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The Athens Banner Project Takes Over Downtown Storefronts

Uplifting and beautifying artwork will decorate the windows of downtown storefronts beginning this week, as the Athens Banner Project distributes its designs to 120 different businesses. Inspired by the public poster art of the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and 1940s, the ABP aims to advocate for the creative community and offer affirmations of resiliency, unity and support for local culture. Funded by the Athens Downtown Development Authority, with additional support from the Athens Area Arts Council, the project was shaped by the Athens Arts Alliance, an informal group of representatives (including me) from 10 different local arts-based organizations who met virtually each week while sheltering in place. The AAA selected five artists—Marvella Castaneda, Jess Dunlap, Eli Saragoussi, Maximos Salzman and Klée Schell—whose livelihoods had been impacted by the pandemic’s shutdown of the service industry, and offered them $350 each in exchange for original art banner designs.

Gracing the cover of Flagpole this week, Schell’s illustration is dedicated to their hardworking friends and coworkers in the service industry who, while adjusting to new business operations under a tremendous level of collective stress, deserve the sensitivity and support of the larger community. Currently studying printmaking and book arts at UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art, Schell works at Maepole and was temporarily out of work for several weeks at the onset of the pandemic. The uncertainty and heightened anxiety surrounding the situation led them to reconsider their approach and pace at which they produce artwork. 

“At first, I felt excited to have so much free time to dedicate to my art. I was drawing, weaving and knitting with nearly every spare minute. When things looked like they weren’t going to be getting any better, I think the way I made art changed a bit,” says Schell. “I’ve been doing a lot more reflecting on my work and my intentions in the past few months. I’ve been thinking about how I want my art to serve myself as well as others, and how I can use my art to help people. I’ve been thinking about storytelling more, and slowing down in art.”

Saragoussi’s artistic endeavors also took front and center after her jobs at Buvez and Dynamite were put on hold by the pandemic. Now able to maintain a regular routine of dedicating a few hours in the studio each day, she’s been able to expand her practice by exploring new techniques and media, like animation and video.

“When designing the artwork for the Athens Banner Project, I wanted to create something that gives the viewer a moment of reprieve from our current reality—a portal into a bright, hopeful world,” says Saragoussi. “I am constantly in awe of the momentum and strength of our Athens community and am so excited to see the positive changes that we are bringing to the table—especially in these dark, challenging times.” 

Prior to the outbreak, Five & Ten employee and chalk artist Castaneda was working toward the goal of becoming a full-time freelancer. Though several of the projects she had lined up for the following five months fell through as businesses closed, she was still able to use art as a healthy distraction and coping mechanism to relieve stress. Her design for the Athens Banner Project shares a quote from Frida Kahlo—“At the end of the day, we can endure way more than we think”—and was adapted from a separate illustration she made a few weeks into the shutdown. Originally lettering the quote onto a huge wall to comfort and assure herself, she hopes now to share this helpful message with anyone who needs the reminder.

Dunlap, an employee at Heirloom Café, similarly conveys a motivational message: “We can do this.” Taking an opportunity to amplify the visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement, her design features a Black fist gripping a bouquet. Things may have temporarily slowed down around the restaurant, but Dunlap has stayed busy by raising money for Black-led organizations through donating sales of her prints. While unified through a shared experience of the pandemic, people should also come together in solidarity of dismantling systems of racism and oppression.

“This experience gives us the opportunity to step up and show support and love for Black lives, and Black trans lives,” says Dunlap. “I chose the flora for this image based on that sentiment: a red rose for solidarity, ginkgo as a symbol of the town, a type of panic grass that we see everywhere. It’s ubiquitous and overlooked, [but] the seeds of that grass were brought to the U.S. from Africa on the clothes of those who were kidnapped, sold and enslaved. It’s a reminder that this history is everywhere right before our eyes. Finally, I chose forget-me-nots so that we never forget our past and these lessons, that we don’t forget this is a time to stay physically distant but not socially distant. It’s a powerful moment in our lives where we can all choose to do what’s right, from keeping each other safe from the coronavirus, to fighting for true justice and equality.”

Salzman, a manager at Jittery Joe’s, has used the past few months of unemployment to dedicate more of his time to artwork as a way of staying productive and engaging with others. In addition to drawing over two dozen portraits of friends who submitted photos through social media, he also helped to paint a few murals at St. Philothea Greek Orthodox Church. 

“I wanted to create an image that would remind us how we stayed connected during the quarantine. Initially, everyone took to Zoom meetings and Facetime. I thought this was an inspiring example of our efforts to not be secluded and our need for social connection,” says Salzman. “In the final image, I used features of religious compositions to cement the idea of this being a historical image that would bring us back to this moment in time. With all the hardships the pandemic has brought, there has been more sense of community as everyone has been affected by the same ailment to a degree.”

To help local businesses survive the next few months, Athens-Clarke County and the City of Winterville have formed a joint development authority that will be capable of distributing up to $1 million in loans. Linda Ford, Director of Business Services at the ADDA, encourages everyone to shop intentionally by ordering online from local retailers, picking up take-out or dining on outdoor patios, and using social media to share updates. 

“Considering that we are coping with a pandemic and an uncertain future for higher ed in the fall, downtown is showing signs of resiliency and doing better than most communities,” says Ford. “The hospitality industry has probably taken the biggest hit. There are obvious indicators of commerce even during this time. We are seeing lots of people downtown, wearing masks and social-distancing. Permanent business closings have been limited. Several new businesses have opened. Businesses have pivoted to new models, taking advantage of online platforms, social media and outdoor spaces.”

In addition to the Athens Banner Project, the ADDA looks forward to next month’s official installation of the Athens Music Walk of Fame, an interactive walking tour that passes by significant sites and honors a handful of musicians who have contributed to the town’s rich cultural heritage. The ADDA is also working with art partners to create a mural walk downtown and will assist in developing a green space in the parking lot adjacent to the installation, Hot Corner: An Athens Legacy Mural.