Petite public art project looms large

Tiny Doors ATL opens up possibilities

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They slip in under cover of night and the comforting knowledge that it’s past any pint-sized spies’ bedtime. Swiftly, and with the confidence that comes from having done this sort of thing before, they set about choosing a location.

Maybe they'll put it right here in a spot almost directly across from Little Shop of Stories's main counter. Or maybe over there, between a couple of colorful picture books at the children's bookstore in Decatur. Finally, Karen Anderson and Sarah Meng settle on a spot at the end of a low bookcase, where it won't immediately announce its presence so much as reveal itself by chance.

"You're going about your life, and it surprises you," says Meng, co-director of Tiny Doors ATL, the self-described artists cooperative behind these wee, one-of-a-kind doors that have shown up around town at the Krog Street Tunnel, near the Historic Fourth Ward Skatepark on the Atlanta Beltline, even — coming this week — in a tree on the Freedom Park PATH Trail. "Maybe it makes you think, where else can life surprise you?'"

As Meng spoke, co-director Karen Anderson, set out a small Rosie the Riveter doll with a teeny toolbox that have become the de facto mascots of this ongoing, mysterious-by-design public art project. Then it was time to anchor in place Tiny Doors ATL’s fourth and most fully tricked-out creation yet: A white pillared Georgian-style door that stands about 10 inches tall beside a miniature bookcase with tiny volumes on its shelves (Harry Potter, Curious George) and a lush jungle scene hidden in a cabinet below.

"What happens when customers ask us questions about it?" asks Terra McVoy, a local YA author and one of several employees who has stayed past the bookstore's closing time so Anderson and Meng can do their thing. "What do you want us to say? Or not say?"

Anderson smiles.

"Ask them, 'Who do you think lives behind that door?'" she suggests. "The point is, we want people to use their imagination."

Imagine this: It was only last May that Anderson, 32, and Meng, 31, first met at a Tae Kwan Do tournament where each was cheering someone else on. They initially bonded over crafting — Meng, a mental health counselor by profession, was embroidering — then decided to collaborate on an idea Anderson had.

"People are getting excited about art, especially public art, in Atlanta," said Anderson, a Michigan native with a degree in visual arts from Rutgers University. That's especially true of large scale public art, thanks to initiatives like the Living Walls mural project and Art on the Beltline. Now, the budding co-op decided, it was time to "bring big wonder to tiny spaces."

That's how they hit on doors. Tiny doors.

“The door is an accessible symbol to a broad audience,” says Meng. “The size of the door enables us to … invite them into curiosity and wonder.”

The doors appear as if by magic overnight. An unnamed cadre of Tiny Door Guardians help keep the doors tidy after installation and a group of Tiny Friends assist with the project’s web presence and other logistics. Why the subterfuge? No one wants the cooperative to become more visible than the doors themselves.

The first couple of doors showed up in places without permission, but those rogue days are largely a thing of the past.

Increasingly, Tiny Doors ATL isn't the one doing the asking. Little Shop of Stories requested a door, and the artists responded by putting their first tiny door inside a location. Trees Atlanta saw the growing buzz on social media and decided it wanted in.

"We kind of cold-called them," said Eli Dickerson, event and donor relations coordinator for the nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and improving Atlanta's urban forest. "We said, 'Hey, maybe there's an opportunity to partner up and get people excited about art and trees.'"

This week, just in time for Georgia Arbor Day on Friday, a tiny door will be installed in the thick protective bark of a tree in a “highly trafficked, publicly accessible place,” said Dickerson, who won’t — or can’t — reveal much more than that.

“Part of what Tiny Doors ATL is about is not giving specific locations because they want people to explore public spaces,” said Dickerson. “We obviously promote getting outside and exploring green spaces, too.”

The cooperative has identified sites for 10 new doors this year, and each one is designed to reflect its environment.

Outside Inman Park Pet Works, the tiny door installed a few days before Christmas sports an even tinier pet door from which a furry rear end protrudes. Like the store’s bulletin board, where pet owners post notices about lost or found dogs and kitties, the tiny door has its own tiny little bulletin board.

“I always love it when I look out the window and I see people walking by at first,” said store owner Laura Saunders. “They turn around and look back, like, ‘Am I crazy or is that a little door?’”

Not everyone is content with merely looking at the tiny doors, though. Soon after the pet store installation, tiny posters and fliers promoting a dogwalker and Snoop Dog mysteriously appeared on the bulletin board. Someone hung a little Christmas wreath on the door. A pint-sized package addressed to “Tinytown” was “delivered” to the porch. Around Halloween, tiny jack-o-lanterns appeared at the Krog Tunnel door.

Tiny Doors ATL doesn’t know who’s responsible for any of it. Maybe it’s only right it’s a mystery, too.

"We were ecstatic to see evidence of people not only noticing the door, but also showing a sense of guardianship by decorating the porch and tending to the ground as though it were their own," says Anderson."More often than not, items outside the doors disappear as quickly and mysteriously as they appear without our hand in it at all."