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When Erin Swenson transitioned in the 90s, a close vote kept her ordained as Presbyterian minister. Her new podcast tells her story.

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Erin Swenson
Erin Swenson

Photograph courtesy of Erin Swenson

In sixth grade, Erin Swenson was home alone and placed tissue under a shirt to simulate the feeling of having breasts. “A feeling washed over me, it was a blend of awe, desire, fear, and then shame. Something clicked, and it would follow me every day for decades,” she says in the first episode of her podcast, So Much More than Gender. Launched in August, Swenson tells the story of growing up transgender in the 1950s, becoming a Presbyterian minister and therapist, and fighting to keep her ordainment when she transitioned in the 1990s. Now, Swenson is retired from the ministry, but still practices once a week as a marriage and family therapist. We spoke to Swenson about the podcast, her journey, and ways for LGBTQ+ people to cope in this volatile political environment.

What made you want to tell your story on a podcast?
While going through my transition 25 years ago, I spent a few years unemployed on and off, so I thought I’d employ myself and write a book. Later, I rewrote the book, but I’ve never been able to really publish it. Someone in my writer’s group suggested I start a podcast. I thought that sounded easier because I love public speaking. 

How have you adapted to going from preaching to podcasting?
My preaching style has always been intimate. When I gave sermons across the country or as an interim pastor, they were almost always built out of my own personal experience. I preached mostly about struggle and trying to understand what life is about and what the gospel really means. It wasn’t really fundamentalist. The podcast fits into that genre a little bit better.

Who would you say the podcast is for?
I really would like to reach people who have some curiosity about transgender experience but don’t have access to it. The podcast can provide an avenue for them to become a little more acquainted to what it’s actually like to be transgender. For transgender people, our lives are often full of obsession over gender. When we find the courage or strength to transition, gender shrinks back to its proper place and isn’t an overwhelming thing anymore. It becomes simply an aspect of life and not a daily obsession.

Has the podcast made you reflect on your life in new ways?
I’m beginning to understand things I struggled with that I wasn’t so aware of at the time. One of the things has been the idea of who God is. For me, God has moved a long way from being a benevolent benefactor of the universe to being more personal and woven into dynamics of human relationships so that God is more like love than anything else.

As a child, I saw myself as transgender kid struggling with how other people could love me as I really am. So I maintained my gender as a secret throughout all of my childhood and adolescence and into my adulthood. My ex-wife, Sigrid, became privy to it years into our marriage, and it wasn’t anything I talked to her about until late into the process. One of the things I discovered throughout transition is I could trust people to love me. People loved me because I was smart or I was accomplished: I earned four degrees, I built a sailboat, I learned to fly, and I did some work in the legislature. [But] they really were not accomplishments; they were compensations. The real thing I’ve managed to accomplish is to understand what it is to love and be loved, and that’s been worth every bit of the pain.

Many LGBTQ+ people can find the church alienating. What solace did you find in the Presbyterian Church?
The church was always my place, and I’ve never lost that feeling even when there were lots of people in the church who wanted me gone. I’ve always known people in the Christian church in my corner of the religious world are absolutely wrong when they talk about excluding LGBTQ+ people from fellowship.

I was luckier than my colleagues who are gay and lesbian in that the church didn’t have anything to say about being transgender. I could kind of ignore what I thought the church might be thinking about that. My ministry for the past 40 years has been a counseling ministry. Before I transitioned, I was working really hard with people to come to acceptance and to live more authentically while I knew I was doing anything but.

Was there a moment that made you realize you had to transition?
I had done a lot of things to try to cope with myself with busyness and accomplishments. But my depression was getting worse and worse as I got older. Sigrid told me she would be leaving me as soon as kids were out of the house. It wasn’t that she didn’t love me or had anyone else, but it was that my depression was killing her soul. When you have someone tell you that, it’s so heart-rending. That was the frame of what was about to happen.

One morning, Sigrid came into the bathroom while I was getting our younger daughter ready for school and mentioned she had to stop taking the estrogen pills her doctor put her on for menopause and was going to leave them in the medicine cabinet. I couldn’t help but look, and I knew they were the pills that transgender people use to transition, so I started stealing those pills one at a time. Almost immediately my depression lifted. I started cooking up a scheme to forge prescriptions to get hormones for myself. Then I woke up one morning and realized I was about to commit a felony. My license to practice counseling would’ve been suspended so my livelihood would’ve been taken away immediately. I realized I had been lying my whole life. I was just fed up. That was the day I started doing all kinds of things differently. I called a doctor in Baltimore who I knew was a worldwide expert in transgender people and started seeing a therapist. In my entire life, I had never planned to transition, but after a month, I knew I needed to. Had I known how hard it would be, I probably would not have done it. But if I had known how hard it would be and not done it, it would’ve been the worst mistake of my life.

