Athens is well known as the birthplace of R.E.M., Pylon and the B-52s, but less understood is the crucial role students at UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art played in helping to establish the town’s music scene.
Dedicated to preserving and promoting the artwork and artifacts from those formative years of 1975–’85, Art Rocks Athens launched last year with an impressive group of exhibitions spread between several venues, full of paintings, drawings, graphic arts, rock relics and fashion. This year’s programming will transition off of the canvas and onto the big screen through a focus on photography and DIY film.
ARA kicks off with a film screening dedicated to the work of influential experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage on Thursday, Aug. 27 from 7–9 p.m. at the Georgia Museum of Art. The collection of films, introduced by UGA professor Chris Sieving, will highlight Brakhage’s explorative techniques and themes, setting a visual context for appreciating the other Super 8 and 16 mm films ARA has in store.
“Brakhage made several hundred films over some 50 years, many of which were groundbreaking. As I understand it, he was Jim Herbert’s film mentor,” says ARA executive committee member Blair Dorminey. “Although their work is different in many respects, there is a common expressionist vibe—creativity and experimentation, certainly—and the result is often great beauty and a new way of seeing things.”
Herbert, who was Michael Stipe’s professor at Lamar Dodd, went on to direct a series of iconic music videos for R.E.M., cementing his place in Athens music history. Several of his pieces will be incorporated throughout the weekend’s events.
On Friday, Aug. 28 from 4–5 p.m. at Flicker Theatre & Bar, ARA will host “Cocktails & Videos,” a happy hour featuring the decade’s best music videos and band footage. An opening reception for “I’ll Be Your Mirror: Images From the Athens Scene, 1975–1985” will immediately follow from 5:30–8:30 p.m. at Art Rocks Photo & Film @ 5, a pop-up exhibition space located in the heart of Five Points at 1225 S. Milledge Ave.
Curated by Sandra Lee Phipps, a professor of photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus, “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is a retrospective photography exhibition that presents a time capsule of Athens’ budding creative culture through five major sub-themes. Portraits identify a handful of active artists and musicians, while images of local landscapes and landmarks help to establish a sense of place.
Wild party photos are juxtaposed with intimate shots of Athenians in their private homes and spaces, exemplifying a unique history that, although occasionally mythologized by townies who remark, “You missed it,” is ultimately built upon the stories of characters who have remained genuinely approachable for the past three decades. Lest we forget the art school’s essential role in recruiting artists to Athens, a selection of fine art photography will be on view as well.
While attending UGA in the early ‘80s, Phipps met the members of R.E.M. through the art department and collaborated on much of their earliest publicity and album artwork. A selection of her pieces will sit alongside images from more than 20 photographers, including Terry Allen, Jeremy Ayers, Terry Boling, Nanette Consovoy, Dana Downs, Rick Hawkins and Margo Rosenbaum.
Following round two of “Cocktails & Videos,” set for Saturday, Aug. 29 from 4–5 p.m., ARA will present “Art Rocks Reels: Movie Highlights from the Athens Scene, 1970–85” at the UGA Special Collections Libraries from 5–8 p.m. The reception and screening will travel through time, sharing early films by Keith Bennett, Jim Herbert, Laura Levine, Howard Libov and Spencer Thornton, among others. Highlights include the public premieres of Catfish Close-up by Betty Alice Fowler and teenage films by Cindy Wilson.
“Many of the Super 8 and 16 mm filmmakers were already known to me as old friends, and our conversations have been going on, in some cases, for years,” says Dorminey. “My curatorial assistant, Hugh Schlesinger, and I did a lot of research, tracking films and placing orders with major archives. We’re amassing a rather large list of relevant Super 8 and 16 mm film. We couldn’t even scratch the surface of video—that’s mainly for another day.”
