Robert Cheatham: Atlanta’s avant garde drum major

Robert Cheatham, a major organizer for Eyedrum art space, was a part-time teacher at the Atlanta College of Art.  Cheatham sits outside of Eyedrum in this photo from 2006. Photo: Jessica McGowan

Credit: Special

Combined ShapeCaption
Robert Cheatham, a major organizer for Eyedrum art space, was a part-time teacher at the Atlanta College of Art. Cheatham sits outside of Eyedrum in this photo from 2006. Photo: Jessica McGowan

Credit: Special

In edgy music, sculpture, publishing, gardening, Cheatham was a leader

This profile of Robert Cheatham was first published Jan. 10, 2010, when Cheatham had just left the experimental arts organization called Eyedrum. News of his death was reported on his Facebook page Tuesday, Jan. 11.

Robert Cheatham stands in a hilltop garden on a cold day in north Atlanta and pounds a 5-foot length of rebar upright into the ground. He stretches a piece of wire from this central point, then walks in a circle around the rebar, using the wire to mark off a 6-foot radius.

This is how it begins.

He soon will use a shovel to dig out the area, then will haul rock, cement and tile up into this Sandy Springs backyard, hand-carrying 3 tons of building materials the last 100 yards. Eventually this circular design, among the rose bushes behind Vicky Alembik-Eisner’s house, will be filled in with sinuous, colorful, Gaudi-esque forms, a patio/sitting area.

“It’s amazing how much damage one man with a shovel can do,” said Cheatham.

Not a young man, either.

Cheatham, 61, has been a presence on the Atlanta art scene for more than three decades. As one of the founding spirits behind Eyedrum, a collective of cutting-edge art and music, Cheatham has had a major influence on the underground and avant garde art scene in Atlanta.

Now he is moving on to the next chapter. After a decade of living like a modern-day Thoreau, moving between a hut in the north Atlanta woods and the continuous hipster party that is the Eyedrum scene, Cheatham is settling down and looking to the future.

He has left Eyedrum, is married and raising a child. Rather than working to build institutions, he is using his own art to make a living.

Has Cheatham finally grown up? “I put it off about as long as I could put it off,” he said with a smile.

Combined ShapeCaption
Robert Cheatham, the one-time director of Eyedrum, a non-profit arts group dedicated to experimental music, art and new media, also fashions fanciful garden sculptures out of a material called ferrocement covered with tile mosaic. He's shown here in a photo from 2009 with a piece he designed for a client's Sandy Springs home. Bita Honarvar, bhonarvar@ajc.com

Credit: bhonarvar@ajc.com

Robert Cheatham, the one-time director of Eyedrum, a non-profit arts group dedicated to experimental music, art and new media, also fashions fanciful garden sculptures out of a material called ferrocement covered with tile mosaic. He's shown here in a photo from 2009 with a piece he designed for a client's Sandy Springs home. 
Bita Honarvar, bhonarvar@ajc.com

Credit: bhonarvar@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
Robert Cheatham, the one-time director of Eyedrum, a non-profit arts group dedicated to experimental music, art and new media, also fashions fanciful garden sculptures out of a material called ferrocement covered with tile mosaic. He's shown here in a photo from 2009 with a piece he designed for a client's Sandy Springs home. Bita Honarvar, bhonarvar@ajc.com

Credit: bhonarvar@ajc.com

Credit: bhonarvar@ajc.com

Mississippi

Robert Richard Cheatham was born July 27, 1948, in Philadelphia, Miss., a town best known for the killing of three civil rights workers. Cheatham’s memories of Mississippi don’t include that notorious 1964 crime, which occurred after he moved away. He writes of a primal, Eden-like existence, a place where his grandparents had no indoor plumbing at their farm and drove a buckboard to town.

The oldest of three children of Bennie Franklin Cheatham, a schoolteacher, and Martha May Cheatham, a homemaker, Robert played in ponds, ran barefoot down dirt roads and became a voracious reader.

“Every time we have a break, I see him reading the encyclopedia,” his second-grade teacher told his mother. By that year, Robert had memorized the planets, their distances from the sun and determined that he wanted to be a nuclear physicist.

Smyrna

In 1962 the Cheatham family moved to Atlanta, settling in Smyrna. At Osborne High School young Robert met Paula Dressel. They would marry in 1971, she would earn a doctorate, and he would dabble in advanced study, without getting an advanced degree. He was most comfortable cobbling together his own syllabus, reading Hegel and Derrida while pursuing odd jobs and transforming their Lake Claire house into a ferrocement wonderland.

Ferrocement is a combination of chicken wire and concrete, applied in layers. It can be drawn into fanciful, organic shapes and is durable enough to serve as a load-bearing wall.

