A Small Operation in Atlanta is Spurring Social Justice through Artists and Community Building

Artists have provided materials to help process movements around politics, race and other avoided topics of conversations. Many imply that the current political climate necessitates the artists’ role in invoking change as never before. However, in all pockets of the globe, artists and art administrators have been carving out spaces for artists to cultivate work that reflects the times, people, and issues. I spoke with Brandon Jones, the Head of Creative Placemaking at WonderRoot, an arts organization in Atlanta that seeks to build upon the cultural landscape of artists by placing artists in spaces where their work can have maximum effect on community building. The goal is to spark the change that frequently feels out of reach for some. At the core of WonderRoot is a simple idea: art is the most engaging resource we have. So, why not use it to tie people together?

We spoke to the head of Creative Placemaking of WonderRoot, Brandon Jones.

Hillary Bonhomme: Can you tell us the origin story of WonderRoot?

Brandon Jones: WonderRoot was founded in 2008 by three socially conscious and art enthusiastic friends, one of them being our Executive Director, Chris Appleton.  I believe initially WonderRoot was a resource and platform for artists to play, create, and grow around social justice. As we have matured, that certainly remains true. However, now we are assertive in our belief that the arts are not secondary or complimentary to community development and social justice—the arts are a crucial element for sustainable change. As a result, in addition to our commitment to supporting the artist’s ecosystem with resources and programming, we now strive to embed the arts in non-art specific areas. We know the value of getting artists in boardrooms, at the table of legislation, and in mutually beneficial cross-sector partnerships for community development. That is also the heart of what I work to lift up as the Head of the Creative Placemaking department.

Hillary: What are the some of the challenges facing working artists in the Atalanta region? Have these challenges manifested in the programming at WonderRoot?

Brandon: The Atlanta arts community is well versed in several social and environmental issues, and that is why I believe our artists are so dynamic. That said, access and availability of affordable housing in the metro area continues to be a focus for/of creative professionals. To begin, affordable housing, as defined nationally, states that no more than 30% of annual income should be allocated to housing needs. We know that due to vast income inequities and rising market rate housing in Atlanta contuse to make affordable housing beyond the reach of our local artists committed to serving our city. To make matters even more cumbersome, the bureaucracy associated with qualifying for what little affordable housing that does exist creates barriers for individuals- particularly artists- that may not have “traditional” modes of income and file a 1090 tax for contractors. One must also factor in the cost/time ratio for commuting, and the added expenses of studio or work spaces. These elements have made our artists passionate about addressing the housing crisis, and the results have been evident in their work and vocal advocacy.

Hillary: Can you give me three artists whose work inspires you?

Brandon: It is very difficult to only list three, as our artist community is incredibly diverse and brilliant. However, if I must name three I would say:
Jessica Caldas for her committed to arts activism. She is incredibly versatile and whether it is her visual art or performance pieces, her work never fails to be poignant, impactful and deeply moving. Jessica can bring such a powerful strength- because of and not despite her authentic vulnerability. All that experience her work can reach into the places within that may be broken, honor the lessons, and find resiliency.

This work is about the ways we talk to ourselves and the harshness we inflict on our own worlds. It’s about the space generously given to others that we fail to make for ourselves. It’s about the kind voices whispered, heard, and ignored. It’s about the violent certainty of the bad and the timid uncertainty of the good. It’s the balance of all of this with the slow unlearning of it.

William Massey, because as an artist whose work mostly exist in public spaces, he is deeply invested in the sanctity of community. His work is generous, empathic, and conscious of the what is at the heart of people. That is why he is so beloved as a community-based public artist. Yet, what I especially adore about William’s work is his ability to make us reimagine the beauty of found objects. With just a few scraps of metal or a hand full or rocks, he can create a whole world and soul.

Object of Wo(man) was created in partnership with Art on the BeltLine 2015. It is now currently exhibiting in Watkinsville, Ga.

T. Lang’s work resonates far beyond the boundaries of dance. Her work is song, poetry, and storytelling visually painted through movement. What makes T. Lang and her company so distinctive is how they grapple with identity, history, and race in ways that both challenges audiences to think deeper and more critically, while also remaining accessible to those engaging with dance at various entry points. She is also an Atlanta rock star when it comes to nurturing and developing emerging talent.

Post – Set inside a reconfigured Chapel, Post imagines a new space and time, an environment that stirs memories and agitates the spirit.

Hillary: What is another organization whose mission you are inspired by? Either as an artist yourself or as an arts administrator.

Brandon: Again, a very difficult question to answer simply because there is a bounty of inspiring organizations.  There is a new organization, Twin Radius, founded by Jacob Gunter, that I am so moved by and excited to see flourish. Twin Radius is working to bridge the disconnect between the arts community and faith-based communities to advance social justice. In a city such as Atlanta, where for decades, social justice movements have been fueled by artist and/or faith institutions, it is only natural for both parties to become allies and partners. The organization is not to be misread as being religious in nature, but it lives at the root of what makes us cultural distinct: what we believe and how we see the world. I cannot wait to see how the organization shapes Atlanta’s landscape around community art and activism!

Hillary: I’d like to hear more from you about your experience in Atlanta! Can you give me an insider’s knowledge on what’s brewing in the city?

Brandon: Well if I am honest, I do not quite love Atlanta yet. Though to be fair, I have only been here for about 2 ½ years and my sentiment for the city continues to evolve and warm. I grew up in North Carolina so I am accustomed to the charm and problematic nature of the south. But I lived in NYC for close to a decade and moved here directly after residing in Europe for a couple of years.

So, Atlanta has required a bit of a shift in my cultural competency. Atlanta has a huge race and equity problem. That is not to say that those issues aren’t prominent in other cities, but modern Atlanta knows how to use the progressive vernacular in a way that paints a pretty picture without doing the work. However, I am so pleased to report I see a change happening! I find that explicit conversations- and work- are now happening at all levels. Ask any resident, and it’s clear these conversations have never stopped on a grassroots level, but now we have major intuitions invested in solutions. I am proud of the approach MARTA is beginning to take, being explicit about equity. I am inspired by organizations like the TransFormation Alliance and its members, that acknowledge the significance of cross-sector collaborations. And in my work with WonderRoot, I am encouraged that the arts are being recognized as an intricate part of the solution process. At this rate, I have no doubt that one day I will emphatically state I love Atlanta! We just still have a lot of work to do, and I need our artists on the frontline.

Visit WonderRoot‘s website to learn more about their mission and program offerings.

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