The keeper of Doll's-Head Trail

Joel Slaton was adrift when he created a folk-art trail in Constitution Lakes Park. Now he’s found his purpose and a like-minded tribe of supporters.

If you go

Constitution Lakes Park. Open daily dawn to dusk. 1305 South River Industrial Blvd.,  Atlanta.  404-371-3005,

The first disembodied doll’s head that started it all mysteriously disappeared.

So did the next several that followed — removed, Joel Slaton suspects, by hikers creeped out by eyes peeping out from trees, or rogue ATV-ers ticked at someone trespassing on their unofficial turf.

Or maybe some savvy folk-art collector was just getting an early jump on things.

Whatever. The ground at Constitution Lakes Park kept giving up new “found” objects and trash. And Slaton kept turning it into al fresco art pieces set along an unpaved trail that soon made his work with dolls look like, well, kid stuff:

• “An Expedition to Hell,” where the door to Hades (a weather-beaten piece of plastic panel) appears to open up and swallow a tiny man swaying helplessly off scavenged bits of fishing line and rods;

• “Ol’ Sparky,” an electric chair fashioned from a discarded stove-top heating coil, washing machine agitator and — “to provide the juice,” Slaton grinned — a distributor cap;

• “Don’t Drink and Text and Drive,” a comically cautionary sculpture comprising a cellphone, a large plastic toy car and a liquor bottle found in the nearby South River.

Everything along Doll’s-Head Trail must be made out of objects left behind in the 8-year-old park, a former brick works site regenerated as a scenic wetlands located in a heavily industrial section of DeKalb County near the Starlight Six Drive-In. It’s the one rule insisted on by Slaton, a 52-year-old self-employed carpenter, since he began finding dolls’ heads — and, arguably, a better version of himself — in these woods.

Now he’s expanding his vision: Toward the old Atlanta Prison Farm about a mile away, and other largely forgotten properties close to the rejuvenated park.

He calls the area “Restorationland,” a place where everything aging and faded can be reinvigorated.

He knows the territory well.


One doll head at a time

About three years ago, Slaton read a Charles Seabrook column in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about a great bird-watching spot at a DeKalb County park “in a busy industrial area off Moreland Avenue.”

Park? What park? Slaton thought.

The Atlanta native had moved to Clayton County in 1996. But he’d grown up just two miles from where the park supposedly sat in an area he mostly remembered as a place where big trucks rumbled back and forth. Back then, inmates lived and worked on the sprawling Prison Farm, producing food for the city correctional system. People sometimes stopped to pay their respects at a spot on nearby Key Road where deceased elephants and a gorilla from the old Grant Park Zoo (precursor to the present day Zoo Atlanta) were buried.

At the time, Slaton was at loose ends and feeling restless, even somewhat depressed. Leevon, the son he’d raised largely as a single father, was enrolled at Atlanta Technical College and about to leave the nest. Thanks to the Great Recession, there was little call for his skills as a subcontractor specializing in home remodeling. He was “barely squeaking by” paying his bills. Meanwhile, he worried about how much longer he’d be able to do such physically demanding work if and when the economy did improve.

Today, he realizes he was going through a mid-life crisis of sorts.

Back then, though, he just decided it was time to revisit the old neighborhood.

Sure enough, Slaton found Constitution Lakes on a spur of South River Industrial Boulevard shared with a large trucking facility across a heavily trafficked, six-lane stretch of Moreland. In contrast to its environs, the 125-acre park felt peaceful and practically undiscovered, all woods and ponds and a couple of lakes that had formed when rainwater filled the holes once excavated for clay.

A paved walkway undulating gracefully from the parking lot to one of the ponds and a boardwalk was how most people navigated Constitution Lakes.

But Slaton left the main trail to explore the park’s more untamed areas and discovered all manner of things people had for years dumped there or in the nearby South River.

Among the things he found on one of those early visits was a doll’s head.

“One day, the phrase just popped in my head and it wouldn’t go away.”

Doll’s-Head Trail was born.