When you transitioned, what made you want to stay ordained?
I had been ordained for well over 20 years, and my call didn’t really require me being ordained to feel like I was part of the church’s work in the world. The problem was my health insurance was tied to ordination and under my previous name. As a self-employed counselor with a severely disabled child whose medical expenses were typically hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, to lose [my insurance] would be an economic disaster. My committee tried to change my name with the presbytery and, of course, conservative members wanted nothing to do with it and said it needed further review. My committee finally came to me and asked if I would be okay if they could find a way to insure me and my daughter for the rest of our lives without my ordination.

At the same time, I met this transgender woman who called me up right after the first newspaper story about this. We had a wonderful breakfast together, and she told me about her life and getting involved in a Presbyterian church right next to her retirement community. I had never met another transgender Presbyterian at that point. She said, “I didn’t think God wanted me to join the church because of who I am, because of what I am. That’s why when I saw a newspaper article about a Presbyterian minister who was like me, I just had to meet you.” It was an experience filled with grace. There I was witnessing with her that church was in fact a place for her, and there she was witnessing I did have a call to move on with my ministry. So I called up the committee and said I had to stay ordained. It was a big risk. The vote was close. If seven people had voted differently, I would’ve lost my ordination. 

As a therapist, how do you recommend LGBTQ+ people cope during this politically volatile time?
In my opinion, people are coping really well. Folks are finding new hobbies, like podcasting for me. Also being of service helps. We have a lot of people who come to Atlanta from other parts of country because they believe it’s some kind of oasis for transgender people to be in. While you love being considered a friendly place for your community, that also puts a lot of strain on it. I have several clients who struggle even in good times to survive because food and shelter are an almost daily fear, so pandemic makes it doubly hard for them. A lot of help is needed, and getting involved in programs like that is one way of coping. I’ve helped raise some money for the Trans Housing Atlanta Program.

Your top 10 questions about voting absentee in Georgia, answered

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How to do I request and submit an absentee ballot in Georgia?
A canvasser processes mail-in ballots in Maryland.

Photograph by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With a pandemic still surging and a presidential election on the horizon, it’s not a huge surprise that more than a million Georgia voters requested absentee ballots by mid-September. Although absentee voting has long been a part of Georgia elections and every registered voter is eligible for an absentee ballot, many will be using the method this year for the first time. Here’s how to request a ballot—yes, there’s still time—and how to ensure it gets counted.

Do I need a reason to request an absentee ballot?
No. You just need to be registered to vote in Georgia.

How do I apply for an absentee ballot?
Complete an application online (all you need is your county, state ID number, birth date, and legal name). Alternatively, you can fill out this PDF and return to your county board of registrars via mail, fax, or email. You will need to sign the PDF application, so make sure it matches the signature the state has on file on your ID. October 30 is the last day to request an absentee ballot, and if you do request a ballot that late, be prepared to put your ballot in a drop box, rather than send by mail, to ensure it arrives in time.

What if I never receive my absentee ballot in the mail?
Double-check the ballot tracker on the state’s My Voter Page to see where your ballot is in the process. If you’re still unsure, contact your county board of registrars to figure out if you have time to request another absentee ballot or if you should plan to vote in-person. If you do end up voting in-person, be sure to tell the poll worker that you never received your absentee ballot, so they can cancel your absentee ballot. If you still feel unsure about the process and want more guidance, you can call a voter protection hotline from voting advocacy groups like Fair Fight (888-730-5816) or the Election Protection coalition (866-OUR-VOTE).

When does my absentee ballot need to be returned by?
Despite some fighting in the courts, your ballot must be received by your county election office—not just postmarked—by the time the polls close on Election Day: 7 p.m. on November 3.

Can I trust the mail to return my ballot in time?
Yes, but expect delays. The United States Postal Service recommends you allow at least one week for delivery, which means your ballot should be postmarked by October 27 to hit Georgia’s Election Day deadline. Stamps are required, but technically USPS should deliver your ballot regardless of if you have the correct postage.

Can I drop my ballot off in person?
If you’d prefer not to use the mail or want to save money on stamps, you can drop off your ballot at one of your county’s drop boxes anytime before 7 p.m. on November 3. Here are dropbox locations for Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, and Gwinnett counties. Clayton County’s dropbox is located at Clayton County Board of Elections & Registration, 121 South McDonough Street, Jonesboro.

Drop boxes are arguably the most secure way to return your absentee ballot. They are nailed to the ground on government or county property, tamper-proof, and under 24-hour video surveillance. If you’re monitoring your absentee ballot status, note that the drop boxes are emptied every 72 hours.

