The community & arts organization in Atlanta LiFT held its first Art Salon in November 2014 and has been holding them once a month since. The most recent, #CreATL, featured glass artist Marselle Harrison-Miles, R&B singer ASH who just dropped her first EP, The Perfect EP, DJ D LaShae, and the entrepreneurial initiative Human Capital Theory that focuses on community-building through sustainable economic development which encourages professionals to donate their expertise and services to fledgling businesses.
Each Salon, though there have been only five, draws a sizable crowd. (Let me tell you, it can get CROWDED!) I have been to a few of these events and know two of the founding members: Clint Fluker, who is also in my doctoral program at Emory University – The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts – and Nasim Mahboubi Fluker. The third founder is Miriam Denard. Since I think what they’re doing is exciting and also historically important in terms of its relationship to and with Atlanta’s vibrant black community, I decided to get a conversation going with them. Here are the results of that discussion:
Meredith Kooi: What prompted you all to start LiFT?
LiFT Art Salon [Miriam Denard]: Plainly, I think Nasim and Clint, and at the same time myself, were all in need of something to DO. Something that wasn’t going to a bar or going to a club or a concert. Something that felt cool and fun but also mature and important and worth our time. So, when you sit there and think to yourself, “if there was something I could go to, some event that had other people that are like me, good music, and actually was about something that I’m into or that I care about, I would be there in a second.” So, when we all thought about the things that each of us are passionate about, LiFT came about. Music, Art, and Community projects each play a significant role in each of our lives so everything came together organically like that. It was like a marriage of all of our networks and passions. We always joke about how this is really about giving people something cool to do on a Sunday on Edgewood that doesn’t involve drinking and partying. There’s more to Edgewood than that.
MK: What are its main goals? What are you hoping to achieve?
LiFT [Miriam Denard]: I think one of our main goals with LiFT is to showcase local talent. Atlanta is known for a lot of things right now through the media and the music industry. But we feel…we KNOW that Atlanta has so much more to offer artistically than what is at the forefront right now. This city is full of incredible DJs and musicians, artists and poets, and really special and unique community projects and developments. So, if anything, we hope that holding these salons every month will raise awareness about the Atlanta that we all know and love and will give people a venue to showcase their talents and their positive contributions to society.
MK: What is the community you are trying to reach?
LiFT [Miriam Denard]: Our main demographic is young professionals. That’s who we are. We are all in our late 20s early 30s (actually I’m the only one in my 30s) and we want to give our friends and colleagues something interesting and different and fun to do. We also have a lot of friends or people in our network that are insanely talented, so we are also trying to reach out to them and give them a stage to share their talents. We believe that our generation, these educated, talented, engaged young adults who are seeing what’s going on in the world and wanting to do something about it, or are super passionate and talented at something and want to make a career out of it, need a catalyst. To us, the catalyst is getting all of this energy into one room and then just watching what happens. Hopefully the outcome will be something very important.
MK: What are the issues LiFT is trying/hoping to tackle? Your January salon #ferguson2ATL addressed the important issues concerning race and police brutality. In February it was #ATLsoulfoodie which addressed food, food access, and other related topics. Can you talk a bit about the politics of LiFT?
LiFT [Clint Fluker]: As an organization, we are concerned with helping to shape an Atlanta that is not only welcoming to artists but also encourages an exchange of ideas between artists and other professionals in different fields. It is important to remember that art fosters creativity and enables individuals from all walks of life to recognize the connections between us all that often lay hidden amidst society’s political structures. This is why we use a salon model. It enables us to provide a platform where people can relax in a creative space, participate in conversation about an intriguing subject matter, and hopefully meet somebody new in the process. The objective here is to foster a community of engagement where people gather to understand issues like police brutality and food access from an intellectual AND artistic point of view. So, in that sense, LiFT is a nonpolitical entity in that we shy away from making any explicitly political statements. Rather, our aim is to inform and inspire the people who attend LiFT events to continue conversations started at our salon and create their own mechanisms for change throughout the great city of Atlanta.
MK: Can you talk a bit more about the category of “young professionals”? Does this include the artists that show their work? Or does this describe the audience?
