Development vs Environment

It’s too bad that when founding our supposed free country we mistakenly assumed that indigenous peoples, large predators and ‘weeds’, all of which we knew very little, needed to be eradicated. We the colonizers merely carried on Britain’s tradition, along with Spain, the Netherlands and every other major power at the time.

Bad developers are a remnant of that original push to colonize, but unlike a great power, their only motivation is profit. They’re more like dysfunctional families. They come into an area with little regard for a community’s character, abuse the environment, and then abandon the project once their goals (profits) have been met. And just as happens within a family, the developer inflicts pain and unnecessary burdens on a community and environs.

However, not all developers are nasty, selfish or passive-aggressive brats. Some actually hire great architects and are learning to work with the environment to protect it. They reach out to the community, ask the right questions and listen. Without being direct, forthcoming and honest, a developer can end up with a community that distrusts them and wants nothing to do with the project. Sometimes the project can go through despite the community’s best efforts, but more often our County Commissioners adhere to the current zoning’s intent; to maintain the integrity and character of the specific neighborhood. Compromises can be made by adding conditions onto the zoning request.

Community meeting Feb. 17, Spivey’s circa 1850 cabin

Fortunately in the latest proposed project just outside Clarkston, the young developer from Chicago seems to fall outside any dysfunctional moniker. He knows resistance is inevitable, but he isn’t cowed by it. He vowed to visit often and keep talking to various spokespeople, and to try and forge an alliance based on compromise and negotiation. I hope those are not simply empty promises, for the environment’s and the community’s sake.

Remnants of an old plow and a large circular sawblade. It could be a Disston blade, made in Philadelphia.
The developer and the remaining Spivey heir agreed to a historical nomination for the cabin
A relative of the Spivey family noted that this hollowed out log used to hold water
Historic tools and photos, Spivey family collection
Cradle made by Bennet Sanders Spivey

An organized and strong community will come together when under threat from rezoning or development, like the best of families in a crisis. Rather than fall apart, splinter or distance themselves during stressful times, these neighbors show concern and stand for each other, for the urban forests and wildlife that live there. They appreciate a quiet oasis in the midst of a raucous city, but more than that, they value their own thriving and nurturing neighborhoods.

They may not have amenities, like a coffee shop to walk to, or even walking trails like developers always promise, once they’ve graded and mostly destroyed the land. But the neighbors know that Red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks live in the tall pines and that coyotes and deer wander through streambeds at night. Those are the ‘amenities’ they value the most.

Another established neighborhood on Henderson Rd has a lovely park with trail system that meanders a couple of miles around Lake Erin, and offers a large network of community gardens. I was out there one cold, rainy morning with few other folks walking their dogs or just walking. The gardens were a highlight.

Healthy looking collards and spinach
We can grow lettuces outside year round now.
Leeks survived the winter in my gardens too
Kale loves cold weather

I returned on a sunny day to hike the trail around the lake. Muddy in places, there are handy elevated walkways to cross the stream. A popular park in Tucker, but almost everyone who crossed my path politely donned their masks when approached. Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests is a gem of a book on urban walks in the metro area by veteran hiker and naturalist Jonah McDonald. I especially appreciate that he notes champion or specimen trees along the way.

When I lived in San Francisco my guidebook to urban walks was Stairway Walks of San Francisco by author Adah Bakalinsky, now 97 and honored with a staircase near Buena Vista Park named after her and a 2004 Beautification Award. I may have walked almost every hidden staircase in the city between 1997 and 2001.

The North Fork of Peachtree Creek feeds into Lake Erin, runs throughout the park and to the west at Mercer University
The beech forest in the park has some beautiful specimens clinging to the hillside
This tree’s trunk was almost completely hollow, proving that some trees can be highly compromised and continue to live on

Change to an area can either be gradual or sudden, and in the latter case it’s usually a shock to neighbors who have lived their entire adulthood in one house, in one neighborhood and in one city. For those who’ve traveled extensively and lived in a variety of locales, flexibility and an open mind help to prepare for sudden change. Sometimes it can pleasantly surprise us.

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Scottdale, Clarkston, Stone Mountain

Navigating the perils of urban growth and development often means walking sites that are currently fully wooded or contain parcels of beautiful old growth forests. Single family lots in the metro Atlanta area may have significant specimen trees that are hundreds of years old. This post is about two separate large tracts that I walked recently with allies who helped my neighborhood challenge annexation last year from the then Clarkston mayor, who is now a DeKalb commissioner. Ironically, his new role is to protect resources (land) in our overlay district and prevent annexation into a new cityhood.

Reed Ave., Scottdale

Because the state of Georgia was developed relatively late compared to the northeast, we have more tree canopy and larger areas of undeveloped land. Here in DeKalb County, primarily agrarian until the 1960s, many streams and lakes contribute to topographical challenges for development. However, that hasn’t stopped developers from buying up cheap and often difficult land.

Up for grabs in Scottdale
House fire on Herndon Dr., Scottdale – with an exiled vanity.

Activists tend to call on each other for help to protect their environments, and in turn their communities, from bad rezoning efforts or rookie developers. Paradoxically, inexperienced developers tend to be the worst for degrading the land and/or devaluing adjacent properties. The good guys know to follow county or city ordinances and are more likely to respect the community’s concerns. They prefer to build good will, which enhances their reputations. Not often is that a win-win, but with experienced folks on the community’s side who understand zoning and code, the environment and our neighbors will have a better outcome.

The city of Atlanta has NPUs (neighborhood planning units) of citizen advisories that function as a first line of defense for neighborhoods under pressure to develop or increase density through zoning. When I lived in PA outside Philly, the thousands of municipalities in the state had city councils and historic commissions that functioned similarly. DeKalb County employs Community Councils with commissioner appointed member volunteers who are offered free training to learn rudimentary urban planning and the role that zoning plays in land use.

About 4 large lots that total +35 acres on Norman Rd. in unincorporated Stone Mountain, close to Clarkston are being considered for rezoning from R-85 for rental single family homes. I only found out about it recently from a friend who lives near another development that I helped to challenge a couple of years ago. We weren’t successful, the developer requested annexation from DeKalb County into the City of Clarkston, which has less stringent regulations and ordinances than the county. He won, the City under their then mayor caved to his rezoning and density requests despite their Planning person’s opposition; the community lost another fully wooded 6 acre tract on a stream buffer tributary of Snapfinger Creek.

Unusually, the attorney’s letter for the Norman Rd. pre-application community meeting does not state the proposed rezoning designation. The property is owned by heirs of the late Hugh Spivey, the lake’s namesake. A small contingent of neighbors were first made aware of the potential sale late last year. Rentals are notoriously iffy for residential areas, since they tend to devalue surrounding properties and can become a hazard through neglect and turnover. Details have to be specific about maintenance, management, etc. Most upscale neighborhoods prohibit rental properties in their midst, which states the obvious.

Hugh Spivey Lake, off Norman Rd. Stone Mountain, GA
The land at this site has been in the same family for 157 years
A neighbor told me this log cabin could be from the Civil War era, a letter sent to neighbors cites the 1860s.
Archivists at the DeKalb History Center have no record of the cabin, but will follow up with research
The main house was probably built in the early 1950s and added onto
Snapfinger Creek’s tributaries run throughout the area
The neighbor leading the lake tour told me that beavers had dammed the lake further

22 acres off Northern Ave. between Sandy Woods Lane and Indian Creek Way is being targeted for rezoning from R75 to RSM in order to build about 150 single family units and townhomes. I’d met a few of the neighbors who live along Northern in last year’s annexation meetings for my overlay district and we connected again in early December, after a community meeting about this project. One of those neighbors was also invited to walk the site last weekend, an artist who’s been living in Atlanta since the mid-late 1970s like me. Noting mutual friends and acquaintances, we discovered that we’d also participated in the same large group exhibits back in the 1980s, during Atlanta’s early Mattress Factory and Biennale shows. She had a Blue Rat gallery t-shirt on that day, a now defunct gallery where I had exhibited. Artists are no brainers as environmental activists.

