If you want to feel good about Atlanta, take a walk on the Atlanta BeltLine. It’s still a work in progress, of course, but there has been plenty of progress. Throngs of bikers, runners and strollers are already enjoying the recently dedicated Eastside Trail, the scenic 2.2-mile section between10th Street at Monroe Drive and Irwin Street near DeKalb Avenue. The paved path — weaving through open vistas and neighborhoods, newly lined with trees that will become a linear arboretum — is a glimpse of the 22-mile BeltLine’s future.
A 2008 series of photographs of the trail overgrown with kudzu and littered with debris documents how far it has come. By Christopher Martin, they are part of “Art on the BeltLine,” an exhibit of objects and live performances installed along the East and West legs through November 11.
Now in its third year, the exhibition is as much about building community as about art. Introduced to attract visitors to the BeltLine, it also aims to provide opportunities for artists, guidance to neophytes and a platform for experimentation. As a result, individual pieces are uneven in quality. Some are, to use high-critical jargon, pretty lame. I concluded last year, however, that the project is best experienced as an Easter egg — as opposed to a Fabergé — hunt, which is to say, the process of discovery is as much the point as what one finds.
That said, there are some quite wonderful pieces that represent creative responses to the challenges of public art: space, place and audience. “The BeltLine Bridge,” by Mike Wsol and Georgia State University students Mark T. Errol, Jeshua W. Holt, Laura M. Martin and Randall Moody, is a peaked-roof structure straddling the old train tracks near Kirkland Avenue. It references old train sheds, shotgun houses, covered bridges — images that relate to Atlanta, the site and architectural history. These things will mean something to many viewers, but anyone can enjoy the perceptual tricks and two very different visual experiences that it offers, depending on the direction from which it is approached.
Photographer Hadley Breckinridge moves beyond the rectangle in her mural on the Westside Trail near Lucile Avenue. The conceit of “The Highball Artist” is of paint flung from a fast-moving train, which drips in vividly hued tongues down one side of an overpass, ribbons across the underside of the bridge and explodes upward on the other side. It is a beacon from afar and a great set for the concerts that are performed in the tunnel.
Kudos to Gregor Turk and children from the Youth Art Connection, who, in the spirit of Charles Simonds and maybe Anasazi villages, tucked small clay architectural sculptures and such into a striated granite outcropping near Ansley Mall. “Civilizations” makes good use of the site, a narrow, rock-enclosed pass created in the 19th century when railroad engineers blasted through the rock to make way for tracks. What with the primeval forest behind it, “Larry’s Gulch” was ripe for transformation into a magical place, a vibe accentuated by the miniature scale of the artworks: a great example of discovery.
Fairy-tale environments are a recurring theme this year. The witty anthropomorphic plants and flowers of Geoffrey Smith’s “Dr. Schubert Arboretum” are like something out of Alice in Wonderland, perhaps by way of Disney. Installed just south of I-20, they would have had more impact, however, if they had been grouped more closely together. Just to the north, Spelman College student B. Brady King mines the same vein in “Those Who Wander,” in which birdhouses hung on a pole to resemble a bottle tree represent different architectural styles and building types as if this were a human’s neighborhood.
Like photographer Laura Noel’s “Enchanted Forest of Books” south of Wylie Street, these works are accessible and visually appealing. Her piece, in which books fashioned into lantern-like objects hang from trees, includes names of recommended books in transparent tubes that contain a pencil so you can add your own favorites. Visitors seem to like these participatory works, to judge from the response to Misao Cates’ “What Ties Me to You” and Michael Tod Edgerton’s “What Most Vividly (A Choral Work).” Both invite visitors to share their thoughts. Cates’ ribbons make for the more pleasing visual experience, but Edgerton, who is a writer, will add another level of participation in a reading of poetry inspired by the comments at 2:30 p.m. November 4 on the Reynoldstown stage, at 900 Memorial Drive.
The organizers had a good idea in commissioning “gateway” pieces at access points along the trails — Santiago Menendez cleverly transforms the bollards near Washington Park into bright-colored crayons — but many of them suffer from inappropriate scale or less-than-forceful design. Scale is a recurring problem: the staff needs to better match pieces and sites, and perhaps even create a place specifically for the smaller works that are otherwise dwarfed by their surroundings. “Art on the BeltLine” is just as much a work in progress as its site.