Mike Stasny and the return of the DIY art and music scene

Mike Stasny runs a one-of-a-kind art gallery in Underground Atlanta. That it even exists in 2022 is a marked departure from the art scene of years prior.

Before the pandemic, Atlanta’s DIY art and music scenes were growing to support ever more creative leaders. The Bakery was an art collective by day and an every-weekend underground nightlife destination. Rowdy Dowdy threw wild house parties and shows for people in the know. Mammal Gallery and its later iteration Food Court hosted the kinds of concerts that you would tell your future kids you were at.

These organizations were the beating heart of Atlanta’s art and music future; the exact places where the city’s emerging generation of musicians, artists, thinkers and other creatives might coalesce in some reimagined warehouse on the “bad” side of town to bond over pop-up era OK-Yaki and $3 homebrews against a backdrop of hazy psychedelic synth rock.

That all changed when the pandemic took hold, and one by one, many of the DIY venues (and all of the above-mentioned spaces), were forced to wave a white flag and shutter their doors. As the economic hurricane winds of 2020 and 2021 scattered the DIY scene to the wind, it felt like the city’s entire art and music future suffered a decade’s worth of setbacks.

But today, thanks to an arts program at Underground Atlanta, through determined fundraising from community leaders like The Bakery’s founder Willow Goldstein, and the willingness to take chances from artists like Stasny, the DIY renaissance is officially underway.

By day, Stasny’s space at Underground Atlanta operates under a decidedly egalitarian spirit. That is, Stasny sells his art based on the value of time. This painting is worth the dollar value you ascribe to one hour of your time. That sculpture is worth ten hours.

He sells spray-painted bear heads, old paintings freshly painted over, sculptures and prints of celebrities with their features stretched and repeated. There is a definite Wayne White influence in his work, blending the lines between the familiar and the surprising, pop culture and the grotesque. Nowhere are Stasny’s creations more alive, nor more surreal than in the faceless, four-legged creatures he fashions from detached chair and table legs.

“My grandfather was a taxidermist,” says Stasny. “And I was raised behind the curtain with the incomplete understructures of taxidermy that most people never see, but are worth an audience. My busted furniture creatures are an amalgam of those posed animals of a natural history museum and the knowledge of how my grandfather worked behind the scenes.”

“Art blooms in the unlikeliest gardens,” Wayne White once said.

At night, Stasny’s gallery transforms into the backdrop for live music shows put on by Face of Knives and other local promoters. One night might feature experimental goth metal. The next, an LGBTQIA+ dance party, a music video shoot or a folk performance. There are drinks for sale, and the crowds sometimes number in the hundreds.

It’s at these shows that for the first time in a very long time, Underground Atlanta feels alive; breathing its first breath of air in a re-emerging DIY art and music scene, a sign that though much was lost to a pandemic, the same tenacious artists and their same shared ethos can reorganize and return in new shapes, better than before.

As Stasny points out, the conditions that allow for the DIY scene to exist at all are fragile; a little green zone where art can thrive, after an unused space has been reclaimed for development, but before every warehouse in the area has re-emerged as a high-end loft.

“Artists come first in redevelopment, I think because we can reimagine what would be considered f---ed up spaces, and we’re just happy to be able to do our thing uninterrupted. We’re the phase one part of any kind of development. And, it’s kind of beautiful, because it is so fragile. There’s a lot of f---ed up stuff before us, and even more f---ed up stuff after we’re priced out, but for this one moment in between, we get to exist and make creative stuff.”

Just down the street from Underground Atlanta, at The Bakery’s new gallery at 92 Peachtree, Willow Goldstein has big dreams. The Bakery’s space in south downtown brought the brand back after roughly two years of pandemic-induced hiatus, offering classes and space for local artists, community rentals and small-scale events. The gallery is made possible by Arts & Entertainment Atlanta’s 2021-2022 Grant Cycle.

“With The Bakery, what we were able to achieve here is, I think, every art collective’s dream. We just made it happen. But it’s a dream that we’re still working on,” says Goldstein.

Goldstein says that The Bakery is currently raising funds to open a second location in Chosewood Park that will reintegrate music and live performances back into The Bakery’s DNA, with the launch of a dedicated performance space at Chris Yonker’s (Mammal Gallery) forthcoming arts campus Yellow Studios.

When it opens, The Bakery at Yellow Studios will bring a 5,000 sq. ft. performance space to the city, purpose-built for the kinds of hybrid art and music installations that made the west side iteration of The Bakery famous, and that gave a platform to the next generation of forward-thinking curators, musicians and promoters.

Goldstein’s vision for The Bakery in 2023 and beyond, should the collective achieve it, could mark the biggest evolution yet for Atlanta’s DIY art and music scene, as it would bring many of the most steadfast and familiar faces in art and music together at a permanent home.

“We’re going to be offering something real in the land of condos,” says Amanda Norris, Assistant Director at The Bakery.

At the same time as The Bakery eyes expansion, many in the DIY art projects eye a future less about expansion, and more about survival in a time of economic fragility. But for Stasny, there’s no fear of the unknown.

“I think the process of going through COVID was a very existential journey for a lot of artists. For some, it might’ve been like ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ or ‘I’m going to go do tattoos,’ or whatever. But for me, I just decided f--- it, I’m going to do this DIY thing and either get it out of my system or take it to the next level.

I joke that art at Underground is a cultural one-night stand. I already know it’s going to end. They never lied to me. So it’s my bad if I get the feels.

So, whether this place goes away in August, another year or in another five, I’m just thankful for the time I have now. And, at the end of the day, the fragility of these weird art spaces goes hand in hand with that bigger existential idea: to be thankful for the time you have to really be yourself, whatever that means.”

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