On a chilly Friday afternoon, I found myself on an urban hike in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward.
I’d asked Art on the Beltline administrators Fred Yalouris, Director of Design, and Elan Buchen, Project Coordinator of Art and Design, to answer a few questions, and they’d suggested meeting at the Beltline entrance by Memorial Drive to view some art. It was only halfway out that Yalouris let his motives slip.
Describing the project he said, “We use art and history to bring people on the Beltline to walk it and embrace it as a public realm. That was the initial idea, to trick people into going on a walk.” When I asked if I’d been tricked that day he replied, “Yeah! [As people walk] it’s like, what’s here? Let’s go a little further. Suddenly you’ve gone three miles.”
The Beltline Project, a $2.8 billion redevelopment project that will connect the city via the historic railroad corridor, has also afforded the city of Atlanta its largest opportunity for public art. This year there were 46 visual works and over 30 performance pieces, a 30 percent increase from last year. With a few weeks left of Art on the Beltline’s second year, it’s a good time to reflect on the project’s recent accomplishments and assess how it has and will continue to evolve.
Much of the art is strong. Works like Eric Simonsen’s The Freedom Parkway Skyline, created by perforating sheets of metal, are well-executed and enduring enough to be permanent. Other pieces, like Alana Wolf and Kristen Juárez’s Eat Me, a trio of vertical edible gardens, and Dr. Dax’s All Dogs Go to Heaven, a mural celebrating his late dog, speak specifically to the nature of the Beltline project,recognizing the importance of the green public spaces Atlantans hold dear, including urban gardens and dog parks.
Several art works are the product of the support and collaboration of local businesses. The mural by street artists Labrona, overunder, and Gawd on the back wall of the South Park Lofts, as one example, required the approval of that building’s board and owners. Yalouris said several representatives of the building were familiar with Art on the Beltline from the previous year and were encouraging of its expansion.
He said, “I like to think of all the players as taking a chance with this. The Beltline is taking a chance; the city is taking a chance; [as are] the artists, the founders, the businesses: Everyone’s involved.”
This sense of community investment was echoed by Jerry Slater, owner of the restaurant H. Harper Station located on Memorial Drive abutting the Beltline. He said, “I think it’s wonderful. I feel like we’ve got a private museum next to the restaurant. We [H. Harper Station] hosted the opening this year as well as talks and events. We feel like a partner in this and are very lucky to have it here.”
When asked if there were any inconveniences due to parking, as the H. Harper lot is right next to the Beltline’s performance stage, he said the parking issue had been minor, but overall he was happy for the foot traffic. Slater said, “For us it’s been a good symbiosis. People come for the art and wander in and vice versa.”
Slater also appreciates the Beltline as a resident of the community. He lives a few blocks from the restaurant and stated that he is constantly on the Beltline, enjoying the outdoors and walking his dog.
Slater isn’t the only one. Even mid-afternoon on a Friday the Beltline was an active corridor. On our walk we passed several people getting some exercise, walking their dogs, or biking. A group of children tugged at and tangled pieces in the Hammock Garden on the Beltline (a collection of brightly-colored hammocks meant to encourage relaxation) appropriating the hammocks as flags and sails.
Usually public art is brought to the people. In this case, the Beltline brings people to the art. Though the Beltline administrators have learned certain aspects require maintenance, like pruning back weeds so they don’t choke the art, other issues like vandalism have decreased. According to Yalouris and Buchen, the increased number of people on the Beltline has left fewer opportunities for mischief.
Art on the Beltline still lacks a cohesive curated vision, but the administrators are learning from and adapting the project as they go. Buchen, an artist himself, was brought on as an intern before being hired full time this year to act as the public art administrator, working closely with the artists to facilitate their work. Last year the Beltline events predominantly took place in the summer, but after realizing students weren’t as free to participate over summer vacation, they scheduled this year’s events for the fall.
They also plan to continue to increase the opportunities for artist participation. According to Buchen, “We’re opening up a major section of the beltline corridor and want to do a lot there. We want people to adopt this space and use it for what they want it to be.” Yalouris agreed, saying, “Next year we’re doing more outreach; we [aim to include] more people, and more and better art. We want a rising current of more community investment.”
Hands Along the Rail, the work by Lonnie Holley next to H. Harper Station, may prove to be directional for Art on the Beltline’s long-term vision. Yalouris called it “one of our most important pieces.” Hands Along the Rail is an assemblage of found-objects on the Beltline; spikes, chains, a tree trunk, and rocks are bound together within a triangular frame made of old rail.
According to Holley’s adviser and manager Matt Arnett, “Lonnie had a strong connection with [the Beltline] at the start. Birmingham, where he’s from, is an industrial city with a little-known interstate. So much of our history as a country and as cities like Atlanta and Birmingham was built on railroads. Lonnie always told me you can learn a lot about the city by walking its tracks. He sees the Beltline as a forgotten artery.”
“Lonnie scavenged a tree from the Beltline to honor the laborers who cleared trees to make way for the railroad. The bits of fence, telegraph wire, [and others materials] honor the people who weren’t recognized. Someone pointed out to Lonnie that the piece was shaped like an A. It’s a tribute to the people who made the Beltline possible and a tribute to the initiative itself.”
Holley’s continued engagement with the Beltline is evident in other parts of its terrain. He erected smaller assemblages of rail, rock, and chain along the tracks next to Will Eccleston’s Uniman, a human-powered interactive kinetic sculpture of a metal man on a bike.
As the Beltline project continues to connect Atlanta’s neighborhoods and expand in ambition, the quality of art and focus will also continue to improve. Already it’s come a long way from the initial idea of encouraging simple physical activity.
When it comes to next year’s art, Yalouris has another trick up his sleeve. Yalouris said, “We’re going to try and get more funding for artists skilled in welding [like Holley] and do a separate call for that.”
Musing on Holley’s piece Yalouris continued, “Art can be a way of tricking people into learning something about the history of social conditions.”
Our walk ended soon after, leaving me with much to anticipate as Art on the Beltline expands in both size and reach next year. If Yalouris’s vision comes to fruition, we can expect to see a wider variety of artistic mediums and works that speak in greater depth to the social and historic conditions of the Beltline. Of course, we’ll probably walk a little more while we’re at it.