Atlanta's High Museum of Art could not have picked a better time to feature the works of six Atlanta artists whose lives are windows into the challenges faced by immigrants to this country. These talented young people are Americans with pride in their heritage and creative gifts that can lift all of us if only we will pay attention.
The six featured artists are "a great reflection on how the city has grown," says Michael Rooks, Wieland family curator of modern and contemporary art at the High. "Atlanta has become a burgeoning cultural capital of the United states. Understanding difference and celebrating it makes our country special and unique."
Enough said. Meet these amazing artists:
Jessica Caldas is half Puerto Rican. She grew up in the United States and does not speak Spanish. "As a Puerto Rican," she says, "you are also an American, but not really." Her wall-sized painting of her grandparents is one of the first things you'll see as you enter the High's exhibit, "Of Origins and Belonging, Drawn from Atlanta." Caldas says of her grandfather, "He had an intense love for his home and also at being American." Flanking the painting of her grandparents is a painting in her handwriting of the 1917 Jones Act, which gave U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans.
Jessica Caldas' grandparents are the welcoming painting in the exhibit. (Mike Jensen)
Born in Mexico, Yehimi Cambrón came to the United States at age 7 as a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient. Meet her and listen to her talk about her art, her siblings, the struggles she faces because of her legal status. "As soon as I crossed the border, I became undocumented," says Cambrón, who grew up on Atlanta's Buford Highway. Her portraits at the High feature each of her family members (mother, father, grandfather, two brothers, one sister and herself).
Here are three of Yehimi Cambrón's family portraits: her grandfather, herself and one of her two brothers. (Mike Jensen)
Dianna Settles' father is a Vietnamese refugee, but she grew up in the mountains of North Georgia in the small town of Blue Ridge. Her mother's family is Irish and Dutch from several generations back. "I grew up in this strange in between," Settles says. "When I turned 3, my dad stopped talking Vietnamese." Thus, when she visited Vietnam for the first time in 2014, she recalls, "It was a transformative moment, seeing people who looked like me. I was excited to get there, but I didn't speak the language." Settles' works in the High exhibit are pencil drawings of her friends.
Dianna Settles' created pencil drawings for the High exhibit. (Mike Jensen)
Alan Caomin Xie
Born in Shanghai, China, artist and educator Alan Caomin Xie explores in his art issues of acculturation, spiritual enlightenment and cycles of creation and destruction and dissolution and coalescence. He answered a few questions to help us get to know him better. We asked Xie where in Atlanta he goes when he needs comfort food. His response: "Although I’m a Chinese, when I’m thinking about comfort food, the place usually I head to is Mediterranean Grill on North Decatur Plaza, and I always order their lamb shank. I think this is related to my trip to the Silk Road when I was an undergraduate student at China Academy of Art. Since then, I have been fascinated with Muslim food."
What do you consider one of Atlanta's hidden gems?
Drepung Loseling Tibetan Buddhist Monastery on Dresden Road. It is a small Buddhist temple, which is only two minutes from my house by walk. Sometimes I go there to worship Buddha.
What about Atlanta inspires your art?
Atlanta is a city without a center, which is the same as the artist community here. Each artist is very independent. We don’t feel a lot of pressure living and working in this city. It is very different from New York or Beijing. Atlanta has its leisurely and carefree mood. I guess this may be the reason why this city gave me so many artistic inspiration.
When family and friends come to visit, where do you take them?
I will take them to High Museum, Coca-Cola center, shopping malls and those restaurants on Buford Highway. Of course, most of the time is to go to Chinese restaurants because I am Chinese. They always expect me to take them to Chinese restaurants.
Xie's exhibits at the High are works in graphite and silver leaf on paper. Each work of art consists of hundreds of tiny marks, a process that would seem to be painstaking, but Xie describes it as meditative.
Caomin Xie says creating the hundreds of tiny markings on these works is meditative. (Mike Jensen)
Born in New York and raised in Georgia, Kim creates dreamlike paintings and installations that suggest an emotional interiority conditioned by memory and longing. Kim also answered some questions for us.