How do I ensure my absentee ballot is counted?
You can use the My Voter Page to track the status of your ballot all the way from your request to the ballot’s acceptance. It’s like the Domino’s Pizza Tracker, but for politics.

What can disqualify my absentee ballot?
The biggest disqualification would be if the ballot is received after 7 p.m. on November 3. Beyond that, following instructions is key: Make sure to fill in the bubbles completely with black or blue ink. Check marks or Xs cannot be read by the scanner. Then insert your ballot in the oath and privacy envelope and sign that before you put it in the outer envelope. Many absentee ballots are rejected because of a failure to sign the envelope.

What happens if my ballot is rejected before Election Day?
Don’t panic. Your county board of registrars should contact you to “cure,” or correct your ballot envelope. This is why it’s vital to return your ballot as early as possible to handle any hiccups that come up before Election Day.

I changed my mind; can I still vote in person?
If your absentee ballot has been accepted, it counts as your vote for the election and any attempt to vote again is considered voter fraud. But if you haven’t yet submitted your absentee ballot, you can still vote in person. Just bring your absentee ballot to your polling place and hand it to a poll worker, who will cancel your absentee ballot and allow you to vote in person.

Atlanta needs its gay bars now more than ever

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Atlanta needs its gay bars now more than ever
Revelers at leather bar the Eagle in 2015, six years after an infamous police raid

Photograph by Alli Royce Soble

Art Smith’s first Atlanta gay bar experience was when he danced in the new year at Backstreet during a weekend getaway at the end of 1982. “We were so overwhelmed by the feeling of inclusion and energy in the gay scene,” says Smith, who lived with his boyfriend in Nashville at the time. They decided the next day to move to Atlanta.

When Smith first discovered Atlanta’s gay nightlife, the scene was booming with dozens of places to drink, dance, and watch drag. Back then, those were the only places where he could comfortably hang out and be himself.

“We were still not really out as a society, even in the 1990s,” says Alli Royce Soble, a mixed-media artist and queer documentary photographer. “Gay bars felt like a safe space to open up the possibility of figuring out who you were.” Doug Craft, a bartender at Blake’s on the Park for 30 years, says the purpose of a gay bar transcends mere socializing: “I’ve felt like a counselor who helped others make the transition into self-acceptance.”

In the 1990s, lesbians counted the Otherside Lounge and Revolution as mainstays, and the Black gay crowd frequented the likes of Bulldogs. But almost everyone ended their nights at the Armory, Backstreet, and the Cove because they were open so late—or never closed. “We called it ‘doing your ABCs,’” says Mitch Grooms, a bartender at the Armory from 1987 to 2001.

“I’m not going to argue with the fact it was segregated, but Atlanta was and is the gay capital of the South, and so, you went to the bars that catered to what you liked,” says Reverend Duncan Teague, one of the first Black AIDS outreach workers for AID Atlanta. Even the drag shows, past and present, have been fashioned to appeal to specific subcultures: classic pageant in Midtown and more alternative in East Atlanta. “The South has always had a particular style that’s very glam: big hair, jewelry,” says Future Lounge entertainment director Phoenix (who goes by only his first name). “Then, there’s a new wave that is a little more artistic and free.”

Yet as queer culture has gone mainstream enough for the crosswalk near Blake’s to be repainted as a rainbow, the gay bar scene in the city and nationwide has contracted. In the 1970s, there were 2,500 gay bars across the country; today, there are half as many. And gay nightlife is now further imperiled by the threat all bars face as a result of the pandemic. While the AIDS crisis brought the gay community and its bars together, COVID is driving them apart.

At the height of AIDS, Grooms remembers attending up to five funerals a week—followed by benefits at the bars. “It was a horrible moment, but the gay community really got together and gave what they could,” he says. The dance floor became a place to escape the grief. “When I started with AID Atlanta, the HIV test wasn’t even out, so we just thought most of us were positive,” Teague says. “We were losing people and dancing to save our lives.”

The 1990s brought antiretroviral therapy for HIV and a population boom to Atlanta, but nothing in that era affected the gay bars more than online dating. “Almost overnight, everything changed,” says Alan Collins, the manager of gay bar the Heretic. “You could find, chat, and hook up with guys without leaving your house.”

Atlanta needs its gay bars now more than ever
Jungle was forced to shut down in 2017, a casualty of gentrification.

Photograph by Alli Royce Soble

The scene’s more recent loss of bars can’t be blamed on one thing but many: Rising rents and gentrification shut down many bars, including influential Cheshire Bridge Road club Jungle in 2017. Burkhart’s closed in early 2018, after it was boycotted following accusations of racism. By the time same-sex marriage was legalized in 2015, many wondered whether the very nature and definition of gay bars needed to expand. “Nineties queer nightlife is different from 2000s nightlife and what we have today,” says Taylor Alxndr, who founded Southern Fried Queer Pride, a nonprofit centered on Black and brown trans youth. “Having a bar specifically for cisgender gay men is still important, but people are looking for more inclusive spaces now.”