LiFT [Clint Fluker]: The category of young professional is a necessarily broad one for LiFT. We consider anyone with a youthful spirit and a desire to create something new in the city a young professional. Often, when we think of “young professionals,” we picture a 25 year old in a suit eagerly putting together PowerPoint presentations and attending mixers for networking purposes (we still do this ourselves…daily). These people are indeed young and professional, but it’s a very limiting view of the category. Activists, artists, students, and entrepreneurs are also part of this category, and we want to make sure that we attract as many different kinds of “young professional” people that we can. In a way, our salon format is designed specifically to break out of the “mixer” routine and attract young people to have conversations with each other for purposes other than professional networking.
Though the majority of people who attend our events are like us, between the ages of 20 to 40, we are just as interested in providing space for a graduating senior moving into the job market as we are for a retiree who has recently found the passion for painting. Our aim is to engage and encourage individuals who are taking steps in new and varied directions. Indeed our audience skews young, but our goal is to provide a family-friendly environment and we have found that families often bring their children to our events. Some of the most fruitful conversations at LiFT have been initiated by children still in grade school. Many of the most eye-opening questions during our salon have been posed by our more mature attendees.
MK: The first LiFT salons were held at the Atlanta Baha’i Center on Edgewood, right in the middle of a wild nightlife scene. What prompted the decision to hold them there? What is the relationship between the Center and the surrounding area?
LiFT [Nasim Mahboubi Fluker]: The Atlanta Baha’i Center is actually one of the older buildings in the Edgewood Corridor. It was built in the 1940’s by an African American Baha’i Architect and his son because during that time in Atlanta’s history, it was very dangerous for the interracial Baha’i community to meet in homes. As a result of numerous threats from white supremacist groups, the Center was built in the bustling African American business district. It was this rich history of creating inclusive spaces for progressive thought and building diverse communities that attracted us to the Baha’i Center.
On a more personal note, I am a member of the Baha’i Community, and my parents actually met in the Center in 1978. I personally think that faith-based communities have a role to play in contributing to positive community growth.
That said, as an organization, LiFT is a mobile entity. Our March LiFT, #CreATL was held at the Decatur ArtHouse, a great organization with an open floor plan that really allowed us to spread our wings in a new section of the city. We are grateful that they too have opened up their space to us as we try to bring the LiFT experience to new areas. We are very interested in partnering with different organizations around the city to get the word out about how important it is for young professionals, artists, and activists to work together on the issues facing our city.
MK: LiFT has only had a handful of salons so far, but you’ve been able to draw 150+ people to each event. Why do you think this is? What, if anything, have you homed in on that wasn’t already going on in Atlanta?
LiFT: I think Atlantans (especially 20-30-somethings) are thirsty for the type of space we have been able to create: a space that is inviting, creative, and at times challenging. We have found that by finding connectivity between the arts and social issues, we have been able to appeal to a wider audience than if we were just focusing on one or the other. We really wanted to create opportunities for young professionals and artists to dialogue because we found that these two communities were way too segregated. We just felt like in order to begin tackling some of the most pressing social issues in the city, we really needed to foster the nexus between creative energy and institutional knowledge. We are still trying to nurture more dialogue at our events – and our real objectives for LiFT are to inspire more people to take action and exercise agency in creating the Atlanta they want to live in. This sentiment [was] the impetus for our March Salon #CreATL.
MK: What plans do you have coming up? What else is on the horizon for you all? Also, what’s behind the decision to title each salon with the #?
LiFT [Nasim Mahboubi Fluker]: We currently have a few exciting partnerships in the works. We will be partnering with the Hammonds House Museum for a quarterly series starting this summer called #GetLiFTed. We are thrilled to be able to collaborate with such an important cultural institution in Atlanta. This partnership will also allow for our artists to have an opportunity to display their work as part of our #GetLiFTed campaign for longer periods of time. Currently, as a pop-up, the art goes up and comes down in an evening. Now, [with the partnership with Hammonds House], artists may be able to show their work for as long as a month in an actual exhibition space. We are experimenting with our event format so look out for brunches, garden parties, and even more intimate salon-style dialogue sessions popping up around the city. For those interested in donating to this campaign, they should visit our Power2Give site!