Which Atlanta restaurant do you head for when you want comfort food?
I really like Woo Nam Jeong on Buford Highway. I tend to order something different each time, as everything there is delicious and good quality. When my family is celebrating an occasion, we usually go to Bobo Garden, also on Buford Highway. Good stuff. We always get the same thing there: sweet and sour pork chops, snow pea tips, black bean mussels, salt and pepper squid, occasionally ginger lobster if it’s not too expensive that day. Of course, home cooking is the best though.
What do you consider one of Atlanta's hidden gems?
There are so many hidden gems in Atlanta. Sometimes it feels like the most precious secret is in the shade of an old tree. I love sitting in that shade and playing and writing and drawing. It feels like a way to commune with the countless unknown people and histories that experienced that same shade. It is also, for me, a way to feel a connection to the sun. The simple logic of an obstruction blocking the light from a star. It’s just insane to imagine that distance and interaction. I suppose this is not specific to Atlanta, but Atlanta is the place where I experience these things.
What about Atlanta inspires your art?
I love the amount of trees. Tree shadows are some of my favorite shadows. I also love power line shadows. I love the way nature grows over abandoned lots and buildings. I love the unconscious, in-between spaces, the places that feel like they were not planned, like empty lots, a patch of green along a stretch of highway, the space between highway dividers, the junk that accumulates behind a building. It seems, though, that these places are disappearing quickly or you are not allowed to inhabit them.
One time I was able to experience an abandoned motel before it was torn down. It was one of the most magical places I’ve experienced in my life. Golden sun, a deep green pool, thriving, overgrowing magnolias and ivies. I got on the roof of the motel, and someone had broken the window into the adjacent office building. I crawled through the broken window and began to explore the office as well. It was dark and dusty with the golden light of twilight streaming in through the windows. I wondered what magic could reside on the top floor, as it was a rather tall building. Maybe someone lived up there in a whole new world. I wanted to inhabit that space forever. It was a place where imagination could thrive. One day it was gone and a hospital arose in its place, which is also good in a different way.
What is your favorite Atlanta neighborhood?
My favorite Atlanta neighborhood is probably Doraville. It feels like a place where these kinds of spaces are still allowed to exist. Perhaps it is the proximity to industry. I also like Doraville because it feels like a place I can exist without sticking out too much. I can blend in there. I love the diversity of it.
When friends and family come to visit, where do you take them?
I would probably take them to the river or the forest if it’s warm, some restaurants and bars, maybe some dance parties, my studio. I think mostly I would just let them explore the city on their own.
For his exhibit at the High, Kim created a wall-sized installation.This work by Wihro Kim is titled, What doze d horizon mean? (Mike Jensen)
Well-known in Atlanta, Whyte, who was born in St. Andrew, Jamaica, is a professor at Morehouse College. Whyte's work explores the legacy of colonialism and the urgency of forced migration. Whyte attended Bennington College in Vermont for his bachelor's degree in fine art, the Maryland Institute College of Art for his post-baccalaureate certificate and the University of Michigan for his masters of fine art. In 2010 he won the Forward Art Emerging Artist of the Year Award. In 2015 he received the International Sculpture Center’s Outstanding Student Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture Award and in 2016 he received an Artadia Award. In 2016 Whyte participated in the Atlanta Biennial and the 2017 Jamaica Biennial. He is based in Atlanta and Montego Bay, Jamaica.
Cosmo Whyte explores colonialism and forced migration. (Mike Jensen)
More to do at the High Museum of Art:
All six artists will appear at the High on July 25 for a discussion of their work as it addresses issues related to place, belonging and heritage. The event begins at 7 p.m. in the Hill Auditorium.
At the High through Nov. 10 is "Strange Light," a collection of photographs of Clarence John Laughlin. Known as the Father of American Surrealism, Laughlin captured through his lens aspects of scenes, such as shadows, that the rest of us might miss.
Journalist Carol Carter writes and edits for Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau.