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Stephanie Minor

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Atlanta Ballet’s Wabi Sabi finds beauty in the natural world

Photograph by Jonah Hooper
Photograph by Jonah Hooper

Traditional ballet is rooted in artifice—elaborate costumes, stylized scenery, and formalized movement. Wabi Sabi, Atlanta Ballet’s company-within-a-company, creates innovative performances inspired by the natural world, with all its surprises and flaws. Started by dancer John Welker four years ago, the series—in which young choreographers create original pieces performed in unorthodox settings—takes its name from a Japanese Buddhist term for finding beauty in nature. “Those things that make you special are actually imperfections,” says Welker, a twenty-year veteran of the Ballet. “I thought something that embraced the uniqueness of ourselves was quite wonderful.”

A performance in the Atlanta Botanical Garden wraps up the 2014 series, which has included live music, a longer season, and, for the first time, shows performed on the road in venues such as the historic gym in Sautee Nacoochee, Georgia, and the Lancaster Festival in Ohio.

Wabi Sabi, September 18, Atlanta Botanical Garden, atlantaballet.com

This article originally appeared in out September 2014 issue under the headline “Naturally Perfect.”

Scene change: The Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s new venue

Back in 2007, the Atlanta Lyric Theatre left its Georgia Tech home for Marietta’s Strand Theatre, and then the Cobb Civic Center. In its latest move, the Lyric has purchased Theatre on the Square’s black-box performance space in a onetime alley. The venue allows for cabaret-style performances; musical theater experiments; and a space for the Junior Lyric, its educational arm. The company now can “fully realize our mission—mixing quality performances and educational outreach,” says managing artistic director Brandt Blocker.

Meanwhile an ambitious thirty-fifth season is underway, showcasing the Lyric’s dancing prowess in productions like Chicago.

This article originally appeared in our September 2014 issue.

Just what’s inside that giant arch in Atlantic Station?

Nestled amid apartment complexes on Seventeenth Street, the seven-story, 100-foot Millennium Gate is hard to miss but easy to whiz by. Many Atlantans assume the Roman-inspired arch, erected in 2008, is just another decorative element of Atlantic Station, the mini-city built on the site of an old steel mill. But the monumental structure houses a 12,000-square-foot museum that pays tribute to Georgia history and Atlanta’s founding families.

The arch is the pet project of Rodney Mims Cook Jr., whose local pedigree extends back to the 1830s—before Atlanta’s founding as a railway terminus. The museum (open weekdays; adult admission $10) exhibits sixteenth-century artifacts from Spanish colonies in South Georgia and Florida, as well as treasures such as the original contents of a parlor in historic Rhodes Hall. Chapters of state history—the founding of Savannah, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement, for instance—are depicted on tapestries. The final exhibit is a panoramic layout of Atlanta. Created in collaboration with Georgia Tech’s interactive media department, the display uses gaming sensors to let visitors toggle between more than 5,000 “then and now” images.

Cook asserts the museum is intended to provide an aspirational message. “We keep saying we’re a young city,” Cook says, “but we’re not.”

This article originally appeared in our January 2014 issue under the headline “Monumental Aspirations.”

Just what is that tower in the Old Fourth Ward?

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If you’ve found yourself in the Old Fourth Ward—maybe strolling up Irwin Street toward Bell Street Burritos or heading down the Atlanta BeltLine to Studioplex—you’ve undoubtedly spotted that giant concrete tower. And you’ve wondered, Just what is that? Or, more intriguingly, Does anyone live in there?

Here’s the answer to the first question: More than a century ago, that tower was the tallest structure in the neighborhood. In the early 1900s, Atlantic Compress Company commissioned Piedmont Construction to erect a water tank that would accompany the cotton compress factory next door. Completed in 1906, the tower was crafted of a watertight mixture of concrete, mortar, Trinidad asphalt, and gasoline. According to Fourth Ward Neighbors president Matt Garbett, the tower was a “carefully engineered” sprinkler system that exploited gravitational forces. If the factory caught on fire (as it did in 1916), the structure could spew water from the 100,000-gallon tank that engineer H.H. Johnson had balanced in a cylinder 100 feet above ground.

