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The rise of WonderRoot and Atlanta's new grassroots art movement

Building an organization around the idea of provoking change, not with sandwiches, but with art



In 2002, there were at least three 18- or 19-year-old guys in the world who weren't spending their summer nights trying to buy beer and make out with girls. OK, so there might have been a few nights spent trying to buy beer and make out with girls. Most of the time, though, they were staying up late, turning their kitchen into a sandwich factory, and hitting the dark streets of Atlanta to distribute midnight snacks to the city's homeless.

Do-gooders Chris Appleton, Alex West and Witt Wisebram weren't just performing random acts of culinary altruism; they were also in the fevered, fragile planning stages of building an organization around the idea that they could provoke change – not with sandwiches, ultimately, but with art. Their teenage ambitions would later solidify into something known as WonderRoot.

Late, caffeine-fueled nights at Cafe Intermezzo begot endless conversations between the three young men on the philosophical ins and outs of various media and its impact on the way people think, live and interact with each other. Ideas began to form on how they could position their budding organization as an arts and communications facilitator, one that would empower young artists to make their mark on a city whose art scene was centered around stodgier values.

"We wanted to provide people with the tools to communicate, from the most basic level of a project," says Appleton. "The other half [of the mission] was this social change component of it. We felt that artists have the ability to change the world, whatever form that takes. Our organization needed to transcend boundaries and barriers. Above all, there was no doubt that artists have innovative ideas to change things. If we empower people with the ability to create art, they have the ability to create change."

Wonderful roots

Atlanta natives Appleton, West and Wisebram met while attending neighboring high schools in north Fulton County. After graduation, Appleton and Wisebram went to college between 2002 and 2004 in Colorado and Massachusetts, respectively, while West remained in Atlanta. Their personal experiences during that period – specifically, the vibrant DIY spirit of the house shows and community centers Wisebram encountered while touring with his band – would influence WonderRoot's eventual structure and communal attitude.

By 2004, the guys were all back in Atlanta and throwing their energy into WonderRoot, which would grow into an agency offering arts resources, creative programming, and services to the Atlanta community. While working on a capital campaign to raise money to incorporate and, eventually, purchase a physical space, Appleton, West and Wisebram continued their service projects. They still prepared meals for the city's homeless while branching out to work on other civic-minded acts, such as doing late-night pothole repairs in Midtown. WonderRoot reached a turning point two years later when it received its 501(c)3: a tax status for nonprofits, and traditionally the benchmark of a legit organization. WonderRoot was official.

Four years later, in 2008, the wunderkinds finally put down some geographical roots: They leased an old Reynoldstown bungalow in need of a little love. Appleton, West, Wisebram and a few supportive volunteers broke out the hammer and nails to build out additional rooms; wire spaces for sound, lights, projectors and computers; and build bookcases and walls. Powered by the excitement of having their own place, the construction efforts yielded a performance space, a darkroom, a recording studio, a ceramics studio, a digital media lab, gallery space, and reading and conference rooms. In the ensuing two years, the Memorial Drive outpost became ground zero for the creation of art projects, experimental bands (wild musicians/performance artists Omelet and the Back Pockets both frequently patronize and perform at WonderRoot), and social initiatives that would be dismissed by other institutions. WonderRoot quickly established itself as a cultural cornerstone, a place where anyone with ambitions involving art or social change could come and work to make those ambitions happen.

"Everything we do is about this balance between the plans and dreams and being grounded and pragmatic," says West, who has worked with his colleagues to secure a steady flow of grants that have allowed WonderRoot to continue to expand. "We never accept the possibility that there's anything we can't do, but we also know that the best thing we can provide artists and the community is something stable. We're building something solid that will still be around years from now. I guess that's the 'wonder' and the 'root.'"

While WonderRoot has evolved structurally – Wisebram has since left, a board of directors was formed, and volunteer and intern programming were added – the intrinsic mission remains unchanged. WonderRoot still provides arts resources and spearheads community service initiatives, but the directors now know a hell of a lot more about running a business. There's a surprising lack of naivete in the founders' retention of the ideals they solidified as 18-year-olds. They've deliberately held onto their youthful beliefs, but not out of some ideological Peter Pan complex. Rather, because they recognize the timeless logic of those beliefs. Eight years later, WonderRoot has set a powerful example not only for Atlanta's artists, but for the community at large.

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