August 2022

I haven’t posted about any recent exhibits, one I’m in this summer is a juried show at the Bowery Gallery in NYC. The critic and author Lance Esplund curated 35 artists into the group show. Happy to promote it, the link to the work in the show is here, in alphabetical order. If you’re in the Chelsea neighborhood this thursday, drop by. Sadly, I’m unable to attend.

Additionally, very happy to be swimming regularly again since June, fingers crossed that the masks do their job out of the pool. Stay healthy, everyone!

Upcoming exhibition:
Bowery Gallery Juried Show, 2022

For Immediate Release
July 2022

Bowery Gallery 31st Annual National Juried Exhibition

Lance Esplund, Juror

August 2 – 20, 2022

Reception: Thursday, August 4, 5-8 pm

Bowery Gallery is pleased to present its annual national juried exhibition, on view at the gallery in its new 27th Street location from August 2 through August 20, 2022. The juror for the show, which comprises two-dimensional works by 35 artists living and working across the United States, is Lance Esplund, author of “The Art of Looking: How to Read Modern and Contemporary Art” (Basic Books). Mr. Esplund is currently an art critic for The Wall Street Journal. He was the U.S. art critic for Bloomberg News; chief art critic for the New York Sun; and the New York correspondent and an editorial board member at Modern Painters. Mr. Esplund has taught at Parsons, Rider University, and Queens College. He has served on a Pulitzer prize committee and been a guest critic at the New York Studio School. Mr. Esplund’s writing on art has appeared in numerous publications, including Air MailArt in AmericaThe AtlanticHarper’s, The New Republic, and Threepenny Review, among others

Gallerygoers will encounter artists showing for the first time in New York, as well as artists in mid-career. The thirty-five artists chosen by Mr. Esplund live in all parts of the US, and they work in oils, watercolor, gouache, pastel, and mixed media. The eclectic mix of styles—abstract and figurative—reflects the approach that has characterized the gallery in its more than fifty years in New York. Bowery exhibitions have been discussed in articles and reviews in publications including The New York TimesThe New YorkerThe New RepublicThe New, Art in America, and Arts.

The exhibition continues through August 20.

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January 2022

Another lap regimen interruption due to Omicron’s stealthy and seemingly omnipotent infectiousness. Someone said ‘even a whiff of breath’ while passing by could transmit the disease. For most, it’s rumored to be like a mild flu. But for anyone who endures “nasty head colds” that invariably result in intransigent and chronic bronchial infections, I say no thanks. I’ve hunkered down for the third time in going on three years to wait it out. So far my 2-3 mile walks around the elementary school track a block away have been relatively solitary. If and when kids, dogs and neighbors show up, I move on. Walking through my historic yet developing neighborhood is always interesting, and the hills provide a good workout.

One of the past week’s brisk walks was in windy 35F degree weather, mostly around the school track, with a jaunt through the ongoing subdivision development. That was on a friday, by Sunday morning we had a dusting of wet snow that threatened to shut down the entire state.

Wrens or sparrows, hard to say
The backyard’s bluebird house and evergreens. Avondale Estates, GA

Nothing like the 2-3ft snowstorms I regularly experienced while living in West Chester, PA or South Bend, IN. My now 21 year old LL Bean ‘duck’ boots are mostly relegated to garden work here in metro Atlanta, but one winter they were broken in during a heavy snowfall on a chilly walk to work in South Bend.

West Chester, PA February 2009
Forsythia hedge in February storm, 2009 West Chester, PA
December 2009, West Chester, PA

When I lived in Nova Scotia and Toronto during my twenties, I saw storms that entered the realm of tall tales; the +8ft drifts so high we had to jump out the second story window to dig out the drift piled against the front door. Or when we had to tie ropes around ourselves to walk to the barn to feed the chickens in blizzards – or to the outhouse… That was the same winter that the Volvo wouldn’t start for 3 weeks even though the battery had been plugged into an outlet to stay charged. A pal who lived miles away had to drive out in his 1950 army surplus 4×4 Willys jeep to jump us. The same winter that the cast iron stove cracked from the -50F temps at night when it hadn’t been stoked in over a couple of hours. Ours wasn’t the only wood burning stove that cracked that winter, when the temperature didn’t rise above 0F for over three weeks. The circa 1930 house had no hot running water, spring fed gravity run water was heated in a special compartment in the woodstove. Baths? Picture a dustbowl documentary with families taking baths in galvanized tubs, water heated by the kitchen’s woodstove.

Toronto saw its share of big snows back then, I can remember the downtown financial center blanketed in four to five foot drifts. Commuters switched to mass transit, which was easy; bus and subway lines plentiful even in 1973.

