Female artists tackle Atlanta housing inequality in MLK exhibit

Artists Haylee Anne (from left), Angela Bortone, Jessica Caldas, Angela Davis Johnson, and Danielle Deadwyler created the exhibit “Live the Legacy II” for the Center for Civil and Human Rights. FLEMING SMITH / MARGARET.SMITH@COXINC.COM

Artists Haylee Anne (from left), Angela Bortone, Jessica Caldas, Angela Davis Johnson, and Danielle Deadwyler created the exhibit “Live the Legacy II” for the Center for Civil and Human Rights. FLEMING SMITH / MARGARET.SMITH@COXINC.COM

For the all-female artist collective Living Melody, Atlanta is going through both the best of times and the worst of times. They’re doing their part to increase the best of times by tackling complex social issues through their art and performances.

The five women, two of whom are Atlanta natives, spent four months this year preparing an exhibit for the Center for Civil and Human Rights called "Live the Legacy II." The exhibit, running through Sept. 2, focuses on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy in terms of how Atlanta has changed as a city, especially with homelessness and housing inequality.

“Live the Legacy II,” an exhibit focusing on Atlanta housing inequality through the lens of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, is at the Center for Civil and Human Rights through Sept. 2. 

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The large mural stretches across almost an entire wall. The project was the collective’s first official collaboration after artists Angela Davis Johnson, Haylee Anne, Angela Bortone, Danielle Deadwyler and Jessica Caldas came together in October of last year and realized how well their creative lives overlapped.

“Most of us have known each other for about three or four years,” Caldas explained.

The women began unofficially working together in 2015 when Caldas started a performance series titled “3everyday.” Every day in October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, three women performed in public Atlanta spaces to raise awareness of the realities of domestic violence.

“What we found is that we kept coming together,” Caldas said. The women discovered that beyond their common artistic passions, they also cared deeply about their communities and were interested in the way the arts could affect complex social problems.

The collective started officially in January when they heard about a contest for a new exhibit at the center focused on King’s legacy. Their design for a mural was selected by the museum, “and thus we were born,” the group joked.

The artists immersed themselves in King’s life and work to prepare for the exhibit. While Bortone pored over King’s books, Deadwyler attended several panels that discussed housing inequity in Atlanta, which King hoped to alleviate.

Featured prominently on the mural is the title of King’s last book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”

“I think that when you look at the mural itself, it really does look like an abstracted version of the skyline we have behind us. We have this tendency in Atlanta to follow our mascot of the phoenix and burn and rebuild and burn and rebuild, and so we were really thinking of that cycle of expansion and contraction that has happened since Dr. King has died,” Bortone explained regarding the design of the mural.

To Bortone, the way Atlanta is growing is “wild and untenable.”

Caldas, who grew up in Atlanta and graduated from Henry W. Grady High School in 2005, echoed Bortone’s thoughts. “I’ve watched it change pretty rapidly, especially recently, and sort of change in ways that are hard to see,” she said.

In the mural, the artists tried to emphasize that the city is not as spread out as it seems; some neighborhoods that are “really struggling” are next to neighborhoods that are flourishing, according to Caldas.

They also hoped to show the complexity of the issue. “On a direct scale, the piece is very layered in the same way that these issues are not a cut-and-dry thing that you can fix,” Anne commented.

At the base of the mural, which is now covered by several layers, the artists laid down maps of city properties that rate each neighborhood based on development. After that, they put down photographs of the city, then portraits of King and housing, as well as text.

Constructing the mural could often be challenging as the women juggled their work with other responsibilities. Most of the women are mothers and would take their young children with them to the studios. The children are just as much a part of the collective as themselves, the artists emphasized.

“My children would come everywhere with me, and I would look up and somebody has them, someone was holding them, someone was feeding them or playing with them. It was a great support. The challenges of our lives were answered in a really beautiful way,” Johnson explained.

Deadwyler, a local actor, added, “The layers of who you are as an artist don’t slough off in the same way that you can’t just throw away layers of the city.”

The women work closely as a team on projects, but they’ve also become close friends, texting each other every day and relying on each other for support in every aspect of their lives.

Many of the women felt that they had grown as artists from working together. They often brought up moments when another member of the collective had inspired them, such as when Caldas performed as part of “3everyday” while several months pregnant, even right after her own baby shower.

Commitment like Caldas’ is “beyond inspiring, it’s infectious,” Deadwyler remarked.

Due to the role of motherhood in their lives, the group hopes to do a project on motherhood in the future. Their support system is crucial to “figuring out what it means to be an artist and a mom and a community member,” Caldas said.

The mural in the center stands as a testament to the collective’s first official project, as well as to their friendship.

Each of the women is constantly working on her own individual projects as well, and they hope to continue using their art to confront Atlanta’s issues.

“I think we can say with love, and a little bit of bitterness, that we want Atlanta to be better,” said Anne.


“Live the Legacy II”

Through Sept. 2. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays (except July 27, when it closes at 5 p.m.); noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $19.99; $17.99 for senior citizens, students and military; $15.99 for youths ages 7-12; free for children 6 and younger. Center for Civil and Human Rights, 100 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd. 678-999-8990, civilandhumanrights.org.