velvet Goldmine, Being John Malkovich), cross-disciplinary artist, sculptor, and photographer whose diaristic, intimate portraits of Kurt Cobain, River Phoenix, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg also demonstrate his remarkable access to generations of creatives.

On October 2, 7 p.m. at SCADshow, Stipe will discuss his photography and other visual art pursuits as the Marquee Speaker for this year’s Atlanta Celebrates Photography event.

Stipe has recently created two books that document the primacy of imagery in how he looks at life. His 2018 photography book Volume I assembles over three decades of mysterious, poignant images: male nudes, fields of kudzu, Kurt Cobain’s intertwined hands, and black and white landscapes. Those photographs are the visual corollary, in some sense, to his musical career, created as Stipe was also penning the lyrics to some of R.E.M.’s most indelible songs. More recently, Our Interference Times: A Visual Record, is Stipe’s collaboration with Generation X novelist Douglas Coupland. Composed of images from Stipe’s personal archive—sheets of handwritten lyrics, selfies—the book examines Stipe’s straddling of a generational divide, between a vanishing age of analog information and a brave new world of digital images and content.

Michael Stipe's book: Our Interference Times: A Visual Record book cover

Would you question the common narrative that you are a musician first and a visual artist second?
I would understand it as I am better known for music. But the truth is, I was a photo student before I was a music fan.

You were a studio art major at the University of Georgia. Who were the painters and photographers you were under sway to then?
[Painter, filmmaker, and UGA professor] James Herbert was the greatest teacher any art student could ever ask for. He challenged and lifted everyone.

You’ve produced more than 25 feature films including Todd Haynes’ glam rock classic Velvet Goldmine, which distills so much about how music impacts us and informs us as kids. What band or musician really shaped you as a kid?
Elton John, Patti Smith Group, and the Tom Verlaine band Television.

Collaboration seems like a big part of your creativity, whether being in a band, producing films directed by others, or your book Volume 1, which you created with artist Jonathan Berger and designer Julian Bittiner. Why do you think you like to create art this way?
I’m not myopic, but my vision is sometimes difficult to crack. Other people and their trusted opinions help clarify for an audience where I am trying to take them. I am a fairly good editor of my own work, but everybody needs another voice and someone to bounce off of sometimes.

You’ve called photography “truly the most honest medium in my life.” Why does it feel truer to you than music?
Both mediums for me are like breathing. They come quite naturally. Music is easy; lyrics are the hard part.

What do you miss about Athens when you’re in New York City or Berlin?
Mostly the people and then the trees and having a garden.

A lot of us have images that have stuck with us over years, maybe even decades. If you were to pick one image that continues to haunt you, what would it be?
A self-portrait by Claude Cahun.

Volume 1 features images you’ve taken from 1980-2015. That’s a huge span of time: do you see your style changing when all those images are collected together in one place?
That was the editorial choice of Jonathan Berger. From some 30,000 images he pulled 36 pictures. I wouldn’t have necessarily created the same arc of narrative that he did . . . it’s what makes the book so successful, I believe. My style has not changed that much from when I was 14. The cameras have changed and that can add a shifting vantage point, but I think the work is pretty consistent.

A number of the films you have produced have to do with gay identity or feature very idiosyncratic people who live on their own terms. Do you feel like part of what you do is support art that will help represent people and realities that aren’t always represented?
Yeah, and I’m thrilled where the 21st century has brought us with a much more nuanced, less binary approach to gender, sexuality, desire, and even politics and job description. It’s blowing the doors wide open for any “other” type of person to feel a sense of belonging.

Along those same lines, do you feel like part of being a musician is always advocating for kids and allowing them to see life differently, as something beyond the parameters of what they are expected to be when they grow up?

Your portraits of people like River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain often focus on their hands or backs—not their faces. Are you consciously trying to remove the element of fame, and let us see them as human beings?
It was always more about being in the moment rather than documenting the moment. A shot of hands or back of the head is a lot less intrusive to wherever the day is going.