The lines that had once defined gay bars are blurring. “When I go to a bar, I don’t want to see one type of anything,” says Jon Dean, the event producer and founder of queer magazine Wussy, which often stages shows at bars such as My Sister’s Room, a lesbian bar where all are welcome. “We try to do parties that will be inviting to all different types of gender expression and sexuality.”

My Sister’s Room has stayed afloat after 24 years and four moves largely because of its inclusive philosophy and its willingness to experiment with events. “We’re a lesbian bar and we’re lesbian-owned, but we’re a space for everybody,” says Jen Maguire, who co-owns the bar with her wife, Jami Seiden. Comedian Kia Barnes, who encountered homophobia at other bars, was grateful to be able to bring her stand-up shows to MSR: “Queer bars provide a safe space and a platform for queer artists to shine and for us to actually have a community.”

Atlanta needs its gay bars now more than ever
Jen Maguire and Jami Seiden, her wife, co-own My Sister’s Room, which has been open for 24 years.

Photograph by Peyton Fulford

Other members of the queer community have yet to see themselves reflected in the bar scene. When Alxndr was coming into their gender identity, they couldn’t find a welcoming place for queer and trans people of color in the arts. “My group of friends is drag performers and sex workers, and we didn’t see a space that honored us where we could thrive,” they say. Southern Fried Queer Pride now puts on events across the city with the aim of eventually opening a venue of its own.

These days, gay bars must adapt not only to cultural shifts but to the immense challenges posed by the coronavirus. No one is operating at capacity, and everyone is struggling. “Business is down 80 percent,” says Collins of the Heretic. “Like many other businesses, if we have to shut down again, we won’t survive.” Blake’s is requiring temperature checks of patrons to help curb the potential spread of the virus, and My Sister’s Room is selling takeout taco kits to offset the loss of bar business. At Mary’s in East Atlanta Village, patrons must buy an advance ticket for a time slot, and occupancy is capped at 18 people. “If you want, you can ‘buy out the bar’ for just you and your friends,” its website states—in which case “you can establish additional rules for your group to follow (e.g. masks required, pants not).”

Staying open is not just about the bars’ survival but the survival of their customers, says Mary’s manager Lindsey Riviere. “We’re focused on giving people some relief.”

Regardless of how the scene shifts and the pandemic persists, queer spaces will remain a necessity, as Phoenix points out: “No matter how mainstream queer or drag culture is, we always need a place to go that’s ours, a place where we know we’re all safe behind those walls.”

This article appears in our October 2020 issue.

Midden Treasure: Uncovering Jekyll Island’s Past in What’s Left Behind

Illustration by Steven Noble

What’s disposed of, lost, or left behind can explain a lot about a society. Archaeologists have discovered as much in Jekyll Island’s middens, heaps of long-ago tossed-out kitchen scraps, seashells and other buried treasures scattered around the island.

Each midden is a tapestry revealing how the Guale and Mocama tribes ate, worshipped, lived, and eventually moved on after their arrival on Jekyll around 2500 B.C. An example: Oysters and mollusks always have been a culinary staple of islanders. Now, their shells have become part of the walls of the dozens of middens found on the island. Bird, fish, and deer bones found in the middens’ depths help to explain the island inhabitants’ well-rounded diet. Maybe the most insightful find in middens: Traces of pollen, which help determine what was blooming in each bygone season.

Excavators under the supervision of anthropologist Ray Crook of the University of West Georgia uncover a midden on Jekyll in the late 1990s.

Photograph courtesy of Mosaic, Jekyll Island Museum

The middens also show evidence of cooking, proof that tribes were staying long enough to call Jekyll home. (Some of the oldest North American pottery is found on Jekyll. Sherds from broken cooking pots are found in middens.) Charcoal in middens—made of everything from nutshells to corn cobs—enables us to use radiocarbon dating to determine when tribes began to settle on the island. Each layer in a midden gives us insight into different time periods.

All of that rich history isn’t readily apparent, though. Uncovering the past takes skill and a good bit of patience. “Care must be exercised in excavating middens and recording the findings,” says Bruce Piatek, the Director of Historical Resources for the Jekyll Island Authority. “To unravel the story of who, what, where, and when, we need all the clues that are part of the midden: its location, artifacts, pollen samples, and other features.”

Like many Jekyll visitors today, Native Americans first came to the island for its favorable climate. They stayed for its easily traversed waterways and bountiful access to food. Eventually the Guale and Mocama settled here, as evidenced by the burial mound in front of Indian Mound Cottage.