The hashtags are just fun – they help us stay clear about the monthly theme and help folks tag us on social media.
MK: I’m also wondering if you would add some sort of statement about LiFT’s engagement with race and particularly where you see it within the conversation surrounding/about African-American art and Black art or Black aesthetics. Clint, I remember you mentioning that you didn’t want LiFT to be recognized as being only a Black organization. What are your thoughts on LiFT’s position within the ecology of art and race in Atlanta?
LiFT: We explicitly, though not exclusively, highlight young black artists, activists, and entrepreneurs. A large part of the contingent that comes to our events might identify as black (we don’t know all of them personally), and we are happy for it. We market to them on purpose. We feel that this is a community that wants and needs to be engaged, especially considering Atlanta has a sizable black population and an incredibly rich history as it relates to civil and human rights issues, the development of black-owned businesses, and the forging of the country’s leading HBCUs [Historic Black Colleges and Universities]. However, we are not looking to carve out a place in the larger abstract notion of “blackness” or “black aesthetics.” There are people and organizations dedicated to that cause, but that is not our mission. We wish to engage people in concerns that go beyond just race, but also extend to varying socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender perspectives, and spiritual practices.
Which leads me to another point, we have attendees and have featured individuals from different backgrounds. Our planning team includes members from different backgrounds. Everyone is welcome to attend LiFT events and participate to the degree they wish to be involved. Thats what LiFT is really all about, its a welcoming place where people can gather and exchange ideas. When it comes down to it, we are really just giving the people what they want, and what we want. Its a ball! But, I don’t have to tell you that, Meredith, you have been to LiFT. Keep spreadin’ the word!
February: #ATLSoulFoodie with visual artists Gerald Lovell and Jurell Cayetano, DJ Jeremy Avalon (Werc Crew), food artists Jamila Crawford (Earth Candy) and Will Edmond (Werc Crew), and special guest Atlanta Mobile Market.
If someone slips on a banana peel in a forest and no one sees it, does anyone laugh?
The current exhibition at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center walks us dangerously close to the banana peel. We are the sucker about to unwittingly step onto the banana peel, and the audience waits with bated breath for us to make that final descent into unavoidable disaster.
Pratfall Tramps is a sprawling group show, filling the galleries and spilling over into the accompanying Gilda Radner Research & Translation Center. Entering the galleries, the curtain is lifted, setting the stage and revealing the impetus that gathers the seemingly disparate works together.
Jamie Isenstein’s Inside Outside Backstage Vase welcomes visitors to the space. From a distance the vase fills with vibrant, fresh flowers, but something is off. Some of the flowers wilt, revealing the perfect false blossoms and crumbling real flowers. A comically large, teetering stack of pancakes obscures Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s Performance Document: Self Portrait With Pancakes.
Isenstein’s Sand Lamp is funny as theatre of the absurd is funny. The joy and lighthearted moments of our lives, sheathed in the mundane, ready-made lamp shade burst from the sand that seems to entrap us, yet we cannot realize our electric cord still snakes to find sustenance.
Mary Reid Kelley’s Sadie The Saddest Sadist builds from the same tradition. The audio fills the space, looping just often enough to unobtrusively juxtapose its songs, chants, snippets of speech with other works. The mounting layers resist translation, but they create a new way of viewing the works, a shifting, performative veneer over the entire gallery.
As the best comedy does, the works reveal larger issues at work in the world. Greenberger Rafferty’s Testing I (Whisk), Testing II (Baster), Testing III (Spoon), Testing IV (Shotgun Whisk), and Testing V (Scoop) anchor the exhibition, upending the tools of performance and standup comedy. It elevates Martha Rossler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen to the stage, making explicit Rossler’s performativity and revealing a silence doubly loud for the lack of amplification and absent performers.
Tammy Rae Carland’s series of acrylic ladders Pratfall Effect lead nowhere. The glass ceiling is not a fixed height. It is everywhere and nowhere.
If someone slips on a banana peel as daylight savings time begins, how long does it take for them to hit the ground?