The community is united in opposing the rezoning and the number of new units. Increased traffic on a narrow collector street, floodplain and drainage issues that will most likely affect adjacent properties and the inappropriateness of the project in a purely low density residential area are just some of the opposition’s concerns.

Northern Ave. property. Large granite boulders on the site may indicate the need for blasting, the use of dynamite can adversely affect foundations of nearby houses
The wetlands to the back are marshy with a significant drop-off in the topography to the subdivision below
Heavy equipment has been on the property recently prior to the application approval, not normally allowed without adequate BMP (best management practices) in place. That includes black silt fencing and orange tree protection fencing
The two raised areas of disturbed soil are from the contractors’ recent drilling, probably for percolation tests

My work always relates to these land use issues, whether before the disturbance begins or afterwards. Recently on a walk when I had no expectation of inspiration, I stopped at the small detention pond behind me to sketch the cattails and long grasses growing in the pond. I had advised the developer back in 2015 to plant the grasses to absorb runoff, luckily she listened. Verticals, browns and ochres inform a new painting and the impetus is on to stretch more canvases.

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Historic Scottdale Mill Village and land use

One more day before the inauguration and with nerves on edge, the most I can do right now is post about my urban walks, and respond to land use violations. Today was spent working on a painting and advising someone whose boundary trees were severely damaged by illegal grading for an access road and removal of multiple specimen trees (also illegal) in preparation for a single family home on the site. I went over on Saturday morning to document the damage and walk the site with the neighbor. The county is sending code enforcement out tomorrow to issue a stop work order after I reported the violations to officials and to our DeKalb Soil & Water Conservation District. The property owner will need a good environmental attorney to help recover damages, I just happen to know a few…

This kind of illegal land disturbance unfortunately happens far too often lately. Shady developers tell their out of state contractors to start the job on the low down, to avoid the time and money it takes to get a tree assessment done and approval of a legitimate sketch plat. Today the bulldozer guy insulted both the neighbor and my colleague, who drove over to investigate after she was cc’d on my email. When she advised that he was required by law to have silt and tree protection fencing in place, his belligerent response revealed the core of why this happens:

...“oh, I can tell you’re a Democrat”. She said, “sir no one is above the law.“ His next line, “I will let you take this up with the contractor. It would cost a lot less money to get things done if I didn’t have deal with folks like you.” Bingo, pal – now you’ve cost your boss a fine and days of not being able to work, plus possible remuneration for the next door neighbor’s property damages.

His license plate includes the phrase Global War on Terrorism, which should be replaced by Global War on the Environment, because that’s his true calling.

If more citizens were aware of their recourse, and who to contact at the county or city level, the developers wouldn’t stand a chance. Luckily, the person had gotten my name from another activist. There are more of us coming to stop the dastardly developers and their nasty third party contractors. These guys deserve to make a living, but not at the expense of destroying private property and ignoring local land use regulations.

Update on Jan. 19th, from DeKalb County’s code enforcement officers with an addendum from the developer

Update: the good news is that the county takes these kinds of code violations seriously if they know about them. Because the officers found that the stream I notified them about was indeed active-although not identified as state waters on the county’s GIS mapping – and the state and county required stream buffer zone is a total of 75ft, the developer (an LLC who bought the land in Sept) must revise their sketch plat and redesign the septic system. That should take at least a few months before they can return to construction on the site.

It doesn’t help the neighbor recoup her damaged trees, but it does prevent the crew and heavy equipment from further encroaching on the stream, destroying native soils and more trees. If she hadn’t complained, they would have continued the attack.

A walk last week took me across E. Ponce de Leon Ave. into the Scottdale Mill Village. A local realtor who lives in a charming 1915 house there once denied that her house is historic – “it’s just an old house”. She also requested that I pull the photo from our civic alliance blog in the historical overview I wrote a few years ago. Because this is my personal blog, I’m sure she won’t object to – or ever find it – here.

Eliza Street, Scottdale Mill Village

Most folks appreciate the tax grants they can receive to do any type of renovation per federal regulations for historic properties. Not all, however. And not surprisingly, this person vociferously fought an ex-commissioner’s attempt over a decade ago to nominate the area as a historic district to protect the area from development and infill. This same “old house” owner has challenged me to refrain from voting to deny a recent subdivision and rezoning in a neighborhood nearby whose community is universally and adamantly opposed to it. I guess she forgot that our local volunteer but commissioner appointed community council represents the neighborhoods and not the developers and realtors who might happen to own lots nearby.

I suppose we’ll see townhome subdivisions and apartment complexes in the future in the mill village, once the bigger landowners like her sell off their properties. The owner and founder of Your DeKalb Farmer’s Market also owns several parcels, one that could be called the “town square”, a pastoral rectangle of lawn surrounded by historic and quaint homes. The character of the area will forever be changed at that point, but at least it will be documented in these pages. The proposed boundary map.

Nomination here with photos of the early buildings. Unfortunately, the xerox copy that was emailed to me in 2016 by the DeKalb History Center is almost too faint to read.

Evidently only domestic pets travel these tiny streets.
Many houses date from the early 1900s.
Patterson Ave.

I was the only person walking through the village one afternoon, admiring the birdhouses, raised garden beds, greenhouses and lawn ornaments. No one was out, except for one man chopping wood in his side yard.

Newfield Way
Several artists live in the mill village, one of whom owns a gallery in Decatur. I’m not familiar with this folk art gallery but it looks inviting.
Patterson Ave.
This house fronts E. Ponce de Leon and is for sale by the owner.
E. Ponce de Leon and Longmeadow

It’s always a bit sad to realize how little people appreciate historic structures. No one visits Europe to see high rise office or apartment buildings (other than Antonio Gaudi’s historic Casa Mila in Spain), but tell that to the property owner who stands to make a bundle if the Scottdale Mill Village meets its demise in a flurry of commercial “redevelopment”. Greed, say hello to the death of craftsmanship and art.

The walk took me back across E. Ponce into Scottdale proper, which continues to benefit from its specimen trees, some covered with ivy or other vines, but still providing excellent habitat for wildlife and energy benefits for the community.

This tree may have mistletoe or another invasive vine hanging off its branches
Looking down Booker Ave. from Kelly Street
From Google maps, 2018, at least one parcel on Booker is still for sale.
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Walking the wilds of Scottdale

Civic engagement and public service appeals to few. Of my neighbors, a limited number have ever attended any public meetings to protest future development and/or challenge county or city ordinances that may need reform and strengthening. Most don’t even know what’s about to break ground next door to them or the name of their County Commissioner or City Council representative. Local network TV news outfits can be reluctant to air stories about the pollution of rivers or streams. They see more sticky eyeballs (money) in coverage of crime, political squabbling or celebrity nonsense.

Most of the neighborhood that borders where I live in unincorporated Avondale Estates was overgrown and undisturbed for about five decades. Homes from the early 1900s now coexist with 1940s post war modest houses like mine, and more recently we’ve seen an influx of mid-range houses that are priced at $500k and higher. Still standing are old-growth urban forests on vacant lands, which provide habitat for owls, coyotes and migrating birds. Those islands of respite are fast approaching mere historical record as single family and townhome development continues its march forward.

An arborist determined this may have been a 400 year old Sugar Maple. It once stood on Third Ave. near Rockbridge Rd. Cleared in 2016 for the Avondale East subdivision.
This Loblolly Pine was preserved through community efforts and stands in a small “amenity park” in the Avondale East subdivision.