That mound is part of a larger midden that encompasses the Historic District and shows the robust life that Native Americans once led here. The burial ground was discovered when the Rockefeller family, looking to improve the cottage’s view of the river, had part of the mound dug up.

“What we find in middens is the unwritten history of Jekyll Island,” Piatek says, “and parts of the story have yet to be told.”

LEARN MORE: Explore a midden through a hands-on exhibit at Mosaic, Jekyll Island Museum, and find what archaeologists have uncovered about Native American life on the Island.

Louder Than Words: Zuckerman Museum of Art’s newest exhibition spotlights artists who practice nonverbal communication

A woman quietly sits on a stage while audience members are invited, one by one, to pick up scissors and cut off pieces of her clothing. First performed in 1964 in Kyoto, the ambiguity of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece left it open to many interpretations, including a protest for peace and against the Vietnam War. More than a half century later, this symbol of the oppressed is just as relevant today—and the inspiration for the Zuckerman Museum of Art’s new exhibition, Louder than Words.

“These small gestures are a kind of protest in themselves, even when you don’t recognize it,” says Teresa Bramlette Reeves, the museum’s director of cultural affairs and curator of the show. “Simple things in life, like deciding not to vote for someone or not to show up for something, turn into private protest against a larger something.” With this in mind, she curated the exhibition to focus on 21 artists who practice nonverbal communication in all its forms, from protest or sign language to silent performance. Running from February 2 to May 5, Louder than Words features performances, sculptures, paintings, and video installations (including Ono’s Cut Piece), showing that a strong voice doesn’t necessarily need words. We chatted with three of the exhibition’s Atlanta-based artists about how their work fits with the theme:

Zuckerman Museum of Art silent art

Artist: Sarah Hobbs
Work: Keep Sake
Medium: Altered books
The private and obsessive nature of Victorian women’s scrapbooks, keepsakes filled with compulsively collected personal or political ephemera, inspired Hobbs’s work. She applies this to 66 scrapbooks, some made from fashion books with superimposed images of nature, to dramatize climate change. Each book takes as many as three hours to construct. “Overall, the effect is of a person very preoccupied and disturbed by the environment,” she says. “There’s also this hope that maybe these books will remind people to do something about climate change.”

What made you interested in the scrapbook form?
Victorian scrapbooks were mainly done by anonymous women as a pastime, but there’s this obsessive nature to them. They were probably constantly searching for material to put in their scrapbooks: books, cards, greeting cards, anything. The way they arranged the pages was quite beautiful, intricate, and, in many ways, very intelligent and unexpected.

Why did scrapbooks seem like the right medium to articulate environmental anxiety?
I was thinking about contemporary society and things that are frustrating. My work in general isn’t political, but I am very concerned about the environment. It’s hard to feel as an individual that you have a voice in the environment. You can vote and protest, but still, day to day, it feels like you’re running on a gerbil wheel.

In my work, in general, I deal with obsessiveness. I’ll bring two things together, like books and magazines that dealt directly with the environment and fashion books. I put images of what [society, including the fashion industry] is doing to the environment into the books. It looks beautiful at first, but if you look deeper, it looks very dark.

What do you hope viewers will take from this work?
Climate change is something that we all know is an issue, but there’s a part of this that feels sort of defeatist. There’s also this hope that maybe these books will be seen in other places. They’re reminders to do something, to try. I hope it will make a impression when people go to vote or make decisions about daily lives, that they can do something.

Zuckerman Museum of Art silent art

Artist: Geo Sipp
Work: Wolves in the City
Medium: Pencil drawings on glass and paper
Europe has a strong tradition of wordless storytelling through comics, a style Sipp used to create a graphic novel on the French-Algerian War, one of the first modern wars mounted by insurgents. Without words, a viewer is able to bring their own experience and interpretation to the 25 pieces in the exhibition. “Humans want to create order out of chaos, so this gives the audience more ownership to develop the story,” Sipp says.

What got you interested in this wordless comic form of storytelling?
Twentieth-century Europe has a strong tradition of storytelling through wordless novels and comics. The narrative is implied in the visual association of the book itself. We approach art from the perspective of our own experiences, and we bring those to the table anytime we experience an art event. I started scripting it with a full narrative but realized making it wordless would allow the audience to participate and create their own stories.

Why focus on the French-Algerian War?
I watched The Battle of Algiers, which was filmed immediately after the war with only one actor and real French soldiers. I find this type of cinema verité really fascinating. The French-Algerian War was one of the first that involved insurgents. Individuals, just as much as armies, participated in this door-to-door combat; it was very nasty. What we view on the nightly news now is all the same thing.