Your partner, Thomas Dozol, is a photographer. What’s it like having two photographers doing work that is pretty diaristic and portrait-based in one home? Do you have to agree to take turns being that day’s documentarian?
We are very different in our approach to portraiture, so there’s definitely overlap and cross interest, but they’re very different vantage points. Having separate studios helps. We both take a lot of snapshots, but that’s rarely ever in the work. It’s more just life stuff. I mean, all our friends, most every one of them is an artist or creator, so there tends to be a lot of pictures taken and a lot of back and forth.

You are also an activist. What is the one issue that is consuming your thoughts these days?
The environment. That has been my number one issue since I was 14 years old.

What do you think is the most photogenic part of the human body?
Depends on the person!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Curator Michael Rooks has helped bridge the gap between the High Museum and local artists

High Museum's Michael Rooks: Sweet, Sweet, Back, by Cosmo Whyte
Sweet, Sweet, Back, by Cosmo Whyte, from Of Origins and Belonging, Drawn From Atlanta, opening June 1 at the High Museum.

Photograph courtesy of High Museum

In 2013, High Museum curator of modern and contemporary art Michael Rooks offered up a big, wet kiss to Atlanta’s arts community. Drawing Inside the Perimeter featured 41 Atlanta artists. It was the kind of mutual love rarely seen in the then tempestuous relationship between the South’s most important art museum and the regional artists who often felt excluded from its gleaming white citadel on a hill.

Rooks followed it up in 2015 with a 76-artist show called Sprawl! Drawing Outside the Lines, featuring artists both inside and outside the Perimeter, which proved he was as adept at endearing himself to emerging artists as he was at courting moneyed patrons.

High Museum's Michael Rooks
Michael Rooks

Photograph by CatMax Photography, LLC

The most recent iteration of his drawing shows—Of Origins and Belonging, Drawn From Atlanta—features just six local artists, most of whom come from immigrant backgrounds. The show, on display from June 1 until September 29, is deeply influenced by today’s current political climate and immigration debate, says Rooks.

Traveling around the city, Rooks, who’s carless, engages with his Uber and Lyft drivers. “I tend to talk to people and get to know where they’re from.” Also, during visits to Georgia State, SCAD, and the University of Georgia, he noticed students were increasingly creating work informed by having one foot in the U.S. and one foot somewhere else: China, Vietnam, Mexico.

Artists in this show include Jessica Caldas, Yehimi Cambron, Alan Caomin Xie, Wihro Kim, Dianna Settles, and Cosmo Whyte. “People come here to start a new life, whether they’re people like Alan Xie coming from China or Cosmo, who moved here from Jamaica,” says Rooks.

Diverse in their ancestry, the group is also equally divided between men and women, something that might not surprise Rooks’s fans, who have seen him champion feminist and LGBTQ issues.

“Living here for nine years now, I’ve realized that this is one of the most international cities I’ve ever lived in,” says Rooks.

Up next: Rooks wants to bring the world to Atlanta. He’s been traveling to Korea, India, and off-the-beaten-path biennials around the world. And he’d like to present international artists in conversation with Atlanta creatives rooted in those same communities. The goal, he says, would be “to reflect this growing diversity and the multicultural richness of Atlanta.”

This article appears in our June 2019 issue.

Atlanta’s arts community relies on support from SunTrust and Turner. So what do the latest corporate shakeups mean?

Suntrust Turner impact Atlanta arts community
SunTrust Plaza downtown

Photograph by Myrydd Wells

This spring has definitely come in like a lion for the Atlanta arts community. First there was the news that SunTrust Bank had been acquired by Winston Salem-based BB&T and that the unnamed merged company would move its headquarters to Charlotte, North Carolina. Then came the announcement that the Turner Broadcasting name will soon be a thing of the past under AT&T’s acquisition of WarnerMedia.

As a result, many Atlanta nonprofits are asking questions about what this means for corporate support of the arts in the city.

“Any time you see a change like this in the corporate landscape, arts nonprofits in particular are sort of on pins and needles and playing close attention to it,” says Atlanta Jewish Film Festival executive director Kenny Blank, who has relied on SunTrust support in the past and Turner funding since the festival’s inception in 2000.

