Found art trail in south Atlanta park turns trash into treasure

Doll’s-Head Trail inside Constitution Lakes Park is an evolving “found art” trail fashioned from refuse left in the area. (Photo by HYOSUB SHIN)

Doll’s-Head Trail inside Constitution Lakes Park is an evolving “found art” trail fashioned from refuse left in the area. (Photo by HYOSUB SHIN)

Story by Curt Holman

“What we can’t make right, we can make better,” reads a hand-painted sign near the entrance of the paved trail at Constitution Lakes Park. It may seem like an all-purpose affirmation, but it’s one of the first hints of the park’s Doll’s Head Trail and aptly expresses its ethos. The 7-year-old found object sculpture garden is one of Atlanta’s most unique, quirky and overlooked features.

The industrial zone along Moreland Avenue south of the Starlight Drive-In seems an unlikely place to commune with nature, let alone find an ongoing communal art project. Constitution Lakes Park spreads over 125 acres, and unsuspecting visitors may think its attractions end with the wooden deck facing the small, eponymous lakes, which began as 19th century excavation pits for the South River Brick Company.

From the boardwalk, if it weren’t for the signs saying “Keep to the bobs” and the orange fishing bobs serving as blazes, it would be easy to miss the dirt trail that leads around the lake. It’s a short walk to the Doll’s Head Trail, a clockwise loop that showcases the makeshift exhibit.

Standing in clearings or along the trail are dozens of little amalgamations of toys and old junk assembled in playful ways, often with written labels nearby that spell out a pun: “Baby Driver” identifies a doll head on a toy stroller, while a broken TV contains a container of camp fuel marked “Fiery Rhetoric.” Other sculptures (I’d guess you’d call them) replicate circuses and solar systems, while hand-drawn messages frequently quote crunchy rock musicians like Neil Young. With pro-environmental messages and a laid-back sense of humor, it feels like an artifact of the 1960s and 1970s counter-culture.

In fact, the Doll’s Head Trail originated in 2010, when self-employed carpenter Joel Slaton began visiting the park during a lull in his work. An Atlanta native living in Clayton County, he learned about Constitution Lakes Park when Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Charles Seabrook recommended it for bird-watching.

Slaton recalls when he first left the paved path and made his way around the lake. “The trail going to the back of the park was narrow, twisting, forbidding-looking,” he says. “Back there you had nice water views but it was really bricky, with a lot of loose bricks. There was also a homestead back there, including a little pit with doll parts. The park had been used as a dumping ground.”

He took it upon himself to spruce up the area, and began leaving little creations behind for his amusement, eventually posting “Doll’s Head Trail” signage for passersby. “I just set this up as a joke for the Audubon people and regular visitors,” Slaton says. “I put the sign up in February of 2011 for people to stumble upon.”

Slaton had no expectations of permanence, but from then on, not only did his work stay in place, but other visitors would add to it, almost like they were leaving notes for each other. Slaton would find an addition and say to himself, “Ah, someone else is contributing!”

The trail is maintained by Slaton and other volunteers, including Friends of Constitution Lakes founder Joy Carter, Hunter Franklin, Atlanta artist Joe Peery and even people Slaton says he’s never met. Fortunately, DeKalb County has given the project its blessing. “Dave Butler, DeKalb County greenspace manager, cut the trail that leads to the Doll’s Head Trail,” Slaton says.

The display has certain ground rules. Artwork must be family friendly — no profanity or jagged-edged pieces — and consist solely of junk and other material found in the park or carried in by the river. “A lot of people are bringing dolls and leaving them, so I wanted to make sure that people get the message ‘Don’t bring anything in,’” Slaton says. “Sometimes they’ll leave ghoulish type dolls, or dolls hanging from a tree. [The trail] has got a creepy tone anyway, so I like to take those.”

During the growing season, the trail keepers have to cut back the privet plants, and year-round, fix or replace pieces knocked over by animals, vandals or visitors taking selfies. “One of us will go by at the beginning of the week to remove any [inappropriate] stuff put in over the weekend,” he says. “I try to go toward the end of the week and make sure the trails are in good shape.”

Slaton cites one of his favorite pieces as the decorated trunk of a split, looming willow oak tree, described as the largest recorded inside I-285. Its adornments include a Pop Art-worthy Speed Racer illustration on a sign found in the river.

Some of the other pieces aren’t always that memorable or impressive, but collectively, the Doll’s Head Trail feels charming, personal and sincere. One hand-lettered sign pays tribute to the artists that inspired it, including the late Rev. Howard Finster. The display feels very much in Finster’s earnest, accessible spirit.

Plus, it demonstrates recycling at its most creative, turning junk and other eyesores into a collaborative, creative piece. Maybe any park with a litter control issue could support its own version of a Doll’s Head Trail.

Constitution Lakes Park. 1305 S. River Industrial Blvd. 404-371-3005.

Insider tip

If you want to share in the work but can’t find any discarded raw materials, you can leave a written message. Shattered bricks are a popular writing surface, so you may want to bring a Sharpie.