What was the research process like?
I had the story idea immediately. It’s about an American expat who flees a murder charge in Missouri and goes off to join the French Foreign Legion. It’s an adventure, war epic, love story. But the war is not a topic the French government likes to talk about. I went through archives, watched old film clips. I would freeze-frame these short films; then, print, expand in PhotoShop, and manipulate them on my computer; then, draw from there.

You’re also one the few people drawing on glass. How challenging is this medium?
Working on glass is a bit more ephemeral. It’s more about angles and telling the story in a more filmic way. I grain the glass with grit like one would grain a litho stone. It creates this milky, cloudy surface that light can pass through. Each piece takes two and a half weeks or 40 to 50 hours to draw because, in order to build up the richness and saturation of tones, I need a super-sharp pencil and must do it slowly. The pieces are 14×19 inches and reasonably heavy, but quite fragile. Looking at them is a very personal experience.

Zuckerman Museum of Art silent art

Artist: Dana Haugaard
Work: All Time is Past Time
Medium: Video Installation
Haugaard interrogates the truth of memory by fabricating it in built environments. To create this sensory sculpture, he placed a light bulb in the woods to attract moths and captured their movement and sound with video cameras, which he turned into vibrations viewers can experience through devices in the installation’s seating. “There’s this very Southern moment of sitting on the back porch just watching bugs; it’s a really nostalgic memory for me,” Haugaard says. “In this political climate, it’s easy to retreat to these happy moments, but they’re not always real and good.”

How would you characterize your work overall?
I do a lot of work that deals with sound, sensation, sensory memories; works that physically affect bodies to create a heightened sense of self-awareness in a place. I look at how those sensations can help create memories, because memory is a sensorial thing.

How did you develop this piece?
I ran a light bulb into the middle of woods, and under it, I set up very sensitive video cameras to capture moths and forest bugs flying at the light bulb. The microphone picks up air displacement as they approach this light bulb. I turn the audio signal into physical vibrations. It’s a 45-minute video of moths, and the seating I’m working on vibrates intensely in accordance to moth wings.

What do you hope the viewer takes from it?
It’s a sculpture about memory construction. Growing up in the South, there’s this very Southern moment sitting on the back porch just watching bugs. It’s a really nostalgic memory for me, but I’ve been thinking lately of how nostalgia and memory are all these constructed moments. In this political climate, it’s easy to retreat to these happy moments, but they’re not always real and not always good. Like, “Make America Great Again” is dangerously nostalgic for certain people. I am kind of flirting a line between making sensorial positive experiences that feel like something then snapping out with overstimulation and heightened moments. It’s nice to have comfort in these moments, but you can’t live in them, and you have to live in present moments and make decisions.

Running February 2 through May 5, Louder than Words includes performances, sculptures, paintings, and video installations.

This article appears in our February 2019 issue.

Meet Asshole Santa, the North Pole’s bad influence in East Atlanta

Asshole SantaAsshole Santa is coming to town, and he’s drinking Scotch, chain-smoking fake cigars, and ignoring whether you’re naughty or nice.

It started as a joke when Henry Owings offered to dress up as a sleazy Santa at Criminal Records in 2005 to raise money for pet-rescue charity Animal Action Rescue. The East Atlanta–based graphic designer, author, and record producer has harbored contempt for mall Santas since he worked at a greeting-card store right after college. “I have a general disdain for sentimental throwbacks,” he says. “You hate anybody whose job is one day a year.”

“It’s fun, and I don’t care if you like it.”

Wearing a $200 suit he bought at a costume shop, Owings sat through four hours of photo ops with kids and their parents who were in on the joke. After 13 years, Asshole Santa and his two elves are now an Atlanta holiday tradition in their own right, with nearly 800 people showing up and raising at least $1,000 for charity annually. (Though the event is usually in December, this year’s appearance by Asshole Santa will be on November 17 at East Atlanta’s 529 Bar and will benefit Olio, a local day camp to help kids experience nature in the city.)

Not everyone has appreciated the shtick. “I’ve had actual Santas think I’m being a heretic, but how am I disgracing the winter solstice by smelling like cologne and cigars?” he says. “As if charging $20 at a mall is more respectful. Give me a break.” All of Owings’s proceeds go directly to charity—and he even pays his own bar tab.

Over the years, Asshole Santa has perfected being a dirtbag. Owings prefers Glenlivet 18 and chugs two liters of Pedialyte afterward to prevent a hangover. And the suit has never been washed—for the authenticity. “I smell horrible, somewhere between a garbage can, cigars, and Brut cologne,” he says.

“It’s fun, and I don’t care if you like it.”

This article appears in our November 2018 issue.

In Knead, Atlanta actress Mary Lynn Owen tells her story through baking bread—literally

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Knead Alliance Theatre
Mary Lynn Owen stars in Knead, which opens at the Alliance Theatre on November 13.