Scottdale is a “census designated place” in DeKalb county named for the man who originally founded a cotton mill here in the late 1800s. The Creek and Cherokee Indians settled and engineered most of the trails that are now streets and roads. In the history I wrote a few years ago for our civic alliance about those early beginnings; “according to the Scottdale Mill Collection in DeKalb archives, Ingleside and Scottdale were developed between 1900 and 1915 in order to provide housing for employees of the Scottdale Cotton Mills, which was founded by George Washington Scott, Atlanta fertilizer manufacturer and co-founder of Agnes Scott College in Decatur. Scottdale Mill was built in 1901 on a cotton field near a small creek.”

Brownell Ave.
Altacrest looking out to Hamilton Park
Altacrest Drive
Proctor Street from the PATH (which starts at Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta and runs all the way to Stone Mountain).
New Chapel Baptist Church on Proctor Ave., as seen from the PATH.

Because development was slow to reach a neglected part of what would become bedroom communities east of metro Atlanta, our oldest trees survived. That is, until recently- the area has had an onslaught of building since 2010. And although DeKalb county has a relatively decent tree protection ordinance, developers find ways around it and county planners allow far too much land to be clear-cut through variances. Sometimes they’re simply unaware that it’s happening. Recently developers have taken advantage of the pandemic by neglecting to submit permits at all. A few neighbors and I have monitored our streets over the past ten years of development boom and act as volunteers for code enforcement, reporting the lack of visible permits on site or land disturbance and clearing without silt or tree protection fencing.

One change in my own habits during the last few months has been long walks around the neighborhoods. The vacant lands that aren’t yet developed have mostly been bought by either local developers I’m aware of or by unknown LLCs tied to attorney offices in downtown Atlanta. Some of the photos below from recent walks are of land soon to be developed, with specimen trees that have been admired for hundreds of years. Once these trees are gone, our energy heat indexes and stormwater management will increase in costs for both the consumer and the county.

Looking towards the church from the PATH

My 2-3 mile walks have taken me into the heart of Scottdale, which when I bought my home in 1987, was inhabited by a majority of African American property owners and a smattering of white residents who had probably grown up here. With the help of local community organizations and in 2008 the county’s rezoning of the area to an overlay district, it has maintained the character and feel of a small intown neighborhood. Overlay districts have similar setback and design mandates as historic districts do, but with more leeway for renovation. Protection and preservation of the mature trees and Indian Creek’s tributaries have been my own and other neighbors’ missions since 2010, when I returned to the area.

A Champion White Oak at the “compound” on N. Clarendon (from the PATH)
White Oak at the “compound” from N. Clarendon.
Trees near new development along Cedar Ave.
Trees on undeveloped land between Cherry and Cedar.
3089 Cherry Street
Third Ave. with a possible long abandoned street or driveway
Indian Creek tributary on Third Ave.

Third Ave. between Kelly St. and Robinson Ave. is a long hill to climb. The oral histories include elderly women describing the gullies that turned the dirt roads (paths more likely) to mud in 1930s era spring rains. As children, they had to wade across engorged streams to get to school. It’s easy to imagine now, because so much of the area has been left to fend for itself.

One younger neighbor came out of his house on Third the other day to query why I was taking photos and whether I was another greedy developer out to grab up adjacent land. It turned out that Jerry had grown up in the neighborhood and gone to school not far away. It was hard to believe that at his age he’d already served in Iraq and was a former DeKalb policeman. I was touched by his protectiveness.

Abandoned house on Third Ave.

On that same walk I met Mr. Jackson who lives on Robinson Ave., by chance he was outside and stopped to chat with me. A veteran of the Vietnam war and a long-time resident, he stated that he had no plans to ever move. Coincidentally, Jackson knows a neighbor who lives across the street from me, whose father owned the house next door when I first moved in. I took photos of the storm drain depression that bisects Mr. Jackson’s property from a lot that was bought for $9800 in unpaid taxes in 2019 and is destined to be developed. He told me that another developer had visited earlier this year and said that the two commercial lots adjacent on his other side would be ‘turned into townhouses’. Since his property is now zoned Tier I commercial in the overlay district, he may end up living in his historic 1940 home between two townhome developments. The only good news is that he now knows he should hold out for a higher bid if the developer makes an offer.

Mr. Jackson installed his gardens in the back near the storm drain’s runoff, where the soil is rich, fed by one of the many Indian Creek tributaries in the area.

The corner of Robinson and Proctor with a possible specimen white oak.

Metro Atlanta is inland but the area is threaded with tributaries from seven watersheds that include Long Island, Nancy, Peachtree, Proctor, Sandy, Utoy and Camp creeks. The Ocmulgee River collects drainage from three watersheds in the City including South River and Sugar and Intrenchment creeks. DeKalb county alone has multiple creeks and streams traversing its boundaries, Indian Creek meanders through this neighborhood.

Like any other historian, I find that it’s important to document these areas before they’re transformed. Nature hasn’t been completely left untouched, but what we do have left, we should protect and preserve. Housing can be built around trees and streams, white oaks can live up to 600 years. Is it wise to destroy the ancient soil structure and root systems that help mitigate with stormwater runoff during severe storms? Of course not, but that is what counties and cities are allowing all over the country, the excuse is that we need either more housing or affordable housing. We could have done both, had we better ordinances and programs in place.

More progressive cities, or those who have been hit hardest by extreme weather like the coastal areas of WA, LA, TX and NJ, have begun saving land and offering tax incentives to developers to preserve mature tree stands. Saving land means partnering with local and Federal programs and agencies to buy up properties prone to flooding and return the areas to the wild. What was once houses is now marshland or wetlands, which traditionally were able to absorb storm surges. What we need is more respect for what nature provides, and for free to us.

Recently, a contact from the Wylde Woods garden center in Decatur, GA forwarded a link to a webinar titled Just Language: Invasive Species. The opportunity offered a discussion with young ecoscientists, environmentalists and land managers who are trying to change the language for and the way we view native versus non-native or what we’ve called “invasive species”. These are thoughtful folks of all ages who are doing good work in the field, both legally and culturally.

Coyotes roam our streets and backyards at night, ridding them of rats and other rodents, their main diets. However, my local Nextdoor has multiple posts about their designation as an invasive species, without the quantifier that wolves co-evolved along with coyotes and kept the population in check, just as they did for elk and deer, who over-browsed and destroyed forests, meadows and riverbanks running throughout the country. Until we killed off most of the wolves those ecosystems were in relative balance. Now that scientists have reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone Park, “they are subtly restructuring the ecosystem, a process that will take decades.” Biologist Doug Smith speaks about that in depth in this interview. It’s more appropriate to refer to coyotes as a “responsive” species, because that’s what they are.

An interview in the Sun magazine with Eileen Crist offers critiques and possible paths out of our own species supremacy. Crist maintains that we need to reduce our population from a projected 10 billion to 2 billion and to degrowth the economy. Technologies are great, but that won’t stop the ‘domination crisis’ and she links the crisis to agriculture, which needs to radically change. Producing food and reducing waste could in the future, owe much to innovative technologies being developed now. “What would happen if some global catastrophe disrupted our food system?… Try to imagine a food shortage instead of a scarcity of toilet paper.”

Land under consideration for development on Ohm Ave.
The land on Ohm is entirely within a stream buffer, but the county approved an administrative variance to allow encroachment into half of the county’s 50ft stream buffer ordinance. Meaning, only 25ft or less of the buffer will be preserved after bulldozers complete grading.
An Indian Creek tributary runs throughout the neighborhood. One newer neighbor has landscaped the banks with water loving plants that mitigate soil erosion.
Trees on Ohm Ave. land
298 Ohm, a section of Ohm Ave from Cedar St. to Rockbridge Rd. Directly opposite another parcel on Ohm under consideration for development.