As to the second question: Sadly, there’s no secret clubhouse or artist’s atelier tucked inside the turret. It’s vacant, and the tank no longer holds water. Back in 2009, the tower’s interior served as the backdrop for a video installation during Atlanta Celebrates Photography. Now the structure is owned by the Historic District Development Corporation, which has preserved much of Sweet Auburn and the Old Fourth Ward.

Would grocery shopping with a nutritionist help people eat healthier?

Kristina Lewis, a medical researcher with Kaiser Permanente of Georgia, snagged one of the inaugural awards from the New York Academy of Sciences’ Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science. Lewis, a practicing doctor as well as researcher, hypothesizes that information doesn’t translate from nutritionist to patient, rendering the benefits of seeing a dietician “minimal.” Instead, she has a proposition: Patients might change their eating habits if their sessions with nutritionists were conducted in grocery stores rather than clinical consulting rooms. Thanks to her $50,000 Sackler grant, she’s testing this theory in a study. In the meantime, we asked her to weigh in on supersize sodas and the economics of nutrition.

Why might shopping with a dietician be better than visiting her office? This study’s purpose is to test if nutritional advice in context is more effective. Think of it in terms of exercise: If I wanted you to become more physically fit, would you be more likely to exercise if I sent you to work out with a trainer in a gym or if I had you meet the trainer in my office to talk about going to the gym and look at pictures of equipment? The latter may not be the best method to modify behavior. I see nutrition advice in the same light. I want to go where people make food-purchasing decisions—the store—the same way you teach someone to exercise in the gym, to determine whether delivering advice at the point of food purchasing will help patients learn better and become more likely to follow that advice.

What made you specialize in obesity research? I went to medical school in New Orleans; that’s where I really started becoming interested in obesity. People struggled, and the food environment was so bad. How can someone change behavior when the whole environment around them is set up to fail?

What are environmental determinants of obesity? They vary by location. Extensive research has been done on the “built environment.” Are there parks? Is it safe? Is there access to healthy food? Another layer is the culture around eating. Finally, policy: How do we legislate what’s in our food supply?

On policy, what about sugary drinks? There are people who think sugar-sweetened beverages are the major contributor to the obesity epidemic. I’m not sure we know enough to say that, but certainly a daily large sugar-sweetened beverage is not a good thing for people trying to lose weight.

Has the recession contributed to obesity? It’s possible. Healthy food tends to be more expensive. That said, a factor contributing significantly is we eat most of our meals out.

This article originally appeared in our August 2013 issue.

A biomedical breakthrough could quicken the clotting process

Researchers at Georgia Tech have engineered “designer” blood clots—artificial platelets that could enhance the body’s natural clotting process and mitigate painful scarring. In animal trials, the platelets reduced clotting time by 30 percent. The clots offer particular potential for battlefront use; an injured soldier could inject the freeze-dried synthetic material on the field, using a device the size of an iPhone.

Dr. Thomas Barker, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech, runs the Matrix Biology and Engineering Lab, which developed the platelets. We asked him for a crash course in matrix biology.

What does your lab focus on? We study the development of embryonic tissues—in particular, the role of the extracellular matrix (ECM) in the process of tissue development. More recently—in the last two decades or so—there’s been a greater appreciation of the fact that this structural network plays an important biochemical role.

For those who aren’t biologically inclined: What’s an extracellular matrix? All of the stuff outside of an individual cell. What’s holding the cells together is an entity, a combination of fibrillar structures—think of cables that are holding things together and springs that are pushing things apart.

Can you describe the clotting process in layman’s terms? Whenever a surgeon makes an incision, or I cut myself out in the yard, the body triggers what’s called a clotting cascade. Then the body deposits the protein fibrin [part of the extracellular matrix] in the wound. Fibrin plus platelets form a clot, and the bleeding slows.

How did your clotting research begin? When we created the synthetic platelets, we were trying to do something completely different: combine two polymers [complex molecular chains] together for wound repair. But the polymers acted like platelets. I tell people we tripped over a diamond.

What’s your ultimate goal? Our metric for success is to have a product in clinical trials in three to five years and, ultimately, a commercially available product for bleeding disorders.

