On a forgotten block of Downtown Atlanta, four artists are literally changing the face of Atlanta. Their tractor-green lifts move on the building faces like dancing robot arms, lit up against the dark Atlanta skyline. Just a short walk away, Adrian Barzaga is saving the abandoned Constitution building from demolition and heightening (in every sense of the word) the profile of the Atlanta arts scene. Meanwhile, other artists descend upon the city: there’s healing through light-bathing rituals, spoken word, a run through the city papered with beautiful wheat pastes, and a fiber installation that draws attention to the momentum of Woodruff Park. As a result of the Office of Cultural Affairs’ Elevate Atlanta 2012 project, there has already been talk, among people with the right resources, of turning the area into a historic district, closing it off to through traffic, and buying the buildings to turn them into art spaces.
Courtney Hammond, a supervisor of the Public Arts program at the OCA, invited me to the nightly, family-style dinners they have for the artists. In a quiet corner of the downtown Fairfield Inn, the artists and city employees were seated at gray tables, eating BBQ sandwiches. I walked in, late and flustered, after getting lost driving around downtown Atlanta (let’s face it—just like most of the people I know, I never go downtown).
I sat down at a table where Adrian Barzaga and his assistant are talking about the apocalyptic disrepair inside the Constitution building, which has a lovely curved front because it was originally built around the printing press. Their process is fascinating—they are reinforcing the window structures and creating a wooden veneer, which they then paint over with a unified design across the building. Later, I ended up at the 100 block of South Broad Street, where the muralists are painting through the night, and where I would end up almost every night this week, watching the faces of the buildings change by the hour.
Elevate consists of four commissions. Jessica Caldas’ “Back On My Feet” focuses on homelessness and community outreach; Lillian Blades, Roni – Nicole Henderson, and Linda Costa’s “Banho de Luz,” represents Atlanta’s diverse history and the artists’ own diversity, actively involving the viewers as participants in healing light baths in the Carnegie Education Pavilion. Adrian Barzagas’ Constitution Building project simultaneously solves everything aesthetically and structurally wrong with that building with a simple, sleek, contemporary design; and Randy Walker’s fiber installation in Woodruff Park focuses on the upward movement of Woodruff Park and of Atlanta at large.
Banho De Luz
The South Broad murals are a project that supports these commissions, along with the Imaginary Million event, which involved 100 local artists and spoke to the local art economy and collecting in Atlanta, which needs to be talked about. “We don’t collect enough art here. We don’t purchase enough artwork, and it doesn’t build our arts economy fast enough,” Courtney says. I went to the Imaginary Million event, which was breathtaking. As if to further reiterate the importance of community to this project, one artist gave me a painting I had been admiring all night, which my friend Kory and I proceeded to walk around downtown with. The attention it got from bystanders only reinforced the need Downtown has for projects like Elevate.
But back to the South Broad mural project, which has captured my imagination and is sparking some very important conversations about how we use neglected spaces in Atlanta. I spoke with Courtney about the murals while making a paint run late Monday night.
What is the South Broad mural project, exactly?
It’s a permanent installation that could be an arts place maker. We brought in all these artists, with Hense being the curator.
Hense recently did a beautiful project on a cathedral in DC that’s similar to what’s going on here.
That cathedral is sitting in a place where they’re looking to make an art space right across the street. They bought an old school, and it was kind of an eyesore. So his work is kind of a marker for this new arts place. He was working on that as we were speaking to each other about this project, so it just kind of all happened really fast, and he started talking about Sever and Born. They have a history in Atlanta, and their names are all over everything.
Then he brought up Push, who had a very sleek, contemporary, minimalist design, and a similar color palette to Hense. Tilt was brought on in the beginning because of our relationship with our sister city, Toulouse, where he is from. Because he fits perfectly with this project, we pushed really hard to bring him here. He has a different style than the rest of the guys, but he’s taking this approach to history and thinking with the community that ties in perfectly. Tilt is actually going around and meeting everyone he passes on that street. He takes their name down, and his painting is a giant American flag, made up of the names of all the people that walk down that street.
A lot of their names are very interesting, like the man who runs this shop that serves the homeless people every Sunday. His name is Abdul, but his full name is actually about a mile long. So Tilt meets Abdul and asks his real name and explains why. It’s going to give all these people ownership of this artwork. Those people are going to be able to walk by every day and say “Oh, the top right hand corner—that’s my name. I’m a part of this artwork.” Giving the community ownership is so important in public art. If you put something somewhere and the people around it don’t appreciate it, what’s the point? It’s there for them.
How does Sever’s piece tie in with the themes of Elevate?
Sever is doing a piece on three of the buildings collectively. He spoke to Abdul, who I mentioned earlier, about how there is a lack of education in the area. So he’s doing this piece that’s called “I’m Not a Player, I Just Read a Lot,” and its going to be an educational piece that goes across the front of the building. It’s going to be pretty straightforward, and it’s important to have a really straightforward piece. You have all this abstract artwork, but for people to have something to say to somebody, like “You know what that means.” It’s kind of undercutting, like “What is all of this if you’re not educated?”
Hense & Born
How does having these murals right here change how people might see this city?
That’s the mission of Elevate–for people to see that Atlanta does have a vibrant art community. Many of the people who visit downtown stay in downtown, and then they leave. They don’t go elsewhere. This is what they see. Because of these events and murals, I’ve already had people get off of tour buses and say to me “I didn’t realize Atlanta had such a vibrant arts community.” That’s exactly what we want to hear.
Elevate continues through Saturday. For a schedule of events and more information, visit
Photo Credit: Tim Song