However, a short-lived winter in the South in a house with a new furnace is no comparison to a hay bale banked farmhouse in 1970s Nova Scotia. Even with a pandemic circulating, the perks of civilized urban life are gratifying.

Breaking away from the weather, the last two years have been full of study; plants, fungi and trees, insects. In the silence afforded by our various semi lockdowns, I’ve moved closer to the earth, paid more attention to small movements and sounds. Books on nature have helped inform, so have master gardeners who have been working with native plants far longer than I – who can identify a specific weed or flower in an instant.

And when it comes to songbirds, I know the ones common to Georgia or birds that migrate through on a yearly basis. I installed a bluebird house years ago, and because up to 44% of Eastern Bluebird males return to the same house/nesting area, the ones I’m currently seeing may be the same couple or relatives. They can live from 6-10 years. Last spring I had three clutches in the house, which was a first. A rose-breasted House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus, is still a lovely novelty in my yard. I never feed birds past early spring, but they get treated to suet and seed during winter and if a friend gifts me with a bag of mealy worms, the bluebirds are happy.

Adult male House Finch, courtesy Martina Nordstrand 2020.

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November, second year of the pandemic

It’s been about six months since my last post, in mid June I resumed swimming after more than a year’s lapse. By early August the Delta variant interfered. The booster in late September and numbers of cases decreasing in metro Atlanta allowed me to get back in the pool by mid October, now I’m back to my regular just under a mile laps. It’s also been lovely to resume some socializing, although I still haven’t gone to any galleries or visited a museum. The new variant found in South Africa is troubling, especially if it disrupts the lap regimen again.

The virus isn’t stopping all plans; two old friends are strategizing on how to make a move, one is heading to France and the other to Italy. Upper Normandy is one friend’s quest for purchasing his first house, which may end up being a historic fixer-upper in some quaint village in Orne or Manche.

Stone house for sale in Échalou, Orne, Normandy

Self-imposed painting residency in Bretagne, here I come! I’ve spent time in Tuscany and Umbria but have never visited rural France. I speak and understand French much better than Italian, but practice ahead will be needed. There is a stunning nature reserve, with a couple of treetop and hilltop rental structures in the Perche, in the beautiful green valley of Bellou-le-Trichard. A perfect base for painting and exploring organic farms in the area, it’s about an hour east of Orne, where my pal is looking to buy. And only a couple of hours south of Paris.

Photo courtesy Perché dans le Perche

If the virus gives us a break and I can rent out my future ADU (code for painting studio in my backyard), then that might easily cover a month or even a year long European sojourn. I’ve been dreaming about adding a detached studio for years, now seems like the time. During my working years, annual painting trips to coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest, Vancouver Island and mountains of northern British Columbia offered inspiration and experiences that weren’t possible with either friends or partners in tow. My late best friend was a good traveling companion and we met up at jazz festivals in various cities and countries, but sketching with her around was a challenge. Arts residencies are an option, but I’m not always invested in the location. Traveling alone is my preference to be able to paint on site, and a trek to somewhere new has been delayed for too long. The storage facility around the corner can also come in handy, if my house were to be rented out for longer periods.

Photo courtesy Perché dans le Perche
Photo courtesy Perché dans le Perche

As for art here in the states, I’ll miss the Titian exhibit at the Isabella Stewart Gardener museum in Boston. Six of his works are on exhibit until Jan 2, 2022 and have not been shown together since the mid 1500s when the artist was commissioned by King Philip II of Spain to produce the series. The Joan Mitchell retrospective is traveling from SFMOMA and ending up in Paris at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in the fall of 2022, which I hope to see. In the Nov. 4 issue of the NYRB, Jed Perl offers an astute and brilliant review of the exhibit. I traveled from South Bend, IN to NYC in 2002 to see Mitchell’s much smaller exhibit at the Whitney, which was stunning. Perl doesn’t seem to be on Twitter but a snippet from the review can be found: “In our all-or-nothing culture, creative work is too often either apotheosized or ignored. You’re a rock star or you’re nothing. The public has little appetite for nuance. This makes it difficult to write about the achievement of Joan Mitchell.”

The Stanley Whitney video on the SFMOMA website, in which he masterfully describes how Mitchell painted, is a delight. He ‘gets’ what any good colorist sees in Mitchell. As one of my early influences, she’s still relevant. No one can paint like her, no one can summon up the emotional context that so obviously springs from her deep love of nature.

Joan Mitchell, My Landscape II, 1967
Joan Mitchell, Sunflowers 1990-1991

It’s been exhilarating to be vigorously exercising again and feeling halfway normal. My painting has suffered productivity issues, but the work has been full of gestural, exuberant colors as if to make up for the slowing of our everyday lives.