“The land still provides our genesis, however we might like to forget that our food comes from dank, muddy earth, or that the oxygen in our lungs was recently inside a leaf, and that every newspaper or book we pick up is made from the hearts of trees that died for the sake of our imagined lives….Whether we are leaving it or coming into it, it’s here that matters, it is place... Wildness puts us in our place. It reminds us that our plans are small and somewhat absurd.” -Barbara Kingsolver, from “The Only Real Story”, 2002.

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Gardening, reading and painting in the time of Covid

Japanese maple in full autumnal splendor, native Oakleaf hydrangeas and a triple decker birdhouse made by a woodworker friend. My front sideyard near the boundary of a neighbor’s home.

A couple of books that have influenced the way that I garden and care for my 1/3 of an acre are Doug Tallamy’s Nature’s Best Hope and The Hidden Life of Trees by the German forester Peter Wohlleben. While there have been, especially in Europe, critical reviews of Wohlleben’s use of anthropomorphic language about trees’ interaction, it’s an entertaining book. The pandemic has offered a rare treat; extra time for reading in lieu of in person interactions.

When I moved back to the Atlanta metro area in 2010, I focused on adding more plants with a variety of heights that would be interesting to paint. My studio (in a former porch now enclosed) faces the backyard with three sides of sliding casement windows that offer a 180 degree view. Some of what I’ve added to the yard since then, like Canna lilies and Musa basjoo (Japanese banana tree), have proven invasive or at the least, aggressive enough to shade out other plants. I dug up most of them this summer and gave away to neighbors.

Tallamy’s book encourages removal of additional invasive plants that don’t attract many birds or pollinators, the Wohlleben book advocates appreciation for the trees in my yard, mature and recently planted. In 2015, after a subdivision replaced a completely forested acre behind me, I planted about 25 young trees – as in mere 1ft saplings – along both streets that the large corner lot borders, in the yard and to screen the back boundary. Most have grown nicely and I got lucky by choosing strong and wind resistant varieties like dogwoods, redbuds, white hawthorns, and crape myrtles. Sadly, that’s not so true for my mature pecans and large water oaks, which dropped branches all over the yard during Tropical storm Zeta this past October.

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Green Giant Thujas (arborvitae) provide evergreen screening, a dwarf Salix sepulcralis ‘Erythroflexuosa’ at the end of the dry creek bed, along with another larger willow rooted from a decorative bunch of curly twigs bought at the Dekalb Farmers Market. My own homemade bluebird house.
Leftover plantation shutters make good borders for the beds.
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5 year old Redbud blooming in April
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Top of the dry creek bed: Crape myrtle in the background, Juniperus conferta ‘Blue Rug’ and Golden Dwarf Hinoki Cypress in the foreground. By late fall the juniper had completely covered the storm drain grate.

After chatting one morning with a neighbor who’s also an avid gardener, I signed up for a UGA/Dekalb County Master Gardener program that began in January before most realized the reach of the virus, continuing with virtual classes, to finalize in late April. Our last in person class was in early March. I thought Covid would interrupt my volunteer requirements, but creating a plant database for one non-profit garden center and producing a webinar for a seminar on shade gardening enabled me to log most of the mandated 50 hours. The Master Gardener program convinced me that I needed to go native to ensure that bees, insects and birds thrive in my yard and help pollinate the vegetable gardens. I even applied for certification from the National Wildlife Federation to advertise the benefits of natural landscaping to leaf-blowing, herbicide and pesticide using neighbors.

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Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation

This spring and summer I yanked out all of the invasive vinca, four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa), creeping ivy and brambles on my 200 foot stretch of hill to plant native wildflowers attractive to birds and pollinators. Some of those include two varieties of Goldenrods, (Solidago speciosa and Solidago rigida), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum), Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), red and purple Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera, Echinacea purpurea), New England asters (Aster novae-angliae), Wild yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and Wild Columbine. I hope they all germinate and fill up the spaces in a couple of years.

Gardeners know patience, there’s no rushing nature. Some of my plants and shrubs that have been gifted or shared are, if not native, great pollinators. Sheffield Pink Chrysanthemum, a gift from a dear gardener friend, lures all kinds of bees and propagates easily. A generous neighbor gave me a Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora), a now large Viburnum buddleifolium and an exquisitely fragrant Edgeworthia chrysantha shrub, native to woodland areas in the Himalayas and China. Other shrubs and plants were purchased from local nurseries or the seasonal DeKalb County/UGA Extension plant sales.

Edgeworthia chrysantha
Bumblebee sleeping on my Farfugium japonicum var. giganteum or Leopard plant.

Other books; Barry Lopez is a favorite nature writer and I’ve been enjoying his recently published Horizon for the past year, living vicariously through his incredible journeys to the far reaches of our world. I haven’t yet gotten to the Canadian Arctic, although I did live in Nova Scotia for a couple of years. And while I took a two month broadcast design gig in Moscow during 1986 in the midst of perestroika, I never ventured into the wilds of Siberia. I’m not sure where my love of cold climates originated, but living in Vermont, Maine and Canada during my twenties may have had something to do with it. As this review so aptly states, Lopez’s Horizon is an epic travelogue that meshes local lore and history with an environmentalist’s tragic take on how we’ve trampled and abused this earth. An early book of his from 1978, Of Wolves and Men, is more specific to one animal but also includes the ways in which the American Indians appropriated the wolf’s hunting methods and even used the animals for tracking their enemies.

We’re now almost at the end of this long, birdsong filled year. I’ve begun walking miles around my neighborhood and the nearest small city to make up for the loss of my usual vigorous lap swims. No other form of exercise can really match what has given so much joy since childhood. Snow is forecast tomorrow, Christmas day, for the metro Atlanta area. A dusting will encourage more drivers to run off the roads and skid over black ice. Nature remains perfect in its form and intent, despite the raging infection threatening our species. And as always, my efforts to protect a small spot in the world constantly butt up against urban development and continued “growth”.

Indian Creek tributary in Scottdale, GA
Indian Creek tributary, 3rd Ave., Scottdale, GA.
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After the fall

It’s been a while, two years since I last posted on this site. Hopefully, we’re on the path out of a pseudo populism that was never about real populism but more about how to bulk up the stock market and pretend to appease the working class, who hasn’t made any real strides forward since the 1990s. Both sides bought the lie. I’ve been doing more reading than painting this year. As I began writing this, the woman who has the ability to “ascertain” the formal transition process for President-elect Biden, finally agreed to do so. That’s something I hadn’t ever paid attention to before. It’s all about the transfer of money to the new administration.

I’ve read moving and inspirational journals from artists working outside their inner city studios since this plague began. Many from blogs that I follow, other creative outpourings from Art Papers, published here in Atlanta. Lucky is the artist having a city studio and a country hideout – or a residency. And although the art world has done its share for inclusion this year, I doubt much will change for the average person, no matter their race, color or gender. We still have housing affordability issues and rampaging development with a loss of tree canopy that threatens to exacerbate stormwater issues like runoff and flooding here in metro Atlanta, and across the country. As environmental activists, we encourage local officials to strengthen tree ordinances, with increased pervious surface percentages. However, pushing that through also requires a larger civic involvement; tenacious pressure that has to be ongoing. Everything ends up being political.

I continue to paint, but my work has always been informed by a focus on place and how the natural world is often sidelined, especially in a large and thriving city. Right now I’m distracted by the election process as well as trying to survive the pandemic. I’ve been trying to figure out where this election went wrong, even though my side has ostensibly won. Populism as a descriptor of our current situation has flipped from its origins as a farmers’ collective, as this provocative C-Span podcast with author Thomas Frank & right wing journalist Chris Caldwall discuss during the National Book Festival this September. Eric Deggans is the moderator who keeps things on track.