Just as the individual works in Pratfall Tramps seem slightly off, the exhibition as a whole does not sit quite right within the gallery. This shifting in the exhibition, however, opens the curtain to an empty stage. We have already stepped on the banana peel, and the embarrassing, laughter-inducing fall is inevitable. We are continually reminded that the exhibition is funny or deals with comedy – the bananas, the artist bios, the accompanying quotes, the title of the show itself.
The curator, Rachel Reese, writes, “Pratfalls—bodily or object-based—are funny because they are a paradox. While suggesting lack of control, there is indeed complete and conscious control at play: in comedy, the performer can rewire failure as success.” Similarly, the quote from David Robbins’s On Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy included on the title wall reads, in part, “Consider the fool. The fool is supposed to fail, that’s part of the fool’s function—his ‘project.’ And because it is to some degree his project, the fool in fact cannot fail.”
These statements foreclose our ability to interpret the work critically. The show prevents viewers from experiencing the humor in the work by insisting it is funny, that it is successful when it appears to fail. Even if we see the artworks or the artists’ “projects” as failing, seemingly out of place, or unsuccessful, we are told that is precisely when they work the best.
The insistence on comedy and the comedic connections underpinning the artists’ work disrupts the exhibition, jars us out of the moments the works immerse us within, lands us on our backs as everyone laughs. We do not need to be reminded how funny it is. The assertions and repetitions undercut the fact that it is a strong show that coheres on its own.
If I tell you someone slips on a banana peel, is it still funny?
Moving to a new town is disorienting. The streets do not yet make sense. The grocery store has strange foods. The restaurant chains arrange themselves differently. The art world shifts and morphs, revealing new opportunities, expansive possibilities, and gaps to be filled.
I recently moved from Minneapolis-Saint Paul to Chattanooga, Tennessee. I am adjusting to the differences in climate and landscape. I am discovering the differences in the art scenes between the two cities, reframing my understanding of what the art world is in Chattanooga and its relation to other cities I know. Every city has its advantages – an established collector base, commercial and independent art spaces, funding for the arts and artists, less commuting time, cheaper rent, lower cost of living, nicer weather. No city has everything. The established notions we have about the art world and its centers of power seem unshakeable. New York City exerts a magnetic pull on artists, collectors, arts appreciators, and people looking for the newest trends; Los Angeles has a different yet very present attraction.
Artists are more mobile now than ever, moving between cities, traveling to make and show work. The boundaries between cities and regions of the country are fluid. This mobility reveals the privilege of the people who can move within it, and it opens opportunities for reexamining the hierarchies we have created and reinforce. What happens when a small town in Arkansas opens a lavish museum? Do the art fairs in Miami attract artists to live there year round? Is Austin a major contemporary art center because of the other cultural activity that happens there? Will artists seek out Asheville when they no longer remember Black Mountain?
Andy Sturdevant’s interactive performance seminar, U.S. Cities Contemporary Art Rankings, investigates the notion that the art world is static and unchanging and questions what we value in contemporary art and how we prioritize it. Andy visited Chattanooga in January to ask students, artists, and community members to rank the top 125 metropolitan statistical areas into five tiers – Major and Secondary National Contemporary Art Centers, Major and Secondary Regional Art Centers, and Important Local Contemporary Art Centers. The exercise of making these rankings explicit and public revealed much about how we form opinions and how Chattanooga fits into conversations within the regional and national art world.
Before cities can be ranked, the conversation begins by establishing the criteria for an attractive contemporary art city. The criteria for the crowd in Chattanooga was similar to other city’s criteria and included: a significant number of artists, art schools, economic opportunities for artists, arts infrastructure, and press coverage of the arts.
Starting in the middle of the list, we worked down, debating which cities fit on each tier. The definitions of what constitutes the tiers developed slowly, as the lower tiers accrued meaning and complexity with each new town. Individual voices prevailed. Participants shared their experiences at Virginia Beach or Eugene, and their recounting of great galleries or vibrant artist run spaces easily swayed the votes.
