By Nancy Jackson | Photos By Andrew Tucker
With bands and artists like R.E.M. and the B-52’s finding inspiration and fame in the college town, it’s not difficult to understand why the Classic City has long been heralded as a music capital. However, in past years, public art has begun to spring up between the ginkgo trees that line the streets of downtown. With painted murals on buildings like the Last Resort, to hand-made glittering mosaics glazed over light pole bases and iconic bulldog figures lining the streets, the Athens Downtown Development Authority has advocated for more and more public art in Athens. The creation of the Downtown Athens Art Walk is the culmination of all the public art spanning Downtown, Normaltown and Alps.
According to Linda Ford, the director of business services for the Downtown Development Authority, there has been a larger push for more public art installations in the past 20 years.
“Public art has been [in Athens] for a while,” Ford says. “The first bulldogs were created in 2002, and at that time there weren’t a lot of artists in Athens making a living from art. Now we have this art community where people can really make money being an artist here.”
Beginning by rounding up the already existing public art pieces in the district, the development authority established the Downtown Art Walk and began funding public art as a way to increase economic development downtown and add to the eclectic and creative art industry in Athens.
“What I love about public art is getting the public engaged,” says Didi Dunphy, program supervisor of Lyndon House Arts Center. “Large-scale murals can provide pride, enrichment, and care for a neighborhood and culture as well as the people and businesses existing there.”
Most recently, Athenians can enjoy the new addition of mural “Hot Corner: An Athens Legacy” on Washington and Lumpkin streets created by Miami-based international artist Elio Mercado and local Athens artist Broderick Flanigan. The mural, which celebrates the historic African American business community in the Classic City was partially funded by the Cultural Affairs Commission with a National Endowment of the Arts grant. The mural features Monroe Bowers “Pink” Morton, founder of the Morton Theatre, at the top left of the mural. Originally, the mural was planned to be painted on the Morton Theatre. Homer Wilson, the owner of Wilson’s Styling Shop and founder of the Hot Corner Celebration, is also highlighted in the mural. Various African American musicians are displayed on the mural to represent the community that existed while Hot Corner was regarded as the heart of the African American community in Athens.
Recently, the Downtown Development Authority has partnered with local artist Krysia Ara to launch Project Ginkgo. Project Ginkgo, named after the ginkgo biloba tree commonly seen downtown, is a project to create three to four new mosaic installations each year.
Ara was inspired by her life in Athens when the idea for Project Ginkgo sprung up. “Growing up I had this awareness of ginkgo trees from being downtown and thought of them as the ‘Athens Tree’ with their distinctive leaves and shape,” Ara said. After many of the trees had to be removed the artist thought that her mosaics could be an original and innovative way to keep ginkgos Downtown.
So far, the Downtown Development Authority has funded the installation of seven shimmering mosaics on the bases of light poles across downtown Athens. The beautiful mosaics reflect the scenery they are engulfed in. In front of the iconic 40 Watt Club, “Soundwaves” depicts the rise and fall of music frequencies with royal and emerald-colored mirror. “Shiny Bikes,” which is located in front of The National, reflects a newly added bike rack and bike lane reflects an intricate sparkling bicycle and gingko leaves. Each of the mosaics features ginkgo leaves created by pressing authentic ginkgo leaves into clay before firing them in a kiln. The glimmering, hand-made mosaics are a labor of love. They helped transform the once utilitarian light poles into contemporary works of art and attempt to preserve the spirit of the many ginkgo trees that were removed from the streets of downtown.
Ara enjoys including community members in the creation of these public art projects. With Project Ginkgo, the leaves are a community project and folks will take over Little Kings for a night to help create them with a ceramics-glazing happy hour. Little Kings is a community-focused and family-friendly bar that is also featured on the Downtown Art Walk for the mural by artist Trek Matthews.
“Having kids under 9 and adults over 90 helps community members feel like a part of the project,” Ara says. “I see that it’s a valuable experience for people and it’s a way to connect people into the project. I love the idea of building in the community into the work in some type of way.” Athenians can expect to see Ginkgo Garden by Ara next. The new mosaic is inspired by the Last Resort mural by Dave Jenkins and, will feature aspects of the mural and of course, lots and lots ginkgo leaves.
In the future, Athenians will be able to enjoy a new feature coming to the Downtown Art Walk. The upcoming addition of the Athens Music Walk of Fame will feature 10 bronze plaques to reflect Athens’ musical heritage.
“The plan is to induct those who have contributed to the identity and richness of music in Athens and look deeply into the long view of music here,” says Dunphy. The plaques will be strategically located to encompass Athens’ most prominent music locations: The Georgia Theatre, Morton Theatre and the 40 Watt Club.
The iconic music scene has been an inspiration for other artists across Athens. Anthony Wislar, the artist of the Creature Comforts Brewing Co. mural, was inspired by the musical talent in Athens and how the city fosters creativity.
“I wanted to encompass the history of Athens music without leaving people out,” says Wislar. “So, I focused on the future of Athens music and how Athens is an encouraging place for creative development.”