On subsequent visits, he started placing the heads in hollowed-out tree trunks on a rough-hewn “scant outline of a trail” deep in the woods between two lakes. When he decided one baby doll needed a bottle, it was no problem. Discarded liquor bottles were plentiful. When those initial “installations” started disappearing, again, no problem. There were always more dolls heads — and arms and legs — to be found, something Slaton attributes to the attractiveness of the river as a dumping site, as well as the lifespan and buoyancy of plastic dolls.

Still, a man has his limits.

“At a certain point my Southernness kicked in,” Slaton chuckled. “I said, ‘You’re not going to take this from me.’”

He began creating more elaborate mash-ups of things less easily removed. He gave them titles — “Tesla-vision,” for a grouping of auto components nestled inside the frame of an old TV. He scrawled witty or provocative messages on shards of tile and brick that kept surfacing like friendly ghosts from the park’s industrial past. “Don’t be one of these,” he wrote beside an installation in which a discarded label-maker figures prominently. He started leaving Sharpie pens by a pile of tiles and pottery shards to encourage people to make their own marks on Doll’s-Head Trail.

He wanted the trail to have “an air of mischief and mystery” when someone stumbled across it. He also wanted to make visitors think about the ease with which we throw things away.

Anything more than that almost seemed presumptuous.

“I’m just a volunteer, just some carpetbagger from Clayton County who came in and started building this thing,” said Slaton, who had no background in art but occasionally writes poetry. “Maybe other people would get in tune with it or maybe they wouldn’t, and it would all get overgrown.

“It would just have been a moment in time.”


Like-minded tribe

On a drizzly Saturday morning in July, a group of eight people including Slaton walk the paved trail into Constitution Lakes. Undeterred by the puddles, they chatter away about the park and pause to gaze up at City Champion Willow Oak, one of the largest willow oaks in Atlanta.

Most are park regulars who initially got to know each other by sight during the past few years and gradually bonded over their mutual desire to protect and improve this precious patch of nature amid so much development.

Malcolm Burns beats back poison ivy on walks and keeps off-hour tabs on the equipment being used to build a “soft” trail that ultimately will connect different areas of the park.  Joy Carter, founder of Friends of Constitution Lakes, organizes volunteer clean-ups and, along with Slaton and others, helped run off some ATV-ers who were spoiling the park’s peacefulness.

Many regulars happened across Doll’s-Head Trail before they got to know Slaton.

“It was kind of ‘Blair Witch-y,’” chuckles Joe Peery, a freelance artist in East Atlanta who was paddleboarding on one of the park’s lakes when he met Slaton and Carter. “I saw stuff hanging from trees, no one else was out there ... I didn’t know if I should go in there alone.”

As Slaton leads the group toward the whimsically hand-lettered “Doll’s-Head Trailhead” sign, he halts to pursue his sixth sense for oddball trash into some underbrush and emerges with a large wooden bedpost that will eventually wind up in an installation.

Now the trail’s becoming a destination, says Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride, who is on the tour. His organization encourages communities to become more engaged with their parks through volunteer projects, community gardens and by partnering with “Friends of” groups like the one at Constitution Lakes.

In the digital age equivalent of word-of-mouth, some visitors are drawn to the trail after they see photos of pieces like “Giving Daddy a Hand” (two doll arms rising out of the ground clutching at a toy farm wagon) that others have posted on Facebook, Twitter or websites like History Atlanta. Others read about it in the guidebook, “Hiking Atlanta’s Hidden Forests” by Jonah McDonald that came out last spring.

Many of them leave their mark with a Sharpie on the growing number of tiles displayed on an abandoned sheet of metal. Some people simply write their names or some version of “Somebody (Hearts) Somebody.” Others are clearly inspired by their surroundings to create their own bits of found art: One person has rested an old spray paint can against a tile on which appears a traced handprint and the words “caught red handed.”

Lucky for Slaton, that’s not a concern. The DeKalb County Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Affairs has embraced Doll’s-Head Trail.

“It gave the park its own sense of identity,” said Dave Butler, greenspace environment manager for the county. “Art can be such a great addition to parks, and this is something specifically done there by the community.”