When his marriage ended in the ‘90s, he moved into the basement of his mother’s Smyrna home and began working with ferrocement on an even larger scale. A walk through her steep garden today, which he calls Freedonia, is like a tour through a fever dream, adorned with undulating concrete flowers, tile-adorned tentacles, birdbaths and walkways.

At the bottom of the hill that drops down to Nickajack Creek is Cheatham’s one-room hut, painted in bright reds and blues, the walls a mix of conventional siding and rippling ferrocement.

Some of his experiments were not successful. His tree-house studio in the same bottom land lies in fragments, though he notes, “It makes an interesting ruin.” Note to self: don’t build a tree-house out of concrete.

As Cheatham was building the hut, he was also making a new life for himself, with new acquaintances in the downtown arts scene.

Eyedrum

The epicenter of that scene was a second-floor walk-up apartment near the Capitol shared by visual artist Woody Cornwell and musician Marshall Avett. (They called the makeshift gallery/party headquarters the Silver Ceiling Art Party, in honor of the aluminum foil interior accents.)

The crowds and free-form music brought complaints from neighbors, so in 1998 eight artists chipped in $100 a month to rent new headquarters and formally create the Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery.

Eyedrum’s purpose was to provide a showcase for experimental art and to inspire similar cooperatives.

Cheatham, who played with Avett in a noise band puckishly called Tinnitus, began hosting open improvisations at the gallery once a month and became the executive director in 2003. Eyedrum would sometimes put on 300 events a year, and Cheatham was involved in most of them, giving his life over to the organization.

He dyed his hair Batman blue, and though he was frequently the oldest man in the room, he fit in.

“After my divorce, I found out, like many men find out, that most of our friends were really my wife’s friends. So I had to make a new set of friends. They all turned out to be half my age.”

Eyedrum was wild, with its nude cabaret, non-linear films, edgy installations, avant garde music and regular Dada events such as the “cake sit.” (The latter involves sitting on cakes, with or without pants.)

Priscilla Smith, a founder of the Acme Theater group, performed there with her post-new wave band The Earthlings and remembers “a couple of times Robert and I were on the same bill. Tinnitus would chase everybody out, and there wouldn’t be anybody left by the time we would play.” Perennially struggling financially, Eyedrum received a boost in 2006 with a $30,000 grant from the Warhol Foundation.

Cheatham also worked on his own art. For a show at a downtown industrial building, Cheatham created an installation called “Dromos: Life Ever After --- Our Glorious Future in the New Quantum.” It included a floating mummy-like figure, ethereal lighting, a fog machine and the head of a black Angus cow, which he acquired from an Alabama taxidermist for $800.

“It was grotesque, yet it was beautiful,” remembers Susan Bridges, owner of Whitespace Gallery in Inman Park. “I couldn’t stop looking at it.”

Fatherhood

At Eyedrum he also met his second wife, Sloane Robinson. They dated, then separated. He was slightly younger than her father; she was doubtful it could work. Other relationships intervened before they came back together.

“We just happen to have a lot of chemistry, and we couldn’t continue to push it away,” said Sloane, 36, a dark-haired Atlanta native who works part-time in the carpet business. They were married by an Eyedrum board member who had a quickie ordination from the Universal Life Church. Their son, Rowan, was born last year.

What does Sloane Cheatham love about her husband? “His absolute stubbornness to live life his way, to defy, more and more, a culture that seems to have fewer choices of what you can do while you’re here on this planet. ... Also, he’s just brilliant.”

Priscilla Smith became Eyedrum’s new executive director, but still sees Cheatham’s handprints everywhere. “The work that he did for so long for Eyedrum is still redounding,” she said. “I feel like we’re sort of flying on his coattails to a certain degree.”

With the help of a $1,500 Idea Capitol grant, Cheatham has moved on to create the Fort!/da? imprint, which has published three of his books, including the latest, “Metaphysical in Mississippi,” all of which feature dense, difficult, theoretical writing with liberal quotations from sources as disparate as H.P. Lovecraft and Michel Foucault.

He has also published a book of personal reflections by colleague Sean Beeching, a self-taught lichenologist with whom he has worked frequently on construction jobs. “We’re amateur thinkers,” said Beeching.

Cheatham’s writing is difficult, Beeching adds, but his conversation is easier to grasp. “When you’re talking, you can slow him down and say ‘Hey, what does that mean?’”

The two will appear at the Whitespace Gallery next month to read from their books and perform what Cheatham calls their “dog and pony show.”

In the meantime, Cheatham will seek new customers for his company, Freedonia Garden Art. The Alembik-Eisner house already boasts one of his creations, a gate with pendulous blossoms and a radiant halo of concrete spikes.

“He’s got a certain freedom in his art,” said Alembik-Eisner. “The design he presented originally is really nothing like what’s out there,” and she doesn’t mind at all. “I believe the universe will give you what is intended for you.”