Are there potential side effects? We evolved antibodies to bind with one form of fibrin—specifically the polymerized form. This is important because precursor fibrin circulates in your body right now. If our device triggers the clotting system prematurely, all the blood in your body will clot—we would have made really expensive snake venom. Also, we don’t know how long the artificial platelets will circulate through your body, potentially causing heart attacks and strokes. We angle our research toward military applications because of the side effects. If your patient population is wounded soldiers eight to ten hours from seeing a physician, it becomes easier to use a product like this—knowing there may be adverse side effects—when death is inevitable otherwise.

This article originally appeared in our June 2013 issue.

Dedication of the Georgia Capitol

The dedication of Georgia’s new Capitol on July 4, 1889 was an exercise in mixed metaphors. The ceremony, a grand legislative procession from the lawmakers’ temporary digs in an opera house on Marietta Street to the gilded edifice six blocks away, was carefully staged to symbolize democracy as an institution. According to a reporter from the Atlanta Constitution, the Georgia General Assembly members “walked deliberately and quietly, unattended by any flourish of trumpets. It was democratic simplicity personified in the representatives of the people.” And it is with this image of democracy—easily emphasized by the Greco-Roman architecture of the Capitol building—that we encounter the dedication ceremony’s first blundering paradox: amid the over 200 members of the procession, there was only one African American.

The sole black participant in the procession was Samuel A. McIver, a House representative from Liberty County. In 1889, African Americans accounted for almost 45 percent of Georgia’s population, yet were consistently barred from the political process through official state policies and ballot-box discrimination.

Governor John B. Gordon—living representation of the Confederacy and leader of Georgia’s Ku Klux Klan—waited patiently at the Capitol for assembly members to arrive. With a flair of dramatic irony, McIver marched toward Gordon, a man who used both legislative and violent means to deny African Americans participation in democracy.

The procession’s interaction with the Capitol’s architectural elements was also symbolic. For instance, the building itself rested atop a hill, and according to a passage in Democracy Restored: A History of the Georgia State Capitol, the forced upward movement of the procession was “an important feature—common to temple design—that signaled the movement from ordinary activities of daily life to extraordinary duties of civic endeavor.”

As the members of the democratic parade ascended the stairs and strode through the Capitol’s west entrance, they passed below sculptures of men and women, each personifying a democratic ideal. The female forms represented liberty, commerce, and prosperity, but in Georgia, an 1889 constitutional amendment denied women the right to vote. And unlike McIver, no women were represented in the Georgia General Assembly. The first female members of the statehouse weren’t elected until 1922.

Gordon and his legislative procession more aptly highlighted Georgia’s racial and gender disparities in political representation. On July 4, they displayed their own version of democracy, an institution where all white men were created equally.

The Olympics open to grand fanfare

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The evening of July 19, 1996, was the culmination of Atlanta’s civic leaders’ desires to catapult the city into the international limelight and (hopefully) transform it into a relevant, vibrant hub of tourism and commerce.

According to reports from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the ceremony that boasted an in-house crowd of more than 80,000 and a television audience of 3.5 billion “opened with a burst of pageantry and song.”

Olympic gold-medalist Janet Evans passed the torch to boxing phenom Muhammad Ali in a riveting exchange that elicited wild cheers from the audience. Trembling yet determined, Ali lit the fuse and the flame zipped up a wire to ignite the caldron. Children sang and danced. Fireworks exploded. Gladys Knight performed an emotional (albeit predictable) rendition of “Georgia On My Mind.” An audio recording of Martin Luther Kings’ “I Have a Dream” speech coursed throughout the stadium, and enormous silhouette projections of Greek athletes flitted about on curtains. Truly, this centennial ceremony saluted both Olympic history and Southern heritage. After all, dancers held up placards that read, “How Y’all Doin!”

This was an unforgettable moment in the city’s history—filled with Southern hospitality, international camaraderie, and palpable electricity. Of course, this was well before a pipe bomb planted by Eric Rudolph exploded in Centennial Olympic Park.

“With the international onslaught, the city was vibrating with excitement,” recalls Maureen Downey, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and longtime reporter for the AJC. “It was Carnival and the Super Bowl all wrapped up in one.”