As the Kansas Historical Society suggests, during the 1880s to 1890s “The Farmers’ Alliance movement was growing in the South and Midwest. The group promoted higher prices for produce and felt that the government’s responsibility was to represent farmers rather than big business. In their view, railroads, banks, and other businesses received more support from government.

Photo courtesy Lumen Learning

Soybean, dairy and pig farmers who voted for Trump in 2016 thought he’d have their backs as he blithely promised in his ‘America First’ mantra during his campaign, echoing The People’s Party similar complaints about their government in the late 1800s. Instead, Trump’s tariffs on China backfired. Farmers have suffered greatly during this administration, even as smaller farms were on the brink of failure before his tenure. This NY Times article from June outlines the decline due to the badly timed tariffs; “Overall sales of American farm goods to China remained deeply depressed, dropping to $9.3 billion in 2018 from $19.6 billion in 2017 as the trade war escalated, before picking up to about $14 billion last year.”

Why does the working class keep voting against their own interests? And more to the point, what did they see in the failed businessman Trump? I think they overlooked his failures and merely bought the showman. Last year a friend gave me Hate, Inc. by journalist Matt Taibbi, which makes an excellent point about the chasm between those who voted for DT and the rest of us. Because he notes these two as better than the rest of the professional pundits, I recently bought a couple of Thomas Frank’s books. I also dug up the article that Taibbi mentions that professor Joan C. Williams published in the Harvard Business Review back in 2016 a month after those election results. Williams is the founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. Her newest book is White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. An excerpt from the Harvard Business Review piece states the following:

Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men, also found resentment of professionals — but not of the rich. “[I] can’t knock anyone for succeeding,” a laborer told her. “There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have,” chimed in a receiving clerk. Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money. “The main thing is to be independent and give your own orders and not have to take them from anybody else,” a machine operator told Lamont. Owning one’s own business — that’s the goal. That’s another part of Trump’s appeal.

Robin Leach, host of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, syndicated from 1984-1995

So maybe that partially answers why the man was able to steal his first election. But the issue of 70 million mostly white voters still believing in him for a second run speaks more to continuing racial issues in the country than anything else.

Graph courtesy Statista.com

It’s almost unbelievable but not quite, that the state of Georgia could be responsible for handing the Senate back to the Democratic Party. When my ex-husband and I decided to move back from Canada to the states in the summer of 1976, I researched which cities had the most likely future growth and chose Atlanta. He left soon afterwards, but the city has never disappointed.

After having been involved for the last decade with my community and local government here, much of which has included a crash course on zoning and urban planning, I’ve realized that the African American contingent, and especially women of color, is what makes Atlanta and environs such a unique place to live. This demographic comes out swinging to protect their neighborhoods from over-development and they value the health of our environment.

Women taking the lead in progressive movements is nothing new, throughout history we’ve been at the front lines. I met Medea Benjamin in San Francisco at the outset of the Iraq War, protesting with her band of Code Pink activists and engaging in all sorts of civil disobedience. She’s still at it, fighting for justice and human rights.

The 8th year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq: “Then we went to the White House to do a photo up with umbrellas that spelled out BRING OUR WAR $$ HOME”

Organizers all over the world have known for centuries that the masses hold the most power; disobedience and civil resistance works. Marching in the streets is most effective combined with strategic objectives. It helps to know one’s elected officials to be able to call on them during crises. Even on the local level, developing a good relationship with one’s county commissioner or city councilwoman can be critical and make the difference in keeping bad developers beyond the gates.

This week’s New Yorker has a great article mostly focused on Erica Chenoweth, the political scientist and professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Some valuable excerpts:
“The study of civil resistance… is in large part the study of how movements can win “defections”—how they can turn obedient subjects of the regime into allies of the disobedient majority.

In 1973, the political scientist Gene Sharp published “The Politics of Nonviolent Action” …In the sixteenth century, Iroquois women won political rights within their tribe through a coördinated succession of actions: refraining from sex and childbirth, striking when it came time to harvest crops, refusing to make moccasins for male soldiers. In the Iranian Revolution of 1979, some of the most decisive gains against the Shah came from acts of bureaucratic slow-walking, and from employees at nationalized oil fields working at half speed. In the American imagination, an uprising looks like a throng. In the Sharpian tradition, the winning combination of tactics may look like an absence—or, to the untrained eye, like nothing at all.

While mostly male friends were anguishing about blood running in the streets or increased violence after an election that didn’t mollify the Proud Boys and their ilk, I kept thinking about historical wins by ‘the people’ against tyranny. So many of us forget that our individual power to affect change can be a reality – and en masse, it’s amplified. If the internet and social media has garnered eyes and the cable/tv/streaming industry has made monied stickiness its motivating force, the forgotten message is to harness the power of the masses to make our officials accountable. Activists know this without having data but having it helps.


In 2011, Chenoweth and Stephan published their findings in a book called “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” It included detailed narrative case studies in which the authors hypothesized about why, say, the Philippine People Power movement of 1986 achieved its goals whereas the Burmese uprising of 1988 did not. (In Burma, activists over-relied on “methods of concentration, such as election rallies and protests,” leaving themselves vulnerable to state repression. The movement in the Philippines alternated rallies with strikes and boycotts; it also drew the participation of a wide array of civil-society leaders, including clergy and teachers, many of whom eventually turned against the regime.)


In September of 2000, Slobodan Milosevic, who had been the dictator of Serbia for more than a decade, attempted to falsify election results in order to stay in power. In response, a student-led movement called Otpor coördinated a variety of tactics—highway blockades, subversive street theatre, a coal miners’ strike. The resistance was widely perceived as nonviolent and legitimate, and it grew quickly, gaining support among Serbs of every age and from all parts of the country. A Serbian policeman, ordered to shoot into a crowd of protesters, held his fire; he later told journalists that, given the cross-section of people present, he couldn’t rule out the possibility that one of them was his child. By early October, Milosevic had no choice but to leave office.”

It appears now that Mr. Trump will have no choice but to concede, whether he does that directly or indirectly by leaving office. 2021 will be a good year.

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SEEK ATL and Cosmo Whyte

Saturday’s SEEK ATL artist studio tour featured Cosmo Whyte’s fantastic studio space downtown, in the Castleberry Hill Arts District. Whyte, born in Jamaica, has widely exhibited in a short period of time and is the recipient of many awards, including the 2018 MOCA GA Working Artist Project (WAP) fellowship grant. He currently teaches art at Morehouse College in Atlanta. SEEK and MOCA GA teamed up this year to visit all three of the current WAP recipients’ studios.

Another older industrial building renovated and put to good use, the downstairs is being divided up into two smaller front spaces, while Cosmo has the use of the large space beyond with the original floor to ceiling windows. I believe he also uses the upper level as a live/work area. My truncated notes from his talk were taken on a scrap of paper, having forgotten my usual notebook.

While most of the work currently on view in his studio is unfinished, Whyte is experimenting with various mediums, including braided shipping rope that he purchases off eBay, along with a plexi-glass police shield. The rope is now curled into a large cylinder placed on a wooden pallet, and echoes the braided hair in many of Whyte’s drawings.

Ships are what brought the slave-trade to the Americas, rope bound those ships to port and often, the slaves together. A large conch shell sits next to the rope on the pallet. The issue of migration may be at play, whether or not it was forced.

The historic Hatchelling House website states that before the mechanized process was in place, “semi-skilled artisans combed the raw hemp fibre across hatchels, boards with long iron pins to straighten out the fibres before they were spun into yarn. Whale oil, known as ‘train oil’ was used to lubricate the fibres. This was very hard manual work that took great strength…In 1864 the hatchelling operation was mechanised and incorporated in the new Spinning Room built above the Hemp Houses. The hatchellers’ role was passed over to women to work as machine minders following the pattern set in northern textile mills.”