“We are all very much dependent on the good will and good neighbors of our corporate partners,” Blank says.

The move of Georgia’s largest bank means not just the loss of a Fortune 500 headquarters, but also some anxiety about how arts organizations that rely on such corporate largesse will cope. SunTrust and the SunTrust Foundation have offered support over the years to, among others, such key Atlanta institutions as the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and the Woodruff Arts Center. Though the BB&T and SunTrust merger will see the consumer bank moving to Winston Salem, the wholesale bank will be in Atlanta.

“We plan to continue our support for the arts in the Atlanta community, and that includes the arts organizations that are so vital to the culture of this city,” says SunTrust chief financial officer Allison Dukes. “We feel a responsibility as a civic-minded organization to ensure the arts thrive and remain a vital part of building a healthy community.”

And for decades Turner has been a prominent, enduring booster of Atlanta’s creative landscape, an almost ubiquitous presence popping up in support of the Atlanta Film Festival, the Atlanta Ballet, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, and the National Black Arts Festival, among many other art entities and events. Though the arts community and many Turner employees have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, with inevitable layoffs and relocations likely in the mix, what will remain of Turner’s Atlanta presence is mostly uncertain.

“It’s too soon to know,” says Woodruff Arts Center director and CEO Doug Shipman. “I am heartened that both companies have stated that they remained very committed to community engagement in Atlanta.”

In name at least, the AT&T deal signals the end of an era, with a company founded on the legend and entrepreneurial spirit of its maverick, iconoclastic founder Ted Turner now broken down into scattered entities. TNT, TBS, and truTV will fall under the WarnerMedia Entertainment brand; CNN, CNN Digital, HLN, Turner Sports, and Bleacher Report will be encompassed under WarnerMedia News & Sports; and Cartoon Network, Adult Swim, Boomerang, and TCM will be folded under WarnerBros. Whether those former Turner brands will stay in Atlanta, move entirely to a larger media hub such as New York or Los Angeles, or a mix of those two options is still unknown.

Some arts leaders in the city and further afield have expressed concern that the reconfiguration or exit of Turner and SunTrust means two companies with strong local ties may no longer feel beholden to local organizations, now tethered to corporate behemoths with operations spread across cities.

Frank Sesno, a former CNN correspondent and current director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, believes there are undeniable changes afoot for the local arts scene with this corporate musical chairs.

“I suspect the arts will feel the shift in a significant way, not because the new companies don’t care but because their identities and priorities lie elsewhere,” says Sesno. “The arts build bridges across creativity and community. When that community connection is lost, it’s felt profoundly. Whether and how this affects funding for the arts, I cannot say. But a leading corporate giant has moved on,” he says of the Turner breakup.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that Atlanta arts leaders have had to contend with changes to funding with recessions, changes of administration, and changing corporate agendas always in the mix.

“It’s a challenge every year,” says Atlanta Film Society board member Linda Burns. “There’s no guarantee, so we never take that for granted.”

And a gap in funding can be devastating to nonprofits. Louise Mulherin with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta shares how little of a safety net arts organizations in Atlanta often have. A 2011 study commissioned from the Nonprofit Finance Fund by the Community Foundation found that of the 40 metro Atlanta arts organizations that the Foundation had funded, “78 percent of grantees surveyed had fewer than three months of liquidity and 53 percent of these grantees had negative liquidity.”

Louise Shaw, who has worked for more than 30 years in Atlanta’s art world, is the former executive director of the Nexus Contemporary Arts Center (now the Atlanta Contemporary) and the current CDC Museum curator. She has been on the scene long enough to have seen the ebb and flow of arts funding in the city, though this recent development strikes her as particularly dire.

“We keep on losing points in the scheme of things,” she says, “in being a creative center supported in a holistic way by the corporations that are here.”

Like many others in the arts community, Shaw also worries how the exit of not just companies, but their in-house talent alters the creative face of the city.