For some foreign journalists, however, the opening ceremony marked the zenith of the ’96 games. Perhaps the aspirations of mayor Andrew Young and Atlanta Olympics chief executive officer Billy Payne surpassed the city’s logistical capabilities when they snagged the bid in 1990.

Members of the international press corps encountered transportation issues, for example, and a few of their buses broke down. As a result, many journalists were late to, or completely missed, athletic events. In a 1997 article in the New York Times, Lyn May, the former director of communications for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, offered her opinion about the bad press the city received.

“That was colored by [the reporters’] self centered need to be coddled,” May said. “As a result, Atlanta ended up with a less glowing image than we would have hoped.”

When asked about the ’96 Olympics less-than-stellar reviews, Downey found that, while the athletic facilities and sports events themselves typically received a favorable response, the poor press was probably influenced by Atlanta’s “flea market atmosphere.”

“In attempts to make money and lease space, Mayor Bill Campbell and the Atlanta Olympics committee had little discretion in terms of the vendors,” Downey said. “The city handled street space poorly . . . For people who only attended one or two events and were there for the street life, vendors hocking junk was a detriment.”

But regardless of reports (both good and bad) and the fact that, according to Downey, Atlanta failed to transform into the bustling city center she’d hoped for, the 1996 Olympic games had an irrefutable impact on Atlanta’s infrastructure and business profile. Pedestrian environments improved thanks to repaved sidewalks, new signage, public art, newly planted trees, and improved lighting. The Techwood Homes housing project was converted into mixed-income housing and dormitories. Olympic stadium became the new home of the Braves, and Centennial Olympic Park added green space and enticed both commercial and residential investors.

Back in 1996 at the opening ceremony, Atlanta-born Suzy Wilner described her dreams for the city’s foray into the international spotlight to a reporter from the AJC.

“With everybody’s eyes on Atlanta, I just hope they see Atlanta as a great place to come and visit,” Wilner said.

And for the most part, they did.

Dedication of the Gold Dome

The dedication of Georgia’s new Capitol on July 4, 1889 was an exercise in mixed metaphors. The ceremony, a grand legislative procession from the lawmakers’ temporary digs in an opera house on Marietta Street to the gilded edifice six blocks away, was carefully staged to symbolize democracy as an institution. According to a reporter from the Atlanta Constitution, the Georgia General Assembly members “walked deliberately and quietly, unattended by any flourish of trumpets. It was democratic simplicity personified in the representatives of the people.” And it is with this image of democracy—easily emphasized by the Greco-Roman architecture of the Capitol building—that we encounter the dedication ceremony’s first blundering paradox: amid the over 200 members of the procession, there was only one African American.

The sole black participant in the procession was Samuel A. McIver, a House representative from Liberty County. In 1889, African Americans accounted for almost 45 percent of Georgia’s population, yet were consistently barred from the political process through official state policies and ballot-box discrimination.

Governor John B. Gordon—living representation of the Confederacy and leader of Georgia’s Ku Klux Klan—waited patiently at the Capitol for assembly members to arrive. With a flair of dramatic irony, McIver marched toward Gordon, a man who used both legislative and violent means to deny African Americans participation in democracy.

The procession’s interaction with the Capitol’s architectural elements was also symbolic. For instance, the building itself rested atop a hill, and according to a passage in Democracy Restored: A History of the Georgia State Capitol, the forced upward movement of the procession was “an important feature—common to temple design—that signaled the movement from ordinary activities of daily life to extraordinary duties of civic endeavor.”

As the members of the democratic parade ascended the stairs and strode through the Capitol’s west entrance, they passed below sculptures of men and women, each personifying a democratic ideal. The female forms represented liberty, commerce, and prosperity, but in Georgia, an 1889 constitutional amendment denied women the right to vote. And unlike McIver, no women were represented in the Georgia General Assembly. The first female members of the statehouse weren’t elected until 1922.

Gordon and his legislative procession more aptly highlighted Georgia’s racial and gender disparities in political representation. On July 4, they displayed their own version of democracy, an institution where all white men were created equally.

Photograph: Georgia Capitol circa 1940, courtesy Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library

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