Other ideas for future pieces include Whyte’s plans to laser cut plexiglass, possibly in braille, with snippets of sheet music from “A Ballad for Americans”, an operatic folk cantata originally sung by Paul Robeson during FDR’s 1940 campaign against Wendell Wilkie. As a fan of vocal music and of Robeson, I had to do more research.

One line of the cantata reads: “I’m just an Irish, Negro, Jewish, Italian, French and English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Polish, Scotch, Hungarian, Swedish, Finnish, Canadian, Greek and Turk and Czech and double-Czech American.”  The song was sung at various political conventions in 1940, including both the Communist and Republican conventions, and it endured through World War II, when African American soldiers performed the work in a benefit concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. It has been periodically revived, during the United States Bicentennial (1976). There is also a well-known recording by civil rights activist and singer Odetta, recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1960. A Wiki link offers more references.

In a couple of large charcoal drawings on heavy paper, Whyte depicts participants covered with motor oil in the Jouvert street festival that many Caribbean islands celebrate. One part of the tradition involves smearing paint, mud or oil on the bodies of participants known as “Jab Jabs”, in order to render them invisible or unrecognizable. Whyte said that he wanted to investigate a plantation narrative, with immigrants’ expression of place or placelessness. “Carnival was introduced to Trinidad by French settlers in 1783, a time of slavery. Banned from the masquerade balls of the French, the enslaved people would stage their own mini-carnivals in their backyards — using their own rituals and folklore, but also imitating and sometimes mocking their masters’ behavior at the masquerade balls.”

Security and police presence at these festivals has added another dimension, which may evoke memories of enslavement and/or loss of freedom. Whyte’s said that his depiction of multi-limbed characters is linked to Anansi, the spider trickster of the Ashanti and other Akan-speaking tribes of West Africa, specifically Ghana.

The character is considered to be the spirit of all knowledge of stories, and often the creator of the world. “Anansi is the hero and trickster of an enormous body of West African folktales. Africans had a deep appreciation of mental keenness, as well as sympathy and admiration for those who used their wits to extract themselves from difficult situations. Those who outwitted opponents were respected more than those who outfought them. Cleverness was a trait much revered in African folktales (Ollivier 1994). Hence, Anansi was popular as a small but clever trickster who often outwitted larger opponents.”

Whyte scrapes, sands and cuts away both the edges and main areas some of his work, layering photographic images underneath the cutaway portions. Some of the paper’s edges have a filigree from his cutting away that is reminiscent of lace, which reminds this viewer of the history of women’s work in the textile industry. Lacemaking, long an occupation for upper class women, was a step up for most women during the late 1500s and 1600s, after an Amsterdam town council ordained in 1529 that poor orphan girls would be allowed to make a living from lacework.

Heads may be obscured by braided hair or dreadlocks, features erased or obliterated completely in some of the portraits. He works both from life and from photographs. The result of obvious painstaking work, these figurative abstracted pieces are both powerful and elegant, a tough act to achieve.

Whyte mentioned being interested in the Jamaican scholar Stuart Hall’s writings on transcending nationalism, an aspect that his work seems to address. In the late 1980s, Hall presented a series of lectures called “Cultural Studies”. As this 2017 New Yorker article states, ‘…Hall became fascinated with theories of “reception”—how we decode the different messages that culture is telling us, how culture helps us choose our own identities. He wasn’t merely interested in interpreting new forms, such as film or television, using the tools that scholars had previously brought to bear on literature. He was interested in understanding the various political, economic, or social forces that converged in these media. It wasn’t merely the content or the language of the nightly news, or middlebrow magazines, that told us what to think; it was also how they were structured, packaged, and distributed.

“People have to have a language to speak about where they are and what other possible futures are available to them,” he observed…’

Cosmo will participate in The Drawing Center’s Open Sessions 2018-2020 program.

Artist and writer Deanna Sirlin’s review of Whyte’s 2017 exhibit at Marcia Wood gallery can be found here.

SEEK’s next studio visit with be with painter Alan Loehle on Nov. 10th, my 2012 interview with him can be found here.

My history of Pillowtex, an early artists’ space in the same area and now converted to lofts, can be found here.

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Sammy Peters at Mason Fine Art, Atlanta

I finally had a chance to chat at length with the prolific painter Sammy Peters, at the February Group Exhibition which opened on Feb. 22nd at Mason Fine Art and Events. His lovely wife was gracious enough to allow me unfettered access, while I peppered him with questions about his process and his work. Peters has shown in Atlanta before, with the Lowe Gallery, the Alan Avery Gallery and now at Mark Mason Karelson’s new location on Plasters Ave. From Little Rock, Arkansas, the artist still lives there and works in a huge space that his father used for his sign printing business.

The paintings that fill one large gallery space in the current exhibit date from 2011 to 2018, a majority are from 2017 and from the first few months of 2018. In these works as in his previous paintings, fabric and paper are used as collage layers, often painted over. Peters enjoys utilizing stripes, checks and patterns in his work, adding texture and a degree of structure to his gestural swipes and drips. I had conducted a 2013 interview via email with Peters for my blog, and although we talked for some time at this recent opening, the reluctance to demystify his process remains intact.

Four small paintings from 2017 were hung together, 16 in x 12 in.

Verbalization of a visual medium can be counter productive. As with music, a good painting should hit us emotionally, and language – for all its strengths – can never completely describe or explain either sensory perception. It helps to have some knowledge of theory, both in color and music – otherwise one might be tempted to label much abstract work “incoherent”, as one friend naively and unjustly claimed. Coherence and communication are terms strictly attuned to branding and advertising; the message that sells a product. Since when does any art have to communicate and elucidate unless we talk about illustrations framing a narrative? And don’t get me started on music. Does anyone in their right mind demand that Sonny Rollins explain what the hell he’s doing by going off on those extraneous sax tangents? Another jazz musician may understand the progressions, but for the most part, the audience is inadequately prepared to verbally explain the titan’s “sound-making”.

Again, language is over-rated in these spheres and especially when it comes to trying to define an artist like Peters. His work remains tantalizingly and sublimely obscure. Even his titles seem to purposefully throw one off the trail; “Essence: inseparable; illusion”, “Tentative: underlying; spaces”, “Declaration: evolving; artifacts” – you get the picture.

The critic Peter Frank in his 2001 essay on Peters’ work remarks, The pleasure provided the viewer by the facture, by its conditional but emphatic sensuosity and the harmony of elements it proposes, in turn effects a kind of invitation, a persuasion of the eye back into the thornier dialectical challenges….Still, however more concrete the imagery has become, it remains fluid as opposed to fixed, coalescent as opposed to truly coherent.”

Manifest: proposition; revealed, 2018. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 72 in x 60 in. (and close-up)

What art should be able to do is to provoke and evoke a reaction. And like progressions or phrasing in modern musical composition, abstract mark making can be tracked through art’s recent historical timeline. These paintings hit us in the gut with wild and violent gestural marks, while offering a grid type structure to navigate the work via an architectural construct. I would compare Peters’ work to more intellectually provocative contemporary music in its ability to elicit emotion through the dynamics of color and form. Thomas Adès, John Taverner, Vijay Iyer offer similar compositions of complex structure, that speak to mysticism, transcendence and the sensuousness of stringed instruments.

As we talked, Peters again referenced Willem de Kooning as one of his favorite painters and revealed an anecdote that dates to the early days of Abstract Expressionism. However, he is also influenced by Matisse, the framing in some of his works could be interpreted as a riff on those celebrated windows. Vuillard and Bonnard seem to be in the mix as well, just for the Nabis’ love of pattern, texture and those shots of dense black that delineate form.