One of the better choices I made in the first few months of 2020, was training to become a Master Gardener, courtesy the UGA/DeKalb County Extension program. The classes switched to virtual in early March, the 2o2o class is slated to celebrate our certification this December. Volunteering at the Wylde Center in Decatur has widened my knowledge of native plants and of relationships between cultivation and the wild. For years I’d been yanking out ageratum, a native wildflower and pollinator with tiny blue pincushion tufts – thinking it was a weed. In fact, it was a well adjusted plant in my yard. Even a landscaper friend had urged me to dig up the prolific native pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) in my yard, which many songbirds love for its purple seeds. A Wylde volunteer told me that the plant is revered in parts of Europe and it is beautiful, if deadly poisonous.

The Wylde team has shared links to various webinars given by experts like entomologist and ecologist Doug Tallamy (based in Chester County, PA, where I lived from 2004-2010), scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose latest book, Braiding Sweetgrass, has informed my current less is more approach in my own gardens and yard. Other wonderful zoom presentations included Thomas Piper’s film Five Seasons, on Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf and the International Plant Exploration program with Scott McMahan of Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Photo courtesy Five Seasons film
Photo courtesy Five Seasons film

Decades of living and working land organically, next to wild blueberry fields in Nova Scotia or on top of a rocky outcropping in the mountains of western Maine also offered me a unique perspective on nature. My yard in Chester County PA had backed up to a former horse farm and the region had some of the most fertile soils in the world, mollisols. Along with ample rain, it was easy enough to grow almost anything.

It’s rare that anyone experiences nature closely – unless they’re an artist, botanist or gardener. We tend to engage more often with plants and tiny critters. Looking intently is also the painter’s task, both vocations intersect. As a result, I’ve planted more natives in my yard, intentionally adding verticals for spatial interest, and more variety for color. My bank of studio windows is ideally positioned to view the gardens and backyard. Robin Wall Kimmerer writes beautifully and poetically about seeing and listening to the way rain falls differently from say, cedars or maples or moss, in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. Barry Lopez has a more journalistic and travelogue approach in his last book, Horizon. Both authors pay homage to the natural world in their works. Lopez was an inveterate traveler for most of his life. The drive to experience new ideas, places and vistas seems to be ingrained in most artists and my own wanderlust is on high alert these days.

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May and Mother’s Day remembrances

My mom visited me at my invitation in 1997 after I’d recently moved to San Francisco for a job I’d snagged that January, about six months after my gig at the Atlanta Olympic Games had ended. The toss-up was between a higher paying job in NYC or SF, but since I’d had a decade long dream to live in the Bay area, I chose the latter. I was in heaven and at the time blissfully unattached, focused on work and enjoying the city and environs’ spectacular visual beauty. Never wanting to be far away from her children, she slept on my sofa rather than stay in a hotel. At the time I was living in one of the last remaining Victorian houses on Corbett Street in Twin Peaks, still there today and still owned by Daniel Scher, a former promoter and manager for rock impresario Bill Graham. I tracked him down one day about something rent related, and he barked into the phone, ‘how’d you get my number?’

It was a delight to hear the wind off the bay at night and to discover secret staircases that connected small neighborhoods on those peaks high above downtown. If you’re going to live in San Francisco, one of its many hills is the best choice. I ended up in an inner Sunset house my last few years in the city, which was a few blocks from Golden Gate Park and ideal for sketching. The larger paintings that evolved from those sketches remain some of my favorites. For walks and views, though, Mount Davidson and Twin Peaks can’t be beat.

Nina at 74
A stop to shoot the view overlooking the 17 mile drive, Pebble Beach, CA

Getting back to our visit, I wanted her to see as much as possible in the week she had with me; we drove down to Big Sur and along the way to the Hearst Castle and the Pebble Beach golf club; she had become an avid and decent golfer in the last 20 years of her life.

Corbett Street with Casey

A special dinner out was at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, I saved our menu. We didn’t see Alice Waters, but I know that Mom loved the food. Simple, elegant and incredibly fresh.

In Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Gardens
Overlooking the famous Lone Cypress on 17 mile drive, Pebble Beach. Mom later did a painting of the scene.
Mom with Bougainvillea that grows freely up walls all over the city

We stayed at the Ventana Inn in Big Sur, where one morning Mom stepped out onto the deck of our room to see a Lynx or Bobcat prowling in the grasses. We toured the Hearst Castle, passing through Carmel and Monterey Bay on the way. The renowned Nepenthe restaurant was a lunch stop combined with amazing views. I have an entire photo album devoted to the trip. We tried to get my sister to fly out and join us, but that year was the first in a succession during which she refused to correspond or speak to me – just one of several mysterious and unresolved communication disruptions that continue to occur in our late adult relationship. She moved down to Atlanta the year after I did in 1976 and has stayed, never living anywhere else. My brother was invited as well, but he has always refused to fly.