A week later, Slaton, Peery and Atlanta artist Kyle Brooks — Slaton refers to them as a “loose band of merry pranksters” — are back walking along Doll’s-Head Trail. Slaton has already repurposed the scavenged bedpost into his version of a traffic light where the trail loops back upon itself. Now Peery hangs back to place the flame-shaped logo from a snack chip bag he’d found lying on the ground on “An Expedition to Hell,” describing it as the “swirl of hell.” Later, the trio pauses to chuckle over a piece of unknown origins that consists of a battered wooden chicken and a chipped white egg-shaped object atop a makeshift pedestal. A scrawled sign around the base asks “The Age-old Question.” The piece includes a drawing of a first-place ribbon.

This is just what Slaton wanted, for others to feel similarly inspired to take a new look at old, under-appreciated things. Yet sometimes, he admits a tad wistfully, he still likes to imagine people simply happening across Doll’s-Head Trail unawares.

But he can’t turn back now.


Restorationland calls

Slaton stands beside Brooks on a deserted stretch of Key Road where it rises high up above the noise and congestion of nearby Moreland Avenue. To their backs is a dilapidated, graffiti-scarred building that once housed prison farm workers. Below, an expanse of land unfolds before them like an artist’s canvas.

This is Restorationland. It’s a “loose concept” Slaton’s been kicking around for several months, whereby the whole area could become an “unofficial arts district” — a sort of Doll’s-Head Trail writ large. Here, though, the “found” objects ripe for reimagining include the prison farm, which many people would like to see turned into a park; the South River, where tires and other trash have been dumped; and the now closed 48-acre Hickory Ridge Landfill, where electricity-generating solar panels sit atop what used to be nothing but garbage.

“Areas repairing themselves, that’s the idea,” Slaton says.

For now, it’s all pretty much a matter of attracting interest with some clever, colorful signs in unexpected spots. Brooks, known in street art circles as “BlackCatTips,” recently painted one honoring the largely forgotten burial site for zoo animals, including the first, less famous ape to bear the “Willie B.” name buried there in 1961.

Next up: A “Do You Know Where Your Tires End Up?” sign to discourage dumping.

“We’ll put some unofficial signs up and see what happens,” said Slaton. He hopes the same potent mix of guerrilla art and grass-roots energy that breathed new life into Constitution Lakes will have a similar impact on the surrounding area. “Doll’s-Head Trail started as a little thing, and you see what it’s turned into.”

None of it was even imaginable to him just three years ago when he was adrift, personally and professionally. Now that he’s back working regularly as a carpenter, he still manages to get to Constitution Lakes several times a week. He’s grateful for the experience that helped him discover previously untapped artistic abilities and gain the friendship of Brooks and Peery. He still realizes he “can’t be a carpenter forever.” The difference now is that he knows he’d like his future to involve art and parks.

“I don’t like to use the cliche, ‘This park saved my life,’” Slaton said as he stood near the zoo animals sign. “But it saved my sanity.”

He paused briefly to kick at some weeds on an elephant burial ground.

"I guess it gave me new life."

I first learned about Doll's-Head Trail when I saw several deliciously spooky photos of it on a colleague's Facebook page. Intrigued, I visited Constitution Lakes Park but soon decided the best way to get the story was by walking the trail with its creator. To find him, I turned to – where else? – Facebook. Joel Slaton doesn't "do" Facebook, but several people who knew him responded to a query posted on the Friends of Constitution Lakes page. Joy Carter organized my initial walking tour, where it quickly became apparent this story wasn't about a found-art trail in the woods, but the man who created it.

Jill Vejnoska
Staff writer

About the reporter

Jill Vejnoska has worked for the AJC for 20 years, covering everything from sports and politics to television and food. Some of the stories she's covered include Hillary Clinton's first Senate campaign and synchronized swimming at the Olympics. She is a native of Westfield, N.J.

About the photographer
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States about 10 years ago to study photography. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream's Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves' National League Division Series.