“Peters’ work is about the art of making art. He is uninterested in creating works that describe or narrate; rather, his actions are freed from historical, religious and social content and constraints.” – Lloyd W. Benjamin, III, Dean of Fine Arts, University of Arkansas, Little Rock.

Disclosed: inner; affirmation, 2018. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 30 in x 40 in.

Tentative: underlying; spaces, 2013. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 60 in x 72 in.

Essence: inseparable; illusion, 2015. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 72 in x 60 in. (and close-up)

Declaration: evolving; artifacts, 2018. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 48 in x 48 in. (and close-up)

Enigma: impenetrable; boundary, 2017. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 60 in x 48 in. (and close-up)

Irreducible: absolute; content, 2017. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 48 in x 60 in. (and close-up)

Recovery: infinite; apparation, 2017. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 60 in x 48 in. (and close-up)

Emblematic: integral; function, 2011. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 60 in x 48 in. (and close-up)

Displacement: returning; notion, 2012. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 48 in x 60 in. (and close-up)

Observation: presence; revealed, 2017. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 48 in x 60 in. (and close-up)

Peters also shows with LewAllen Contemporary in Santa Fe, Stremmel Gallery in Reno, Greg Thompson Fine Art in Little Rock, M. A. Doran Gallery in Tulsa and Jay Etkin Gallery in Memphis.

That anecdote: Peters was having dinner years ago with friends and the infamous Ruth Kligman, Jackson Pollock’s lover who was with Pollock when he crashed into a tree and died. Kligman survived. It’s well known that Kligman had romantic dalliances with de Kooning, Pollock and as her NY Times 2010 obituary notes, “she was friendly with Jasper Johns, to whom she once proposed, and with Franz Kline, whose former studio on 14th Street became her home and the studio where she continued to paint almost to the end of her life.” Peters’ friend at dinner asked Kligman which of the painters was the most proficient in bed. She replied without hesitation; “Kline!”

In doing some research on Peters, I found this lovely and entertaining article about him and two other artist pals who have lunched together for over thirty years.

“Time and Place” documentary  by Hop Litzwire features Peters working in his large studio.

Find recent work at the artist’s website.

Mason Fine Art is spacious, with an abundance of natural light. The exhibit is on view until April 7.
Mason Fine Art, 415 Plasters Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30324.  P: 404.879.1500
Gallery Hours  Tuesday through Friday, 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM and Saturday, Noon to 5:00 PM

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Al Taylor, What are You Looking At? High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Ending March 18th, Al Taylor, What are You Looking At? is a fascinating and entertaining exhibit. Exquisitely curated by the High’s Michael Rooks, I didn’t expect all three floors of the museum’s Anne Cox Chambers wing to be devoted to this idiosyncratic artist who died far too young at age 51 in 1999. Taylor’s proficiency at printmaking, sophisticated spatial sense and his droll sense of humor fuels the exhibit, drawing the viewer into his strolls along urban streets and his keen observational skills. Does anyone ever think about repurposing pet excrement?  Taylor was able to achieve elegance in his Tinguely inspired constructions and sculptures that feature just that subject matter- or maybe Rube Goldberg is a more appropriate mentor.

If you’re normally bored or infuriated by text accompanying imagery, you won’t be at this show. Wall text thoughtfully informs without presuming to unveil the soul of the artist or his innermost objectives. It allows our own imaginations to be stimulated and teased by the artwork.

Pet Stain Removal Device, 1989. Bamboo garden stakes, Plexiglas, enamel paint, wire and electrical tape. The Estate of Al Taylor, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

From the High’s website: The High Museum of Art is organizing the first museum survey in the United States to explore the career of American artist Al Taylor (1948–1999). With more than 150 sculptures, drawings, and prints drawn from several of the artist’s major series over nearly two decades, the exhibition will reveal the crisscrossing avenues of Taylor’s artistic inquiry and his innovative use of unexpected materials.”

The exhibition  features works from Taylor’s series Wheel Studies (1981–1985), Latin Studies (1984–1985), Pet Stains and Puddles (1989–1992), Pass the Peas (1991), X-Ray Tube (1995), Full Gospel Neckless (1997), and Bondage Duck (1998–99), among others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Piece (for Etienne-Jules Marey), 1990. Plexiglas, enamel paint, China Marker grease pencil, wood and wire. The Estate of Al Taylor, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London. Photo courtesy High Museum.

The Peabody Group #29, 1992 (close-up). Graphite pencil, watercolor, gouache, india ink, colored inks, colored pencil, and ballpoint pen on wove paper. The Morgan Library and Museum, New York. Gift of the Modern and Contemporary Collectors Committee.

Floaters (Pill Heads) 1998. Foamed plastic fishing net floats, acrylic paint, bamboo garden stakes, acrylic mica mortar, and pencil on Formica laminate with wood base mounted on a plastic milk crate. The Estate of Al Taylor, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

The museum text describes this piece as a variation in Taylor’s “wave theory series… that uses beachcombed fishing net floats to chart the sea’s movement…art historian Klaus Kertess described as ‘Malevich-cum-Lego’.

Taken as a whole with the other mixed media paintings and wall hung constructions, it’s obvious that Taylor got a kick out of assembling oddities and found throwaways into gut wrenching laughter producing art. I wasn’t the only person guffawing in the quiet of a Saturday morning visit. In comparison with similar assemblages of folk art this work presents highly considered spatial experimentation and as the information text notes, “recalibrates the structure of what the eyes see and how the mind comprehends it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bondage Duck #4, 1998-1999. Foamed plastic fishing net floats, rubber bands, latex coating, plastic leis, and bamboo garden stake with acrylic mica mortar mounted on a steel base. Collection of Debbie Taylor.

Thongs, 1989. From the Ten Common (Hawaiian Household) Objects portfolio. Drypoint, sugar-lift aquatint, and spit-bite aquatint printed in black ink on Zerkall Bütten paper; edition 11 of 15.

“What I am after, is just trying to let things make themselves. That’s not as easy as it sounds. It involves devising elaborate programs, systems, and methods which break down, fall apart, and change…taking on meanings and a life outside and beyond my original intentions.” -Al Taylor.

Untitled, 1990. Monotype, Image drawn in pencil and colored litho inks, printed with viscosity tints over solvent transfer on Rives BFK paper. Collection Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

In the first monotype above, Taylor used newspaper layering, similar to Rauschenberg’s  1950s process of printmaking. The pet stain motif continues and as the text mentions, the newspaper reminds us of puppy house-training. All too well, for this former dog owner.

Avenue Junot (2) 1990. Xerographic toner fixed with solvent on paper. Private collection, London. Promised gift to The British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings.

The juxtaposition of this print with André Kertész’s L’Avenue Junot de la maison de Tristan Tzara of 1926 is no accident. In 1990 Taylor spent time in Paris at a friend’s apartment that overlooked the same street. Again, streams of dog urine flowing around the street’s curve captured his imagination. The text states that “Taylor’s two imaginary puddles travel in a similar arcing pathway and converge at the bottom of his composition, where their pool becomes a sequence of loops lifting from the street and suspended in the air – foreshadowing his absurdly commonsensical idea of pet stain removal.”  But even knowing nothing about the print’s inspiration, one is charmed by the freeness of the linework and velvety blacks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

L’avenue Junot vue de la maison de Tristan Tzara, 1926. Gelatin silver print, Estate of André Kertész.

Untitled (Tight Turn), 1989. Line etching, spit bite aquatint, open bite etching, and drypoint printed in black ink on Zerkall Bütten paper. Edition 11/15. The Estate of Al Taylor, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

The text mentions that Taylor was living at Niels Borch Jensen’s print shop in Copenhagen, looked out a kitchen window and spotted an old truck tire hanging on a post set into a garbage can. Proof that Taylor didn’t wait for a monumental muse to strike, he simply used whatever presented itself at any given time of day – anywhere he happened to be. That type of artist is both familiar and rare, content to find interest and even beauty in dirt, dust and old crappy stuff lying around. If an object fell within his field of vision, Taylor utilized the moment to capture and transform. His vision just happened to be challenged (he wore glasses most of his life), but that impairment seems to have only increased his sensitivity.