ARA will conclude the weekend with a bloody Mary and biscuit brunch at The Pine on Sunday, Aug. 30 from 12–2 p.m., followed by a second installment of film delving more deeply into rarities next door at Art Rocks Photo & Film from 1–6 p.m. “Art Rocks Reels: Super 8 and 16 mm Auteurs of the Athens Scene, 1970–1985” includes works by the likes of Steve Allen, Lauren Fancher, Michael Lachowski, Michael Paxton and the Rat + Duck Playhouse. Various filmmakers will be present to introduce their films, and Richard Neupert of the UGA Film Studies department will lead a roundtable discussion.
Likely due to the tremendous amount of coordination required in organizing the inaugural year’s series of exhibitions, many people fell under the impression that ARA was a one-off event. From the beginning, however, ARA set out to establish itself as 501(c)(3) nonprofit that would continue to showcase the artists and musicians who helped place Athens on the map.
“We’ve always planned to continue; there’s a lot to be done, and a lot that would be fun to do,” says Dorminey. “In January, we’ll be screening more film, and we just may have another, smaller exhibition in conjunction with it. As for ARA 2016, we haven’t yet decided whether to move up a decade, 1985–1995, or to jump to the decade of Elephant 6, or to do something unexpected. In any case, we may be looking at expanding ARA into Atlanta, and possibly taking some things on the road, if we can find the necessary national funding.”
Many of Athens’ most celebrated musicians were drawn to the town by UGA’s art school. But the art/music connection is even deeper than that, says Jason NeSmith, a member of ARA’s executive committee and the frontman for Athens-based indie rockers Casper and the Cookies.
It’s not everyday you get to see two major pioneers of such different styles come together.
“The first contact I had with Athens or any underground music was visual,” says NeSmith, who grew up in Atlanta and recalls seeing flyers for punk rock shows plastered on the telephone poles near his house. In fact, NeSmith says it was visual media that attracted him to Athens.
“I remember seeing the video for [R.E.M.’s] ‘So. Central Rain’ for the first time, and suddenly Athens was what everyone was talking about,” he says. “And that didn’t stop for the next 18 years; so many of the best new bands were either from Athens or were influenced by it. I tried to get that wild feeling in Atlanta, and found a tiny circle of great friends. But then I saw shows by Mrs. Atkins and the Olivia Tremor Control, and realized the real thing was still 70 miles northeast. So, I finally just moved here.”
The musicians playing this year’s ARA showcase include some of the most notable to come out of Athens from 1975–’85. Among them are B-52s frontman Fred Schneider, who will perform solo for the first time in nearly 20 years at Live Wire on Saturday.
“We were down one headliner with the deadline bearing down on us,” explains NeSmith. “I contacted Fred fully expecting a no, but he enjoyed last year’s events and wanted to be a part of it. With that positivity, we were able to put a group together for him.”
Other performers include Glenn Phillips, who will headline The Foundry on Friday with a group that also includes the B-52s’ Cindy Wilson. (“It’s not everyday you get to see two major pioneers of such different styles come together,” marvels NeSmith.) Flat Duo Jets guitarist Dexter Romweber also appears on Friday’s bill.
New wave pioneer Kevin Dunn will play Live Wire Saturday, as will the Pylon Reenactment Society, an all-star band fronted by Pylon’s Vanessa Briscoe Hay. Saturday’s show also features a new local rock group, The Fantastics.
“We are looking to the future of Art Rocks Athens and widening our self-imposed time frame,” says NeSmith about the choice to showcase a current group as part of what is ostensibly a celebration of the past. “In that spirit, we wanted to bring in a great new band. There are dozens, but [at the] top of my list was The Fantastics, who prove to me that whatever it is that makes Athens special, it’s still here.”
Indeed, NeSmith says, despite its constant ebb and flow, the vibe that characterized Athens’ early scene remains intact. “Those bands don’t often have any grand scheme to get famous, just to have fun and do something unexpected,” he says. “That’s kind of the spirit of Athens to me.”
WHAT: Art Rocks Athens
WHERE: Various Locations
WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 27–Sunday, Aug. 30
HOW MUCH: $12–20 (concerts), FREE! (art exhibits)
Like what you just read? Support Flagpole by making a donation today. Every dollar you give helps fund our ongoing mission to provide Athens with quality, independent journalism.