A quarter century out, the legacy of the Atlanta 1996 Summer Olympics lives on. The event, held from July 19 to Aug. 4, marked the anniversary of the Summer Olympics held in Athens, Greece a century earlier. For any city, designation as the Summer Olympics site is a significant honor.
One remnant of the Summer Olympics with which many Atlanta residents may be less familiar is Folk Art Park. Constructed under the direction of the Corporation for Olympic Development in Atlanta (CODA), Folk Art Park spans a section of the Downtown Connector at the intersections of Piedmont Avenue and Baker Street, and Cortland Street and Ralph McGill Boulevard.
The park boasts artwork by twelve regional artists. Among them are prominent names such as Eddie Owens Martin, R.A. Miller, James Harold Jennings, Vollis Simpson, Archie Byron and Howard Finster. The initial proposal for the park won the international design competition for Urban Spaces in New American City and was the first public art project situated on Georgia Department of Transportation (DOT) property. The project’s goal was a simple one, sort of—to create a space that would engage pedestrians and motorists while celebrating the diversity and power of Southern folk art.
The Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico defines folk art as, “decorative or utilitarian…is handmade…is learned formally or informally, or is self-taught…is of, by and for the people; all people, is inclusive of class, status, culture, community, ethnicity, gender, and religion.” To this dictum, Atlanta’s Folk Art Park is true. The artists come from different walks of life and represent various backgrounds. Most were not formally educated and are self-taught.
Archie Byron (1928-2005), is one such example. Before art, or a tree root, more accurately, discovered Byron, he owned a security company. In fact, when an assassin’s bullet killed his childhood friend, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Byron’s company provided bodyguards and surveillance for Mrs. King and the children. Seven years later, while out on a security job, he noticed a tree root that resemble a gun. Intrigued, he brought the root home and his wife challenged him to create something with it. Byron’s career as an artist began in that moment. And like Byron’s, such stories abound at Atlanta’s Folk Art Park.
The Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) recently completed a three-phase restoration of Folk Art Park. Visitors once again can immerse themselves in this unique and quintessential Atlanta cultural environment as it was created 25 years ago. As one OCA staff person observed, “One thing I love about this array of monuments is that it communicates something special about Atlanta – one doesn’t need to walk through the halls of academia to have one’s voice heard and revered. There is a sort of transcultural intelligence showcased in this area that speaks to the ancestral roots within every human.”
A virtual tour of Folk Art Park can be accessed at this link.
Camille Russell Love has been executive director of the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs for more than two decades.