Untitled: X-Ray Tube, 1995/1997, line etching, spit bite aquatint, and drypoint printed in black ink on Somerset Satin paper. The Estate of Al Taylor, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Untitled (Hoop Study), 1993, pencil, gouache, acrylic mica mortar, and correction fluid with collage on paper. Collection of Fred and Nancy Poses, New York.

The New York Times provided this obituary at the time of the artist’s death, noting that: “For many years he painted, but in 1980 he traveled to Africa and returned without enough money to buy canvas to paint on. Inspired by the way children in Africa fashioned toys out of trash, he began working with materials he found on the street. His first three-dimensional works were spare wall pieces made of broomsticks and thin wood slats that resembled skewed architectural models or functionless farm tools. He resisted calling himself a sculptor, expecting to work his way back to paint on canvas.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No title, 1985, acrylic paint on newsprint. The Estate of Al Taylor, Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.

Before Taylor stopped painting in 1985, he worked with acrylic on newsprint or solid grounds in the series above, possibly color studies and ideas for his future constructions.

Al Taylor in Bern, Switzerland, May 1992 (© Martin Müller).

One of the most fun and interesting shows I’ve seen in years, the exhibit ends in two weeks on March 18th, go see it! And don’t miss this great review in Arts ATL by Catherine Fox.

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Ron Saunders, “Pivot” at Besharat Gallery

The Besharat gallery space at 163-175 Peters Street is in the Castleberry Hill historic district of downtown Atlanta. Located in a magnificent 1875 brick and timber framed building, the gallery is a fantasy of levels and rooms filled with the owner’s private art collection. If I have the history correct, it was once home to carriage and buggy storage, supplying local industry that fronted the railroad tracks running underneath the Peters Street Bridge nearby.

Ron Saunders’ “Pivot” exhibit of his new work opened on February 9th, runs until March when most of the work will be moved to the second floor for the following month. He met me at the gallery this past Sunday and we talked about the paintings he was showing on the street floor. Most of the works were completed over the last three to four months.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frozen Pigment Painting Series, Iterative Pairs, 1 & 2.

Partial press release: Pivot represents both Ron Saunders’ future endeavors and current art practice.  Ron presents a set of new abstract paintings that expose the tension between traditional organization and uncontrolled natural forces resulting in imagery that could be coined “cataclysmic formalism”.

Along with this set of newer paintings, Ron continues his frozen pigment painting practice, which was first introduced in 2000. These works stand in opposition to the other paintings, in that they are created almost void of human intervention. These works, which are truly up to chance, are initiated by freezing water-borne paint and allowing it to melt and reconstitute over several days.

Saunders has moved around; he spent three years each in Los Angeles, New York, Seoul, South Korea, and now Atlanta. He teaches part-time at SCAD, and has an MFA from Ohio University. He considers himself a multidisciplinary artist, having engaged in performance art, media and installation.

The two sets of frozen pigment paintings on aluminum below are deceptive in the photos. In person, layering, almost flourescent chroma and dense texture can be seen. Saunders suggests that he wants to eliminate a direct hand in the pieces, although he’s obviously choosing color and location for where the paint will end up. The underlying aluminum casts a luminosity into the paint that gives the works an ethereal sheen.

Most photos courtesy of the artist.

Frozen Pigment Series, Iterations 5 & 6. Acrylic on aluminum, 32x16in

Frozen Pigment Series, Iterations 3 & 4. Acrylic on aluminum, 32x16in

When I first saw these frozen pigment works in the invitation to Saunders’ show, I was reminded of Gerhard Richter’s 2008 “Sinbad Series” that employed painting with lacquer on the back of glass. Coincidentally, the artist had helped hang a 1998 Richter exhibit at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio.

Saunders has a completely different approach both technically and perhaps in his objective for the end result. At times, he uses a vat of liquid nitrogen and drips or puts dollops of paint into it, creating flash freezing. Saunders says that the process allows the medium of the paint to take precedence over the role of the mark maker.

Painting with acrylic on plywood panels, he repurposed some of his work from 2011-12, and layering from previous paintings may be glimpsed. He will begin a painting and then use Photoshop to crop and work out color corrections and overlays. In one of the paintings on plywood, he includes a spackling compound to create depth, sanding the layers as he works. He has also used Korean rice paper as a collage element in one of the paintings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clotho. Acrylic, hanji and ink on plywood, 54x39in

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lachesis. Acrylic on wood, 54x39in

Saunders’ titles for most of the exhibit’s paintings on wood are derived from Greek mythology, including the Fates, “three conjoined Fates, robed in white, whom Erebus begot on Night: by name Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos.” My ancient Robert Graves book, The Greek Myths:1 also notes that the Fates myth may have been based on the custom of weaving family and clan marks into a new born child’s swaddling bands, allotting a place in society. Clotho is the ‘spinner’, Lachesis the ‘measurer’, Atropos is ‘she who cannot be turned, or avoided.’ He goes on to suggest that “Zeus, who weighs the lives of men and informs the Fates of his decision, can change his mind and intervene to save whom he pleases, when the thread of life, spun on Clotho’s spindle, and measured by the rod of Lachesis, is about to be snipped by Atropos’s shears.” Don’t mess with Atropos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Atropos. Acrylic, ink, plaka and spray on plywood, 54x39in

But beyond the Fates, Saunders has included the title Chronos for one of his paintings. Chronos was in Greek mythology, the father of time, not to be confused with Kronos (or Cronus), Zeus’s Titan father, who had a bad habit of eating his newborn sons to avoid being dethroned.

The painting Ananke’s Spindle, is titled for the goddess who was the mate of Chronos, and Plato would suggest that Ananke was the mother of the Fates (the Moirai) from this union. This is in keeping with the belief that Ananke was the goddess that directed the fate of all gods and mortals. She is usually portrayed holding a spindle, her outstretched arms encompassing the world.

The Greek theme did not influence any of the paintings’ genesis, but the pieces in this show could be seen to reflect mythological and earthly conflicts. Saunders’ palette uses black with vivid primary colors, to highlight dynamic brushwork. The titling only intensifies the work’s overall dramatic impact.

Chronos (with closeup from my gallery shot). Acrylic, ink, spray paint on plywood, 40x64in

The exhibit also includes a painting titled Adrasteia, after the nymph who helped to raise Zeus in secret and protect him from his anxious father.

Adrasteia. Acrylic and ink on plywood, 54x39in

Ananke’s Spindle. Acrylic, ink, plaka and spray on plywood, 40x64in

Abstract Dragons #7. Acrylic, ink and spray paint on hardboard, 32×32 in

Besharat backs up to 141 Mangum Street, where the original Pillow Tex mattress factory was discovered by yours truly in 1980, when it was full of sawdust, feathers and 3 floors of huge empty space. The realtor who allowed me access said the entire building could be had for $180k at the time. It has since become mostly lofts, but in the past offered space for performances and art. Back then, artist friends cohabited the spacious 7,000 square feet per floor in the 3 story building, but official records don’t note the area being developed until 1983.

The Besharat Gallery, 163-175 Peters Street, Atlanta, GA 30313. ph: 404.524.4781 Parking: 165 Mangum St. SW, Atlanta, GA 30313. Hours: By appointment or
Thursday – Saturday, 10am – 5pm. Email: info@besharatgallery.com

Ron Saunders: http://ronlsaunders.com
http://instagram.com/ronsaunders
https://www.facebook.com/ronsaundersart

Courtesy Johnny Simmons photography

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