“One out of every 10 dollars we have is from our Turner relationship,” says Atlanta Film Society executive director Chris Escobar. He adds that Turner has also provided immeasurable benefits to the city and to the Atlanta Film Society in the way of board members, festival volunteers, a rich pool of talent to draw from. Companies like Turner attract employees to Atlanta who end up enriching the larger creative community.

“That impact cannot be understated,” Escobar says. As an immediate example of the local impact of that brain trust, Betsy Holland, Turner’s director of culture and engagement, will be honored at this year’s Image Film Awards for her contributions to the film industry.

“We have all been more dependent on corporate support than our counterparts in other cities,” says Escobar, when measured against other funding streams like government support and the private, patron giving that so many cities have come to rely on—an area where Atlanta has often been behind.

Woodruff Arts Center president and CEO Doug Shipman echoes how important the support of corporate entities has been to Atlanta’s arts organizations.

“Atlanta, and Georgia, does not enjoy the level of public investment in the arts seen in other cities and states—this increases the necessity of arts organization to look to companies for philanthropic support,” says Shipman. “Their participation has allowed arts organizations to be formed, grow, and be well run due in large part to corporate engagement.”

For his part, Central Atlanta Progress president A.J. Robinson remains hopeful about how these relocations and changes will play out.

“I’m optimistic their support won’t diminish,” he says of SunTrust and Turner. “They are long-term players in this market, and Atlanta is a growing, vibrant city. I don’t see them pulling back from that environment. I think we have to be patient and see what happens.”

How SCAD FASH curator Rafael Gomes is imprinting the museum with his personal style and vision

Rafael Gomes, SCAD FASH Pierre Cardin exhibit
SCAD FASH curator Rafael Gomes

Photograph by Alex Martinez

If Rafael Gomes offers to take you into SCAD FASH’s conservation lab, behind the unmarked white doors deep within the bowels of the Peachtree Street museum, where vintage fashion is kept in long blue boxes swaddled in layer upon layer of tissue paper, go. Just go.

Gomes, the director of fashion exhibitions at Savannah College of Art and Design’s acclaimed Midtown museum, might show you a piece from the school’s Victorian collection. He could even let you try on the reproduction of a bustle, an opportunity he offers to students to viscerally connect them with the sense of restriction that fashion represented for women in the past. Gomes will cradle a vintage Chanel suit like a newborn baby, marveling at the workmanship. You will stand beside him, nodding your head, as he teaches how our shoes, undergarments, skirts, and suits play a role in defining the people we are and the times we live in.

Rafael Gomes, SCAD FASH Pierre Cardin exhibit
Designs by Pierre Cardin on display date from the 1960s to the present.

Photograph by Alex Martinez

“I could sit for hours at his feet with my hand on my chin and just listen to his stories,” says Nancy Flaherty, an Atlanta-based fashion journalist and U.S. editor of French fashion magazine Grace In Paris. Gomes has given Atlantans a bridge to the global and historical worlds of design with exhibitions such as gowns by international jetset couturier Guo Pei, the work of fashion icon Pierre Cardin, and costumes from the dystopian TV series The Handmaid’s Tale.

Rafael Gomes, SCAD FASH Pierre Cardin exhibit Rafael Gomes, SCAD FASH Pierre Cardin exhibitWhile other little boys in the mountainous outskirts of Rio de Janeiro were playing grocery store and gas station with their Playmobil figures, Gomes was creating tiny outfits for his, draping them in sequins. Raised in a strict household by his father, a Brazilian Marine who often brought those disciplinarian tendencies home with him, and his German-born mother, Gomes was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. The young boy knew at an early age that he was gay and “different from other boys and different from my brother.” When he wanted to take a drawing course, his father enrolled him in judo classes. His mother didn’t push back. “I couldn’t even have a teddy bear, it was so strict,” he says. “Nothing soft.” Even today at age 43, Gomes is still covert about what exactly he does for a living. “They don’t really know what I’m doing. They think I’m a graphic designer,” he says with a shrug.

Fashion was always an inspiration for the curator. At 17, Gomes left Brazil for Germany, where he studied at Munich’s Deutsche Meisterschule für Mode. In 2005, while still a student, he beat out hundreds of contestants from 40 countries to win the annual Triumph International Fashion Award for his evening gowns crafted from bra straps and stockings (some of his previous designs were constructed with car parts and paper). For 10 years, Gomes worked for irreverent British designer Vivienne Westwood. In 2015, he was ready to jump off the fashion tilt-a-whirl and accepted the job of curating SCAD’s fashion museum in Atlanta, a place he knew little about, save for what he saw on The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

Rafael Gomes, SCAD FASH Pierre Cardin exhibitThe perfect emissary of fashion’s cosmopolitan world, Gomes cuts a dashing, even intimidating figure in his stovepipe trousers, Vivienne Westwood (mixed with J. Crew) suits, monk-strap shoes, thick beard, and Teutonic accent. But beneath the hipster facade lurks a gregarious demeanor and the still-fresh memory of the escape and sustenance that fashion gave him amidst an unhappy childhood. “He’s like Tom Ford,” Flaherty says. “Men love him, women love him. You always want more of him.” Theo Tyson, who graduated from SCAD this year with her masters in luxury and fashion management and worked alongside Gomes as a docent, says the curator was the reason she opted to stay at the Atlanta campus rather than study abroad. Gomes “became my mentor and fairy godfather of all things fashion, freely sharing his knowledge of fashion history, theory, and so much more,” she says.

Rafael Gomes, SCAD FASH Pierre Cardin exhibitHeralded for its exhibitions of work from designers like Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta, SCAD FASH has been covered in Vogue, W, and the New York Times, though it may still be a bit of a secret in Atlanta. The jewelbox museum occupies a 10,000-square-foot space tucked away on the top level of SCAD’s Atlanta campus. Since its opening in 2015, SCAD FASH has capitalized on surging public interest in celebrity, glamour, and fashion exhibitions that are, for the most part, unintimidating. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum have both exhibited designers. Locally, High Museum shows dedicated to Dutch designer Iris van Herpen and sneaker culture have been crowd favorites. Gomes attributes SCAD FASH’s powerhouse shows and names to his preexisting fashion contacts and to his constant networking. Also helpful are the college’s deep connections in the industry, from SCAD Lacoste campus neighbor Pierre Cardin (whose work is currently on display) to people like Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley, a school trustee and frequent curator of fashion exhibits at the college’s Savannah campus.

“I feel very at home here,” says Gomes of his life in Atlanta. He’s come to embrace the South, enjoying visits to Miami, Charleston, and Savannah. And he feels an affinity with other residents of Atlanta, who have fled their own small towns or unsupportive families for the refuge of the city. Now, he helps connect them to the ultimate escape: a world of beauty and fantasy, where people can become what they want to be.

See the exhibit
Pierre Cardin: Pursuit of the Future runs from now until September 30; Dressing for Dystopia is on display until August 12. General admission is $10. scadfash.org

This article appears in our August 2018 issue.

Atlanta artist Michi Meko’s work is “the contemporary experience of black life and survival”

Michi Meko
Michi Meko

Photograph by Alex Martinez

In 2009, artist Michi Meko walked me through some of Atlanta’s seedier, trash-choked byways for a story I was writing about local graffiti artists. Five foot, nine inches tall with a hulking frame, he wore oversized retro shades with baby dreads piled under a knit cap—a look suggesting a hard-partying alt-rock bandleader more than a nationally renowned fine artist.

A university-trained artist and occasional graffiti writer who already had a residency at the Atlanta Contemporary to his credit, Meko built his early career on good humor and good times at rollicking, quirky opening parties where Pabst Blue Ribbon and fried chicken replaced the usual wine and cheese. At Barbara Archer Gallery, he created colorful, neo-folk collages with fellow artist John Tindel, billing themselves as “two fat Southern boys that paint.” He seemed like a guy who could appreciate biscuits, monster trucks, historically black college marching bands, and the eccentricities of Southern culture—even as his work’s allusions to mammies, lawn jockeys, and cotton bolls hinted at a more critical undercurrent.

