Approaching this Phillip Andrew Lewis work, one senses a familiar glow. Closer observation reveals the source of illumination: the almost ubiquitous smile of a national fried chicken chain.
The Atlanta art scene goes world-class.
Tori Tinsley embraces her brightly colored subject matter—literally.
Standing with Tori Tinsley in front of one of her many neon, high-contrast paintings, I begin to 
tear up.

“Please don’t cry.”

I couldn’t help it. Sometimes a piece of art strikes you so precisely, you lose control of your senses and become a resonant part of the artistic instrument itself. And this was just the first room of the first studio visit on our first day in Atlanta. It’s important to pace yourself in these types of high-output emotional scenarios.

Hours before, my photographer and Art Director Trevor and I landed at the “World’s Busiest Airport,” Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International and headed into the city to meet with Jessica Miller, executive director of Burnaway, an Atlanta-based arts advocacy nonprofit and publication. I asked her to show me the real Atlanta art scene, and she became the key that unlocked our insider Atlanta experience, taking us to a meeting with four local artists at a new gallery/work space, Day & Night Projects.
Jessica Miller, Executive Director of Burnaway, gave us the low-down on the Atlanta art scene.
Mark Leibert stands in front of one of his prepared canvases, covered in his own hand-crafted oil paint.
Matching his work from wardrobe to personality, Steven L. Anderson poses humbly with this enormous, meditative work.
Walking through the four adjacent spaces of the studio was like passing through a living palette, and each of the artists seemed to resemble their own work. The lively color of Tinsley’s work at the doorway passed into adventurous earth tones of the meditative, wall-sized tree rings of Steven L. Anderson. In the next room, Mark Leibert was busy mixing ancient paint recipes to create dreamy, bleach-bypass beach scenes reminiscent of his upbringing in Hawaii. And at the extreme of the building lay the Sumi-tinted serpentine monochromatics of William Downs—possessed, organic and sprawling devilishly over all the walls of his space.
William Downs proudly presents one of his framed works, an inkwash piece that captures his signature balance of whimsy and darkness.
During a late dinner at an after-hours Korean hotspot with Leibert and Downs, Trevor and I ate bulgogi and drank canned beers and craft cocktails surrounded by one of Downs’ latest commissions, a black wall painted with white vines and hundreds of eyes. We talked for hours about Atlanta’s shifting tastes and thriving art scene and about their work balancing time between pedagogy and exhibition.

At the end of a long fun night, I thanked them for welcoming us to their city. “This is our city,” Downs assured me in a sincere display of Southern hospitality, a quality I had almost forgotten in the years since I had left Texas for Los Angeles.
Detail of Downs’s studio walls.
A combination of light work, stage design and costume, along with show-stopping performances, made “Silent Night” a visceral experience.
The spiraling atrium of the High Museum fills with natural light.
The next day, we visited the Arts Center in Midtown, and I made Trevor snap photos of me with larger-than-life peaches and other whimsical interactive art juxtaposed against a bronze Rodin sculpture at the center of the square. We spent a few hours getting lost while exploring the mix of cosmopolitan and Southern-focused art inside the architecture of the sweeping sculpture of the High Museum of Art.
Not to spoil anything, but I cried a second time during the second act of Zvulun’s production of “Silent Night,” the performance completely overwhelming my expectations.
But there lay another art attraction just down the road: Atlanta Contemporary. When we walked inside, I serendipitously met Veronica Kessenich, the executive director of the 43-year-old institution. She was kind enough to show Trevor and me around the gallery spaces and the subsidized artist studios behind the space while answering our questions.
Notoriously camera-shy Veronica Kessenich beams proudly outside Atlanta Contemporary.
With her robust experience throughout the art world, Kessenich is making a name for herself behind the scenes by applying her business acumen to maintaining the new admission-free status of one of the best-curated contemporary art centers in America. I was not surprised to find out she owns an Audi Q5.