Photograph by Greg Mooney

In 2014, local actress Mary Lynn Owen woke up from a dream where her house was filled with everything she’d ever lost: socks, acting jobs, people. She knew she had to write about it.

The result is the one-woman show Knead, premiering on the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage on November 13. The play follows a woman on the eve of a significant birthday as she contends with loss and makes bread in the middle of the night from her mother’s recipe—literally on stage.

Baking acts as a framework for staging such a personal story, with plot points organized around rise times.

“Mary Lynn always had this special relationship with bread because of her mother’s preoccupation with baking,” says director and friend David de Vries. “Baking bread in real time on stage is not easy, but it’s been a discipline and way to figure out the story.”

Knead Alliance Theatre
Mary Lynn Owen in Knead

Photograph by Greg Mooney

Bread is also a way to bring the protagonist’s loss to life. “Bread is like a life cycle: You start as a cell, then need to be punched down in adolescence, and have to start over again and shape yourself to rise again,” Owen says. Throughout the dough’s rises and falls, the character confronts her memories and how to move forward with her life.

To develop the show, the first-time playwright applied for the Reiser Atlanta Artists Lab, the Alliance Theatre’s $10,000-grant for development of new work and a chance to premiere at the theater. Artistic director Susan Booth knew she wanted to produce Knead after the first performance. “Mary Lynn is simply one of the most honest performers I’ve ever seen, and it turns out that her voice as a writer is every bit as authentic, vulnerable, and deeply moving,” Booth says.

Although the story is very personal, Owen believes sharing stories and bread—she bakes four loaves for the audience during the show—is vital. “Right now, there is a need for all of us to sit next to each other and break some bread, tell some stories, and look across the table and see each other as family.”

Doris Ulmann’s photography aimed to preserve disappearing cultures in the Southeast

Doris UlmannAt the turn of the 20th century, the Gullah and Appalachian communities that made the Southeast so distinct were beginning to disappear. Photographer Doris Ulmann traveled across the region to preserve these cultures, capturing thousands of portraits before Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans ever set out.

Despite her groundbreaking documentary photography, the affluent Ulmann was considered an eccentric who never gained the reputation of her contemporaries. From August through November, the Georgia Museum of Art is hosting the first complete retrospective of Ulmann’s work, Vernacular Modernism: The Photography of Doris Ulmann.

Doris UlmannDoris Ulmann

The exhibition features 115 portraits over Ulmann’s career, from abstract images of hands she explored as a student to portraits of famous figures like Albert Einstein to her travel photography in lowcountry plantations, Appalachian Mountain communities, and other homesteads throughout the Southeast. “She wasn’t coming in as a social reformer, but saying, ‘Here’s a community of interest that might be disappearing that I will record for posterity,’” says Sarah Kate Gillespie, GMOA’s curator of American art. “These are incredibly nuanced, sensitive portraits.”

Throughout her 16-year career, Ulmann’s style evolved from artily abstract pictorialism to more modern documentary, but throughout, she maintained a strong eye for contrast that makes her work striking and dynamic today.

See Ulmann’s photos up close
Vernacular Modernism: The Photography of Doris Ulmann runs from August 18 to November 18 at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens. Free admission. georgiamuseum.org

This article appears in our August 2018 issue.

7 Atlanta home and garden events to see this summer

Atlanta Magazine's HOME Modern Style Showhouses

Modern Style Showhouses
June 2-24
Atlanta Magazine’s HOME teamed up with Intown Builders and Xmetrical architecture firm on a pair of cutting-edge contemporary homes in the Old Fourth Ward. Get inspired by the city’s top designers—both established and emerging—and cool, layered furnishings that signal what modern design means now in Atlanta. atlantamagazine.com/modernstyle

Roswell Lavender Festival
June 9
Fragrant lavender blooms all over the Barrington Hall estate thanks to Evelyn Simpson, a descendant of Roswell founder Barrington King. The festival honors her legacy and the herb with demos on the varieties, folk remedies, and lavender-infused food. Also check out children’s crafts and storytelling, yoga and meditation, food trucks, fairy house building, 75 craft vendors, and local folk musicians Davin McCoy and Michael Zaib. roswellgov.com

Virginia-Highland Summerfest
June 9-10
Celebrate summer with a Peachtree Road Race qualifier 5K, food trucks, live bands, and a juried art fair featuring more than 250 artists specializing in a wide variety of media, in one of Atlanta’s original streetcar suburbs. vahi.org

Historic West End Tour of Homes
June 23
With the opening of the Atlanta BeltLine Westside Trail, this 19th-century neighborhood is hotter than ever. Tour 10 restored dwellings; wander the former home of writer Joel Chandler Harris, the Wren’s Nest; and visit African American art museum Hammonds House during this evening event. Historians are on site at some locations to tell the district’s storied past. wendevents.ticketleap.com

Flying Colors Butterfly Festival
Flying Colors Butterfly Festival

Photograph courtesy of Chattahoochee Nature Center

Butterfly Festival
August 18
Butterflies pack three tents at the Dunwoody Nature Center. But they aren’t the only winged creatures on display; also enjoy the birds of prey show. dunwoodynature.org

Grant Park Summer Shade Festival
Grant Park Summer Shade Festival

Photograph by Fabian Fernandez

Grant Park Summer Shade Festival
August 25-26
Say goodbye to the summer at the 16th year of this event, the annual fundraiser for the Grant Park Conservancy in Atlanta’s oldest park. Start the day with a 5K, check out a 200-plus artists market in the afternoons, and hear live music from the likes of Ruby Velle & the Soulphonics and Blair Crimmins. Little ones can hit up the kids zone to enjoy performances, crafts, and storytelling throughout the weekend. summershadefestival.org

Atlanta History Center’s Seeking Eden photo exhibit
Atlanta History Center’s Seeking Eden photo exhibit

Photograph courtesy of Jim Lockhart/Atlanta History Center

Seeking Eden: A Collection of Georgia’s Historic Gardens
Through December 31
Garden design in Atlanta has been blossoming since the late 19th century. A new book and exhibition of the same name explore the legacy of the past centuries’ landscaping through 12 properties, including Buckhead’s Swan House and LaGrange’s Ferrell Gardens. See garden postcards, photos, manuscripts, and landscape plans at the Atlanta History Center. atlantahistorycenter.com

The Tao of Pooh: Winnie-the-Pooh comes to the High Museum

Winnie the Pooh High Museum Atlanta
Line block print, hand colored by E.H. Shepard, 1970

© Egmont UK Ltd, reproduced with permission from the Shepard Trust

In 1925, A.A. Milne wrote a short story inspired by his son and stuffed animals about a boy named Christopher Robin and his toy bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, who tries to steal honey from bees by disguising himself as a rain cloud. Accompanied by the pencil sketches of E.H. Shepard, the story became an instant classic, spawning four books that have now sold more than 50 million copies. “I’m embarrassed if we’re ever out of Pooh,” says Justin Colussy-Estes, manager at Decatur children’s bookstore Little Shop of Stories. “It’s often given as a gift because someone treasured Pooh as a child and is looking to share that experience.”

Winnie the Pooh High Museum Atlanta
A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin Milne, and Pooh Bear, by Howard Coster, 1926

© National Portrait Gallery, London

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has tapped into that nostalgia with an interactive exhibition of original sketches, ephemera, and merchandise from the Hundred Acre Wood. The High, the first museum to bring the 200-plus–artifact Exploring a Classic across the pond, is hosting the exhibit as part of its children’s literature series, which has spotlighted authors Mo Willems, Eric Carle, and Ashley Bryan during the past four years.

The exhibit will be at the High Museum June 3 through September 2.

Winnie the Pooh High Museum Atlanta
The Winnie the Pooh exhibit on display during a High media preview

Photograph by Myrydd Wells

Winnie the Pooh High Museum Atlanta
Replicas of the real Christopher Robin’s toy—props from the upcoming film Goodbye Christopher Robin, on display at the High Museum

Photograph by Myrydd Wells

All About Pooh

  • Winnie-the-Pooh was originally illustrated in black and white, but Shepard added color to the images in the 1960s and ’70s.
  • The oldest merchandise on display are Teddy bears from the early 1900s that may have been a model for Shepard’s drawings.
  • The pencil sketches often show Shepard working out an idea of growing up, such as a 1928 drawing from The House at Pooh Corner of Christopher Robin peeking over the edge of a bridge while Pooh remains at foot-level.
  • From Pooh-themed Vans sneakers to sake cups, Pooh merchandise—which existed since the first book—exploded after Disney acquired the rights in 1961.
  • Pooh’s home, the Hundred Acre Wood, was based off England’s Ashdown Forest, which Milne explored with the real Christopher Robin and his toys. Shepard based his sketches off the forest.
  • Running concurrently with the exhibition is a musical, Winnie-the-Pooh, at the Alliance Theatre next door, the third collaboration between the theater and the museum in the children’s literature series.
  • Pooh is considered a philosopher, and the books are often graduation gifts, says Colussy-Estes. “People see Pooh as a totem for that transition from childhood to adulthood. Like a Teddy bear kids take to college, the books and characters are lifelong companions.”
    Winnie the Pooh High Museum Atlanta
    An interactive display at the High Museum

    Photograph by Myrydd Wells

    Winnie the Pooh High Museum Atlanta
    Artwork on display at the High Museum

    Photograph by Myrydd Wells

This story appears in our June 2018 issue.

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