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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
Snyder, 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.”
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.
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.
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? Absolutely.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
While 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.
The 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.
Heralded 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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, 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, 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, “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, “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
Blockbuster film producer Will Packer and his wife Heather’s Sandy Springs home is a sprawling, stylish family clubhouse well suited for their 21st-century Brady Bunch.
The couple, who married in 2015, have four children, including three still at home: Nija, 16; Maya, 12; and Zion, 14. Dominique, 22, is away studying at Harvard.
But Will is no clueless sitcom dad being perpetually hoodwinked by a houseful of sassy teens. No, this creative paterfamilias is more like the clan’s jocular, hip ringmaster—answering his front door on a brisk Saturday morning in a Spider-Man onesie. Or you might catch him spinning a mix of Stevie Wonder, Jay Z, and Ludacris in his basement DJ booth, complete with fog machine and a sound system that threatens to vibrate the copious industry awards off the walls of his office upstairs.
Will’s name has been in the credits of a number of hugely profitable projects, including Straight Outta Compton, the Ride Along franchise, and Think Like a Man, as well as TV’s Emmy-nominated Roots remake and Being Mary Jane. First making his name as cofounder of indie powerhouse Rainforest Films, then as the Midas-touch frontman of Will Packer Productions, he has helped make Atlanta the film locus of the South. Shooting productions around town, he’s imported a degree of Hollywood glamour—stars like Jamie Foxx, Gabrielle Union, Eddie Murphy, and Taraji P. Henson have all attended dinner parties he and Heather have hosted in their posh cream and gilt dining room.
The home’s colorful, sophisticated but family-friendly ambience was created over six months with designers Zach Azpeitia and Kate Fleming of Pineapple House (Heather discovered them on Houzz) and expresses the Packers’ distinctive style: contemporary and luxurious but approachable, with no hands-off spaces where kids or guests can’t roam. “Nothing in this house is off limits,” says Heather.
“They’re young, they’re modern,” Zach says of his clients, who wanted to erase the home’s previous dark, stuffy law office look, defined by heavy curtains and wingback chairs. Heather stated her design mantra early on, recalls Zach: “We aren’t afraid of color.” In fact, the inspiration for her colorful directive was an existing pumpkin-orange banquette that anchors a breakfast nook off the large, open kitchen—now stripped of its former fussy millwork.
If the Packers had a design touchstone for the house, Heather says it was Miami, a favorite romantic getaway. Their master bedroom is a modern take on Hollywood Regency that would be right at home in South Beach. A Phillip Jeffries wallcovering inlaid with shimmering mother of pearl, a fluffy caramel Stanton alpaca rug underfoot, and sheer white curtain panels behind the bed provide a sumptuous coziness. A blue-velvet daybed by the window is a favorite place for Will to decompress and watch Tampa Bay Buccaneers games.
Heather’s favorite space is her “mom cave,” aka the living room. Rather than a typical sofa, four soft-gray chaise lounges, flanked by Bernhardt acrylic drink tables, invite guests to stretch out and relax.
“They nailed it,” says Heather of how expertly Pineapple House pulled off the home’s glamour-meets-comfort attitude. She was especially impressed with how well they crystallized the interests and personalities of each child, despite having to design the kids’ bedrooms while they were away at summer camp.
An energetic, vibrant family, the Packers unwind in their terrace-level entertainment zone complete with a plush red-and-black home theater papered in grass cloth to muffle sound and adorned with framed posters of Will’s films. The theater’s enormous bean bags make it a favorite homework spot for budding journalist Nija. “There’s a chair for every mood,” she jokes. Facetiming as he walks through Cambridge Square, Dominique says coming home to his family’s warm, buzzing pad is a cherished refuge from the pressures of college: “For me, it’s almost like a resort vacation.”
“Heather and Will are all about family and the kids,” says Zach. It’s one reason that, though he keeps an apartment in L.A., Will’s home remains in Atlanta. “The people here aren’t jaded,” he says. “I grew up in the South. I think it’s great for family.”
This article originally appeared in our Spring 2017 issue of Atlanta Magazine’s HOME.
What does the rural South look like? The region’s popular image is colored by Deliverance-style stereotypes and misconceptions. But 15 years ago, Christine Curry—a clinical social worker and bookstore owner in Zebulon, Georgia—realized that the area was in danger of having its true character erased. A transplant who grew up in Chicago and New York before settling in Zebulon in 1991, Curry and her neighbors “were seeing our beautiful pastures and woodlands turned into subdivisions,” she says. “We wanted to get people to look at the land and see what was at risk.”
To celebrate and preserve the character of the small Pike County town—about 45 miles south of Atlanta—and others like it, they launched SlowExposures (September 15-18), a four-day fine art photography exhibition that showcases the complexity of the rural South. The vibe is fittingly folksy: Volunteers open up their homes to participating photographers, the woman who hangs the artwork is a retired office manager with a fantastic eye, and the local sheriff is a regular attendee who does extra security checks at participating venues. The juried show has also built prestige. Last year SlowExposures won a Governor’s Award for the Arts and Humanities alongside Savannah’s Telfair Museums and the Alliance’s Susan Booth.
Despite the rural setting and theme, the exhibition images depict more than just crumbling barns, bucolic pastures, and rheumy-eyed old timers. There are also stunning portraits of transgendered Southerners, diverse young people, and idiosyncratic domestic spaces stamped by the obsessions of their unseen occupants. Many of the photographs lend an air of mystery, intensifying a feeling that here is where the real stories live.
Among the images displayed last year
Photographs courtesy of the artists
This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.
Since 1961, Atlanta magazine, the city’s premier general interest publication, has served as the authority on Atlanta, providing its readers with a mix of long-form nonfiction, lively lifestyle coverage, in-depth service journalism, and literary essays, columns, and profiles.