Michi Meko
They Might Float (2017)

Photograph by Alex Martinez

Eight years later, there is gray flecking the 43-year-old Reynoldstown resident’s beard, and a bone-deep gravitas has settled like silt on a river bottom in Meko’s art. His breakthrough 2015 show, Pursuit: Almost Drowned, at the blue-chip Alan Avery Art Company featured images of men floating, life preservers, nautical flags warning of trouble ahead, and miles and miles of inky ocean. In his mixed-media works, there are allusions to the shooting deaths of nine black men and women at a Charleston church, Hurricane Katrina, and direct references to America’s first black president. His new work is an eternity from the tongue-in-cheek fun and occasional social commentary of his earlier collaborations. Now, the faces of people who appear to be young black men—but which Meko says are actually images of white male pop stars like Justin Bieber—have been erased with violent explosions of paint in works like The Standard, his first drawing purchased by the High Museum of Art.

The shift to more sobering content felt inevitable. Recent publicity about black men murdered by police echoed Meko’s own experience. In 2000, after winning $400 from an ex-con in a dive bar pool game, he finally escaped his native Florence, Alabama, for the big city. On his first night in Atlanta, police stopped Meko and his brother on I-20, dragged them out of their Ford Explorer, and trained six service pistols at their heads. The incident proved a case of mistaken identity but one that makes Meko see himself in headlines years later. “The Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases messed me up,” Meko says. “I began to think about things I have done that could have easily gotten me shot, just kids-being-kids behavior.”

Meko decided his solo work should not be a direct reaction to these events but a focus on “the contemporary experience of black life and survival.” He says his current pieces reflect “purely my voice, my mark. I want to say something meaningful and poetic.”

Michi Meko
Unsophisticated Splashing

Photograph courtesy of Alan Avery Art Company

The national art world has taken notice of the dramatic shift in his tone. Last year, he received not one but two important national awards from New York nonprofits Artadia and the Joan Mitchell Foundation, with a combined prize of $35,000. Travis Laughlin, the senior director of artist programs at the latter, calls Meko’s work “incredibly relevant to ongoing discussions about race.” Meko also won an award from the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia and will present a solo show there in December.

It’s not easy to survive as an artist in Atlanta. Local galleries shutter every year, and serious collectors often prefer buying work in New York. Meko’s story reads like a self-help guide to career success. His personal mantra is: “Comfort kills pursuit. Pursuit kills comfort. All that is left is pursuit.” In 2015, he almost drowned while fishing for striper on the Chattahoochee River. He swears the African water spirit Mami Wata saved him and, in the process, opened the door for his present accomplishments.

“He’s a sweetheart,” says collector Nancy Hooff, who owns two of Meko’s works, including a chilling requiem painting featuring a scorched church fan, charred wood, and a sky black with smoke, which was inspired by the Charleston church shooting. Hooff, a Buckhead native, believes art like Meko’s can help Atlantans understand the black experience.

“Unlike many artists,” Alan Avery says, Meko “takes the viewer on a journey of understanding historical and current social ills but without the preachy condemnation.”

Michi Meko
An Attempted Undoing of Legacy (2017)

Photograph by Alex Martinez

Meko’s former gallerist Barbara Archer says that the artist “never holds back and is never satisfied.” In fact, many of his biggest influences are not artists but athletes: He listens to audio, sans announcer, of Serena Williams playing tennis while he paints, as well as recordings of Muhammad Ali and celebrated poet and Guggenheim Fellow Fred Moten. His artwork expresses resilience. All of that imagery—first of men floating in a vast, black sea, struggling to keep their heads above water, and now with abstraction—depicts the metaphorical struggle at the core of his philosophy: “I am interested in African Americans and ideas about buoyancy, navigation, and being resilient. This resiliency for me is heroic.”

This article originally appeared in our February 2018 issue.

Atlanta style icons Sid and Ann Mashburn host this year’s Atlanta Celebrates Photography gala

Sid and Ann Mashburn
Sid and Ann Mashburn

Photograph courtesy of the Brinsons

Though best known as fashion icons, whose eponymous Westside shops earn regular praise from the likes of Esquire and Southern Living, Sid and Ann Mashburn are also ardent photography fans. In fact, a portrait of consummate Southern photographer William Eggleston hangs in the Mashburns’ Buckhead home, shot by Eggleston’s cousin Maude Schuyler Clay (a Mississippian like Sid).

On October 7 the couple follows in the footsteps of another well-known Atlantan, HGTV’s Vern Yip, as honorary chairs of Atlanta Celebrates Photography’s 12th annual gala. Held at the Porsche Experience Center, the event will include a silent and live auction of works by Parish Kohanim, Builder Levy, and Carl Martin, among others, to support the ACP, the largest annual community-based photo festival in the United States, which runs throughout October. We spoke with the husband and wife about the role photography plays in their lives.

Ann, early in your career you worked as an assistant to famed Vogue editor Polly Mellen and with a number of prominent photographers—Richard Avedon, Arthur Elgort, Irving Penn. Can you talk about that experience?
Ann: It was amazing…and scary. My first photo shoot was with Steven Meisel. There was loud music and energy—and him with his long dark hair and black cloak. I worked for a major fashion editor so my main goal was always to avoid being yelled at. But in between taping shoes and racing around with the pin cushion, I saw the real work of creativity happen between the editor and the photographer.

What inspired you and Sid to get involved as hosts of the Atlanta Celebrates Photography gala?
Ann: We were very kindly invited. But in addition to that, we love the people, we love the medium, we love Atlanta. We work in an industry where photography is so important. We are constantly trying to convey our message visually, and we know how permanent, meaningful, and fantastic photography can be.

What photographer would you choose to illustrate the Mashburn aesthetic?
Ann: Arthur Elgort. He is all about trying to get what is inside the person to come across in the photo. The whole reason we do what we do is to help people feel amazing on the outside and the inside.

Sid: It’s kind of a cliche, but I love the nature [photography] of Ansel Adams, the ’60s shots from David Bailey and Brian Duffy, the real people of Richard Avedon, the Mississippi of William Eggleston, the landscapes of Edward Steichen, Cartier-Bresson’s France and the color [work] of Koto Bolofo.

Who’s a lesser-known photographer people should have on their radar?
Ann: Jeannette Montgomery Barron is a great friend and defines my New York ’80s experience. All the downtown people she photographed were living in the city when Sid and I were really growing up there together. Something about her point of view takes me back to such a pivotal time in my life. I can almost smell the subway in my memory when I look at some of her photographs.

Highlights of ACP

Paul Graham
Paul Graham “Untitled,” Pittsburgh, from A Shimmer Possibility, 2004

Photograph courtesy of ACP

Paul Graham, Untitled
The High Museum’s Gregory Harris talks with the British photographer about using color film in the 1980s and influencing the genre. October 21, Woodruff Arts Center

Pete Souza

Pete Souza, Untitled
The veteran photojournalist, who served as the official photographer in the Reagan and Obama White Houses, discusses capturing the image of the most powerful person in the world. October 3, The Carter Center

John Waters
John Waters “Reconstructed Lassie,” 2012

Photograph courtesy of ACP

John Waters, “Reconstructed Lassie”
In the keynote event, the acclaimed king of camp reflects on his career as an artist and how he uses photography to create “little movies.” October 20, Woodruff Arts Center

Marilyn Minter
Marilyn Minter “Torrent,” 2013

Photograph courtesy of ACP

Marilyn Minter, “Torrent”
The New York City photographer, whose images explore the “pathology of glamour,” speaks on her work, which has been shown around the world. October 12, Woodruff Arts Center

Don’t miss
The monthlong festival includes exhibitions in a MARTA car and along BeltLine trails, a “photo battle,” and a photobook fair. acpinfo.org

This article originally appeared in our October 2017 issue.

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