When art made Athens rock

When music meets art, it can fizzle in a sea of pretension. But when it happened in Athens in the late ’70s, it was magic.

And it was fun.

The members of this “bohemian underground of Athens,” as the B-52s’ Kate Pierson calls them, would create their own performance art in the middle of a field, even if no one was watching.

Pierson recalls those days in a recent email to the organizers of Art Rocks Athens, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to the preservation and celebration of art in Athens and its influence on the city’s music.

After borrowing a tape of African tribal music from the University of Georgia music library, Pierson writes, “Ricky Wilson placed his boom box in the field where we drew a circle of cows around us who bobbed their heads to the music while we danced. Everything we did was for ‘art’ and for pure amusement, since we had to make our own fun.”

This collection of visual artists, filmmakers, musicians, iconoclasts and misfits was instrumental in launching R.E.M., the B-52s and Pylon on the road to international acclaim and adulation. Despite that rich legacy, there’s never been a full-scale attempt to preserve and spotlight the contributions of the city’s artists and filmmakers of the period.

Art Rocks Athens hopes to change that. The organization will launch a series of free exhibitions on Memorial Day weekend (May 23-25) featuring visual arts; posters and graphics; historical artifacts from musicians and collectors; dance; film and live music performances in Athens, Ga.

The role of art was crucial in driving the music scene of those days.

“Nearly every band had an artist in it. That was the commonality of it,” says Vanessa Briscoe Hay, the voice of Pylon and Art Rocks Athens adviser. “We all had our own vision, but just being in the art department at that time was very exciting. The people that were there at the time were probably what provided the juice to the whole music scene.”

To do the work they need to do, including preserving and promoting the work of the period, the folks behind Art Rocks Athens need funding. That’s where Kickstarter, the online fundraising website, comes in.

The organizers have gathered an impressive lineup of rewards for contributors to the cause, including a piece by former UGA art professor and internationally known artist and filmmaker James Herbert. They’re also offering signed, limited edition prints and you can even get B-52 Fred Schneider to do your outgoing voice mail message.

One image, which Hay calls “a window into a time,” shows the Pylon singer and the band’s bassist (and graphic art student) Michael Lachowski being photographed against a cellophane backdrop. You can own the original, printed back in the day, for a donation of $1,000 or more.

It captures that fun-meets-art aesthetic of the time, with Hay grasping a very large bottle of what appears to be Schlitz beer.

“We would start out with a critique at the art school, and everybody would come and show their pieces,” Hay says. “Then we’d go from this critique to wherever the cheapest beer was. There was almost nothing to do but dance and find a party.”

Well, that and make music and art that still resonate today.

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