Working up from the middle, placing the cities became increasingly complex. The looming specter of the top cities by population (New York and Los Angeles) weighed over discussions as the second and third tiers filled with Minneapolis, San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore. The debate grew increasingly heated as Detroit and Miami were both placed in the second tier before we ended with LA and New York and the final list. I did not agree with all of the decisions – the heartbreak of democracy. I wanted a deeper discussion of potential top sub tiers (1A, 1B…), but that conversation and others about the relative locations of other cities will continue to happen here. The power of Andy’s performance seminar lies in the conversations it generates, in the room and long after. The iterative nature of the list making keeps the debate alive, allowing differences to develop and for the list to shift over time.
Chattanooga was Andy’s seventh and smallest city to create its own Rankings. As he says, “The discussions of the city’s place in relation to neighboring cities of equivalent size were very interesting, and quite unlike discussions in, say, New York or Chicago. It felt very much like the sorts of casual, bar-based conversations people have about their various towns and scenes outside the large art centers. Which is how the project began in the first place.”
We live in a rapidly changing world. The internet and easy travel have dismantled the hierarchies we thought we knew. We do not expect all flowers to grow in the same soil. We need sun and shade, the right balance of moisture, and careful pruning to cultivate many blossoms. The art world needs and already has that diversity; we must look in and beyond the assumed centers to find it. We should not mistake the most visible or assumed conditions for a thriving contemporary art center for the ideal conditions for every location.
Moving to a new place is not a final judgment about access to and participation in the global art world. The perceptions and assumptions about those places are malleable. U.S. Cities Contemporary Art Rankings has transformed the way I think about the art world, my place within it, my new home, and how mutable that list truly is. We are all agents of transformation, and our towns move up and down the formal and mental lists of contemporary art centers based on our actions, our words, our ability to demonstrate that art and artists thrive in different circumstances and different conditions. Chattanooga’s conversation will continue in bars, at openings, in the streets, as we make the art center we envision, as we prepare the soil, sun, and water we need to thrive.
The highway passes quickly through Summerville, Georgia. The roadsides fill with small houses, businesses, and the ghosts of fastfood architecture. It is easy to miss the turn to Paradise Gardens. The houses that surround Howard Finster’s home, installation, and “life’s work” part suddenly to reveal the expansive sculpture gardens, rambling buildings, and layer cake tower of the World’s Folk Art Church.
It is easy to think we know Howard Finster, “man of visions.” His paintings grace the covers of pop albums. His portraits and hand painted words fit into our perceptions of an outsider artist. He was outside enough to be embraced by the art world and savvy enough to know how to eat up the celebrity that came along with it.
Paradise Gardens is empty, as I arrive. I talk to the attendant about the slowly unfolding and changing history of Paradise Gardens, hear his stories of coming to visit on a school field trip and being told to return to church on Sunday afternoons while peeking through the fences at Finster working. As recommended, I start at the back corner, and, before I get there, my preconceptions of Finster fall away.
Paradise Gardens is a stubborn refusal of the outside world that embraced his artwork and public persona. It resists visual and economic consumption. It arises from an unassuming, largely poor, small Southern town that, at best, tolerated his work during and after his lifetime. The World’s Folk Art Church, the most striking and visually alluring building, has been closed for decades due to structural concerns. The work of other artists and admirers intermixed with Finster’s work blurs lines of authorship and individuality. Paradise Gardens is full of beauty and wonder, but it is also full of Finster’s enormous collections of the “inventions of mankind” that, under different circumstances, would be called hoarding.
Life and death comfortably coexist in Paradise Gardens. The area surrounding Paradise Gardens abounds in life. Workers repair the sewer outside the fence. Neighbors come and go without giving Finster’s Mosaic Garden and paths a second glance. The Casket of the Unknown Body, which used to have a viewing glass so visitors could see the girl’s teeth, the constant reminders of the Christian life after death, and the many memorials to Finster embody and keep death present.
The many collections of bicycle parts, sewing machines, typewriters, Coke bottles, and more hold the lives of the people who made them and the man who placed them. They cast shadows of their original uses as they hang lifeless. The bicycles, televisions, and scraps writhing up out of the weathered, increasingly uniform mass in the center of the garden are transfigured into the Bicycle Tower and reborn into pop careers.
