Photo Credit: Nicole Adamson
New ginkgo trees have been sprouting up across sidewalks on the far-west side of downtown in the form of intricate mosaics that glitter in the sunlight, drawing the eyes down to the bases of light poles, oddly enough. Beautifying an otherwise overlooked, utilitarian detail of the urban landscape, this public art project was funded by the Athens Downtown Development Authority and spearheaded by local artist Krysia Ara, whose mosaic work has long decorated the exterior of the Daily Groceries Co-op.
Last summer, ADDA co-directors Linda Ford and David Lynn hosted a series of sessions to brainstorm ways of improving downtown, and reached out to Ara, who recently changed her last name from Haag, about the possibility of public art opportunities. Later that day, Ara decided to walk the grid of downtown with open eyes, and was soon struck by the lightning-bolt idea to mosaic the concrete bases of light poles. Her vision was met with warm enthusiasm, and she has quietly been working on the project since then, until its completion this month. Committed to living a creative path as a working artist, her interest in public art is rooted in a deeply instilled sense of community-mindedness and a desire to create something inspiring that belongs to everyone.
The pilot phase of “Project Ginkgo” includes a total of four mosaic works, unified by ginkgo leaves as a recurring design element. Located close to the 40 Watt Club and Flicker Theatre & Bar, “Soundwaves” is an homage to live music and features aqua and royal blue frequencies dancing across a night sky. Across the street in front of Epiphany, “Songbirds” is directly inspired by David Hale’s “BirdSong” mural and includes species native to the area, like the blue jay, robin and cardinal.
Photo Credit: Nicole Adamson
In front of The World Famous, “Twilight Fireflies” captures the summer magic of glowing fireflies and delicate luna moths. Outside of Creature Comforts, Ara’s final and most elaborate mosaic, “Night Owls,” features wide-eyed barred owls with intricately assembled feathers. A portal on a tree trunk offers a view of a rare “Celestial Event,” referencing when she witnessed Venus, Mars and Jupiter align above a crescent moon while traveling through Asia.
“I am chronically afflicted with wanderlust, and have budget-traveled to over 50 countries—as well as throughout much of the U.S. I’ve also lived in my hometown of Athens, GA for most of my life and know it pretty well,” says Ara. “Ginkgo biloba trees have long been popular here, an iconic tree that’s inspired many local creative works. Unfortunately, many downtown ginkgo trees have had to, or will have to, be removed. Perhaps ‘Project Ginkgo’ can help keep the downtown ginkgo spirit alive with ceramic ginkgo leaves made by community hands.”
Over the course of several months, Ara invited dozens of community members and fellow artists to lend a hand in painting layers of golden yellow and wasabi-colored glazes onto the ceramic leaves—often over cups of hot tea and bowls of soup. If “Project Ginkgo” is given the green light to continue, Ara hopes to connect with even more new volunteers of various ages and backgrounds beyond her immediate circle. While maintaining a balance between delegating tasks and performing the more skill-based work herself is challenging, she sees community involvement as an integral part of public art.
“From the moment I conceived of ‘Project Ginkgo,’ I wanted it to include a community art component,” says Ara. “I love the idea of many people playing a role in this urban beautification project—a community of assistants and other supporters making a cool thing happen for our town, gradually over time, while having positive interactions and learning experiences in the process.”
Each mosaic includes a leaf inscribed with the phrase “Made With Love and Care,” a humble understatement for a labor of love with such a detailed methodology. Before the process of glazing, real ginkgo leaves were pressed into malleable clay to capture their distinctive, fan-like shape and subtle veins. After firing with the help of local ceramicists, brown paper templates and matching fiberglass mesh pieces were modeled off of each light pole in order to work on the mosaics off-site. A form constructed from plywood and heavy-duty curved cardboard was used underneath to keep the spacing correct while mosaic pieces were gently glued into position.
Photo Credit: Nicole Adamson
After the light poles concrete bases were prepped using a drill with a wire brush to remove algae and grime and all cracks were repaired, the two-day installation process could begin. On the first day, the mesh sections were applied like puzzle pieces using premium-quality thinset. On the second day, Ara completed the epoxy grouting, a material that’s considerably demanding to work with but also incredibly resilient and worth the challenge to ensure the mosaics will survive in an exterior urban environment.
“This being my first significant public art project, I am becoming adept at installing public art in public,” she says. “While working on gritty sidewalks for long hours, I am primarily focused on the tasks at hand, to the point that I often don’t make eye contact with those who compliment the work—but this doesn't stop me from smiling at wonderful heartwarming comments received.
“Pouring your heart and soul into a relatively simple public project, taking it to the streets for days on end via the installation process and then sensing that people’s days are literally being brightened by an unexpected public-art encounter has been very rewarding to witness.”