A Northside view of public art

This story originally appeared in the April/May 2016 edition of Living Northside Magazine.

Story by H.M. CAULEY/Photos by JASON GETZ

If the Northside seems more picturesque these days, it might be due to the efforts of aesthetic-minded citizens such as Alpharetta City Council member Donald Mitchell. An interior designer, Mitchell has a heightened sense of what enhances a space. He finds art — both inside and outdoors — to be a key element.

“I’m not an artist — I’ve dabbled, but I’m pretty horrible,” Mitchell says with a laugh. “But I have this fundamental belief that just as people buy flowers for their homes, they want to see significant pieces of art in their city — pieces that evoke thought or a sense of place and go a long way toward beautifying our lives.”

To that end, Mitchell has been leading the city’s push to establish a legacy of original art.

“Nothing identifies one city compared to the next like art,” he says. “When I think of Chicago, I think of the egg sculpture. For Philadelphia, it’s the LOVE letters.”

Mitchell was a driving force behind getting Alpharetta the veterans’ memorial that was dedicated in November. He’s also a booster of Arts Alpharetta, a public arts advocacy group that supports all aspects of art in the community. His next goal is to turn the old Fulton County library branch off Mayfield Road into a full-service arts center.

“That will encourage more young people and adults to take art classes,” he says.

That project may be some time in the making, but meanwhile, the number of public artworks on the Northside is growing. Here’s a look at three pieces and the stories behind them.

Birmingham Barns

Fire Station No. 43, 750 Hickory Flat Road, Milton

Atlanta-born artist Gregor Turk spent as much time researching the area that used to be the Birmingham community as he did creating these three structures that have stood outside the firehouse on Hickory Flat Road since 2003.

“I found that there had been a barn on that property, and I took photos of two other barns that were across the street,” he says. “I worked with the local historical society to learn the names of the families who lived in the area. Then I found an image of a 1925 windmill and started playing around with the idea of transition from rural area to exurbia. I wanted to pay homage to that.”

The art stands on the former site of a barn built in 1910 by Samuel and Georgia Cobb and torn down in 2001. The two other barns Turk drew inspiration from are also gone, but his 5-foot-high steel and ceramic clay work commemorates them, as well as the settlers who built them. The images he took and the family names are incorporated into the art, as are the names of present-day subdivisions that have replaced the rural landscape.

“I’m really into history,” he says. “So it was interesting for me to research even before I spent several months in production.”

Friendship Ring

163 Roswell St., Alpharetta

Midtown resident and artist Kevin Chambers has been key to creating two works in Alpharetta, the first of which was installed in 2007. As a recent graduate of the Art Institute, Chambers was an apprentice and then worker in Atlanta’s Cherrylion Studios, where the ring was created. The project involved sculpting 21 bronze figures of children holding hands and encircling the base of a gigantic elm tree in Wills Park.

“We brought in a couple of kids and took some measurements, then started with little sketches to figure out the gestures and expressions and how they’d hold hands,” he says. “Then we sculpted them to life-size. But none of the statues are portraits of actual people.”

The installation was a challenge: The concrete bases for each statue had to be located far enough away from the tree to prevent damage. “It wasn’t like working with a typical sculpture,” Chambers says. “The tree made it tricky.”

Though Chambers was part of a team on the Ring project, the city’s Veterans Memorial on the grounds of Alpharetta’s City Hall was his solo creation.

“I worked on it for at least three years after the initial meeting,” he says. “It took a year just to figure out how to fund it and come up with a concept. The city wanted something that represented modern-day soldiers, and I wanted the viewer to experience a moment on the battlefield with them — the moment they’re about to make a huge sacrifice.”

Chamblers spent another 18 months sculpting the figures of two unidentified servicemen after he visited Fort Benning and met with military experts who gave him tips on the gear the soldiers might carry. The final versions went to a foundry in south Fulton County for casting in quarter-inch bronze. Each statue in the memorial is about 7 feet high and weights 500 pounds.

Milty’s Realm / Door of Knowledge

855 Mayfield Road, Milton

The opening of the Milton Library last July brought more than books to the center of the Crabapple community. The grounds also include two major pieces of public art created by George Nock, a former National Football League running back and self-taught artist who moved to the area in 2005.

“I got interested in art at age 3, and I found sculpture when I was in the second grade and picked up a piece of clay,” recalls Nock, who recently relocated to Stone Mountain for a house with its own studio. “I paint and draw, but if something doesn’t work, I go back to sculpture.”

Made entirely of bronze, “Milty’s Realm” is a massive statue — almost 6 feet high, 8 feet in length and more than 2 feet across — that weighs close to 500 pounds. Nearby, the companion piece, “Door of Knowledge,” replicates the door from the house that once stood on the library’s lot. Made of fiberglass, the 6-foot rectangle features children’s books spilling out of a window.

For “Milty’s Realm,” Nock took his inspiration from the horse-country that surrounds the new building.

“When I went to the site where the library was going to be, I immediately saw imagery: local kids, horses, wildlife and housing,” he says. “I worked all those elements into it. But the main feature is that little girl on top of the sculpture: She is in love with her pony!”

insider Tip

The Friendship Ring sculpture in Wills Park isn’t a complete circle. A few open spaces between the statues allow kids and parents to grab a bronze hand and complete the circle — a move that’s become a popular photo op for locals and visitors alike.

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