I recently visited an old bakery-turned-warehouse filled with tens of thousands of plates, saucers, coffee cups, teapots, ramekins, the remnants of restaurants closed in the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s. The stacks and stacks of plates filling the warehouse were caked in dirt, filled with rainwater, surrounded by pigeon droppings. They are a treasure trove and a filthy testament to objects. They are the left overs of failed businesses and abandoned identities and the china that holds the memories of a generation of Americans who ate at roadside diners and fraternal order lodges. Like Paradise Gardens, this warehouse full of dishes straddles the line between collecting and hoarding, between objects and memories, between life that ends and death that continues. Life and death are so deeply intertwined they are indistinguishable from one another.
I just moved to a new town, a new climate, a new part of the country that has much to teach me. I cannot help but think of making a new life, of reshaping my inward and outward habits in conjunction with the physical move. Both Paradise Gardens and the warehouse remind me that the life we have is short, that the death that awaits us is not far. More importantly, they help me hold close the fact that life begins again and again, when we move to a new place, when we wake each morning, when death comes to find us. Finster believed in a very specific idea of life after death. Whether or not we ascribe to that belief, Paradise Gardens confronts us with death and the lives that come after. It is well worth the trip.
We are in the midst of a warm snap. The snow has receded. The ice has left the lakes and rivers. I dig out the fall clothes I had packed away, reluctant to leave warm hats and scarves at home. I know the cold is waiting just around the corner for me to let down my guard again, but I do not want to miss the brief reprieve. I walk through warm days and nights, trying to understand this seasonal contradiction, as I struggle to hold the contradictions that surround me.
I support and enjoy the art installed in the long waiting room of Union Depot. I often eat lunch there. I linger with people in transition, crosstown bus riders and Amtrak passengers traveling to Chicago, and I am drawn to the gentle, rippling, summery reminder of Jim Campbell’s suspended 8 ½ x 11.
I simultaneously struggle to understand why the largest and most visible artworks are by artists from outside the Twin Cities (Campbell is based in San Francisco) and why artists from outside these communities and the legacies and present realities of injustice in those communities, like Ralph Gilbert from Atlanta, whose six large murals were recently installed, are asked to “reference the railroads’ impact on the Dakota tribes and their land; [and] the importance of railroad jobs for African Americans, especially in St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood.”
I want to support the artists and makers whose work fills the overwhelming number of recent and upcoming holiday markets, popup shops, and art fairs. I love and would love to take home their work. I want to support artists trying to make a living and their desire to do so through their artwork, through forging and finding new ways to economically support themselves.
I simultaneously struggle with the fact that economic survival in and economic diversification of the artworld often shore up the neoliberal, capitalist systems that benefit a handful of people and visit violence on the earth and the people outside of that small minority.
I am filled with the deep pain, anger, frustration, hopefulness and solidarity of Million March MN and protests around the country over the weekend. I felt power dynamics being exposed when the march stopped traffic and stunned holiday shoppers looked on in disbelief and confusion. I believe the affirmation embodied in those marches that artists, that all people can come together to make change here and in cities across the country.
I simultaneously struggle with the fact that Midway Contemporary Art‘s Monster Drawing Rally fundraiser took place hours after the march. I support Midway, and the Monster Drawing Rally is an inventive, exciting way to bring together artists, collectors, and supporters to raise money. It was difficult, however, to watch hundreds of people pack in to watch artists make drawings and snatch up the drawings before they were hung on the walls. Consumption was conspicuous as people surged through crowds to be the first in line to buy a drawing, to buy drinks, to see and be seen, seemingly unaware of the larger issues and inequities in the world outside the white walls, deaf to the rallying cries still ringing in my ears.
I am leaving the Twin Cities soon, moving to warmer, greener climates. I have learned so much from and in this place, but I clearly have a lot more to learn. These paradoxes in the artworld and in the rest of the world happen everywhere. I must remember that I am not alone in trying to understand and make sense of these worlds, that we all must struggle to make meaning of the contradictions that surround us. I am reminded as I enter a new place, a new art community that all of the knowledge and experience I think I have is simply a place from which to start learning and growing.
I can hold complexity and contradiction; I can move with and through and around that uncomfortable unresolvability. I remember that I am privileged in ways I know and in ways I cannot see. I will continue learning. I will continue making. I will continue to use the privilege and access I have to reflect and shine light on the inequalities and injustice around me.