My dad had traveled extensively throughout the world during his years in the navy, and relocated from Hollywood to the east coast for his career, where he met my mother in DC. She had not gone a great distance from her hometown outside Winston-Salem, NC – but she went far enough to make a radical change. I followed my father’s route in reverse, with a final move back to Atlanta. Maybe not so final, the adventure of living again in a strange city remains alluring.

With my hi-8 in Golden Gate Park’s Japanese Gardens

I had wanted to fly my mother to Paris when I took a job as graphics artist with the Goodwill Games a decade earlier in 1986 and worked for a couple of months in Moscow. After the gig, I headed to Amsterdam after the Games to meet my then partner, we did a jaunt to Switzerland and the plan was to have her finally meet up with us in Paris, where she’d never been. Somehow we ended up missing that chance to tour Paris together, and I’ve always regretted it. We did spend shorter trips in Asheville, NC and a few beach vacations to the NC coasts where we’d drive from Raleigh, where she lived at the time, to paint together. I still miss talking to her about art, and although she wasn’t fond of abstract work, her knowledge about painting spoke to her decades of study and practice.

At the time she visited me in San Francisco I was working in SOMA, before it became overly gentrified and when the Mission district was enduring Latino gang war culture conflicts. The dotcom boom was just beginning in the late 90s, it was a different and exciting world. My company, ZDTV, and CNET were the early forerunners of the streaming world we know today, except that both networks were focused on all things computer related. Chat rooms were the equivalent of Facebook and Twitter, our young tech savvy audience was devoted and loved Dev Null, a virtual character, who would banter with the then not so famous Soledad O’Brien.

The trip my mom took to San Francisco was the last time she traveled with me. It was both bittersweet then, and wonderful now because of the memories. Just under five years later the dotcom boom would go bust and I would relocate for a job in the midwest, in Pete Buttigieg’s hometown of South Bend. She was gone in the first few months of that new job. Three years after that I would be offered a job outside Philly in West Chester, PA. The circle of jobs over almost 14 years took me close to my own hometown of Princeton, a little over an hour from where I lived for the next six years.

Corbett Street

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Basketball and art

I never would have compared the two fields, except that I finally got around to watching The Last Dance on Netflix. Michael Jordan’s drive and ambition is exactly what most artists – if they ever aspire to any lasting notoriety – have at their core. I had the opportunity to see Jordan play in 1984 while he was still a youngster at UNC and before he became the great MJ. He was riveting, but so were other players in that same game; his teammate at UNC, Matt Doherty, and rival James Worthy from NC State. I still haven’t figured out which game they played and where, but I do remember the names. I have absolutely no interest in most sports, but basketball is fun to watch because it’s fast and dance-like.

Photo courtesy Andy Hayt
Photo courtesy NBA

Jordan had a strong father and mother pushing and supporting him, which evidently made all the difference. His father was especially close and after his death, Jordan takes a break from the sport. It’s questionable whether that model of support applies to the arts, since so many of us have intense parental conflicts that result in similar outcomes. My own father was highly supportive and nudged me into competitive arenas that included music, performing arts and sports. I was a disaster at his sport of tennis, but at least I was a decent swimmer thanks to early lessons as a kid, and the fact that he had a pool built in our backyard when my brother was a toddler. Those California roots gave us some homegrown options. It wasn’t until after he died that I became a lightning fast swimmer with great form. He would have loved that. As for art, if he hadn’t encouraged excellence and an innate ambition, I doubt I would have pursued a career in the field with such persistence. Sadly, he was gravely ill during most of my other two siblings’ formative years. Our mother, although she was a fine painter, was less apt to push any of us to excel. I suspect she thought I had enough of that from enduring advanced placement during middle and high school years in the Princeton public school system.

In watching the documentary, the one outstanding difference between Jordan and other players was his bravery and ability to exist fully in the moment. Someone in the film calls him a mystic. It’s a rare trait to deny failure or weakness, it doesn’t endear others to the person who exhibits that strength. He was seemingly as much beloved as he was despised. His siblings are mostly left out of the portrait, except for one older brother with whom he was excruciatingly competitive. I’m sure he was envied by the under achievers in his own family, those early days set the stage for his later accomplishments.

Sports is a pure form, like dance, in that the body magnifies and exalts the art of movement. There is no contrivance, the craft exists perhaps more in the triangulation of space (as in the ‘triangle offense’). My former painting teachers used to watch tennis for relaxation. I don’t especially enjoy watching sports, but the addiction to movement in swimming, hiking or simply digging in the garden is something I can relate to.

If you’ve never watched The Last Dance, it’s a fascinating look at the inner workings of a sports dynasty, and loads of fun to see the team work together to win those 6 NBA championships.

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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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