That night, Trevor and I headed to Buckhead to attend a dress rehearsal of The Atlanta Opera, helmed by Tomer Zvulun—incidentally a friend of Kessenich. You see, Atlanta metro—though populated by 6 million souls—is really a small town. Kessenich and Zvulun represent what this city does so well, cleverly making art more accessible and more attractive to the communities it serves.
The interior of Atlanta Contemporary, packed with a robust and contrasting selection for the ATLBNL.
When I asked the young director about his success since taking over the organization, he said it stemmed from “increasing artistic risk while lowering financial risk,” which means sometimes putting on newer or niche productions in smaller and even sometimes unconventional spaces. Over the last three years, The Atlanta Opera increased attendance while doubling the number of yearly performances, using this creative strategy. As Zvulun told me, he came to the company four years ago because he saw that the people “want to see world-class opera in Atlanta.”

Now, he’s been able to realize big, emotional blockbusters—like the epic wartime piece we saw—responsibly, by shrewdly collaborating with many other production companies. Not to spoil anything, but I cried a second time during the second act of Zvulun’s production of “Silent Night,” the performance completely overwhelming my expectations.
The interior of Atlanta Contemporary, packed with a robust and contrasting selection for the ATLBNL.
Chris Calhoun aka “Alabama Chris” reflects on his place in the Atlanta arts community at Castle Hill Studios.
Calhoun’s taste for artistic quality is apparent in his Audi A4.
As a visitor in Atlanta, I always feel lost, even with a fully charged phone and vehicle navigation. Winding Arabesque streets can be congested, sure, but I sometimes find myself crossing Peachtree at impossibly consecutive intersections.

So when local music producer and engineer Chris Calhoun offered to drive us around town in his Audi A4, I jumped at the chance. We took in the sights around Edgewood and Castleberry Hill, two neighborhoods surrounding downtown. After showing us a new studio he’s building and some of his upcoming music, he drove us to an art studio on Boulevard NE where he introduced us to some friends, two stunning young visual artists.
So when local music producer and engineer Chris Calhoun offered to drive us around town in his Audi A4, I jumped at the chance. We took in the sights around Edgewood and Castleberry Hill.
Sharing a studio, the two sometimes-collaborators, Christian “Su” Smith and Lulu Mar, divulged that their creative process involves creating new methods and mastering new skills, benefitting from the constant creative feedback they give each other. While standing with Calhoun and his friends, I realized that this ongoing relationship between artist and audience makes the Atlanta art scene so special.

That same spirit even appears along the Atlanta BeltLine, which features sculptures, paintings and other art every few paces along the 22-mile historic rail corridor that encircles the city with hiking and biking trails. On our final morning, Trevor and I wandered its paths while local joggers took in the al fresco museum promenade on fast-forward and stopped to catch their breath along with a feeling about the human condition at the art on display.
Lulu Mar sits with his work outside of his Edgewood studio.
Su Smith dazzles with this impressionistic canvas of golds and blues.
Almost always on the road, we were lucky to catch Atlanta native Jamie Barton in her natural environment.
We made our way to one of Atlanta’s hip indoor markets, where we were honored to meet with Jamie Barton, a brilliant operatic performer in town for a performance. I asked her about our shared interest in Dvorak and Mahler, featured on her new album “All Who Wander,” and then asked what the idea of wandering means to her. She said she is from a small farming community outside of town and that opera wasn’t something she came from but something she fell in love with. To her, the curiosity for “life outside” one’s bubble is a “unifying journey” that speaks to all of us.

Atlanta is home not only to some of the most progressive and competent fine arts institutions in the U.S. but also to uniquely engaged creative communities. The call-and-response collaboration of pioneering expression and audience engagement informs A-Town. Artists paint ornate murals while spectators swill whiskey. Musicians bounce a track and take it directly to the club to gauge the response. It is this fearless and empathetic role of the artist in Atlanta that makes the place a paragon of a new American art mecca—all of which is a great excuse for me to visit regularly.