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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

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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.

Gathering steam

Today, WonderRoot lets the local community's ideas and needs drive the organization's programming, rather than mandating what services to offer or causes to stir up. As a result, artists, musicians and activists across the indie spectrum are flocking to WonderRoot.

"We made a conscious decision," Appleton says. "Instead of sitting in a room and dictating 'This is what Atlanta needs,' we open our doors and let people come to us." The public-art project Art Sign the Beltline, an installation of an eventual 216 paintings at outposts along the 22-mile proposed transit loop, is a perfect example. "Beltline advocate Angel [Poventud] came to us and said, 'This is why this is important.' The idea didn't come from WonderRoot, but we had the resources to make it happen."

So WonderRoot built it ... and the artists came. Other current projects include the adult education series "Artists Helping Artists;" the youth arts-enrichment program "Creativity for Kids;" the monthly potluck-style conversations "Dinner and Discussion," and several other public art and community service programs – not to mention a music, art, or film event almost every night of the year, including WonderRoot's "Generally Local and Mostly Independent Filmmakers Night" at the Plaza Theatre, a Monday night open mic, and performances from local favorites such as Atlanta Sedition Orchestra, and Magic Apron.

Ben Cohen, creator and director of the online TV show "Godamsterdam," has WonderRoot to thank for his production and rehearsal space, along with a full post-production suite and means for distribution through WonderRoot TV. "In other words, without WonderRoot, I would just be another film student scribbling ideas on the back of a cocktail waitress." Yes, he did say waitress.

Makings of a movement

Atlanta is a city that, for any number of reasons, has a hard time hanging onto its creative kids. Last year, artists and musicians were making (or at least threatening to make) an exodus to New Orleans, touting its superior environment for the arts. The year before that, it was Portland, Ore. (Well, it's kinda always Portland.) But recently, something strange started happening: Not only are fewer people packing up their guitars and paintbrushes and hitting the road in search of a more comfortable creative climate, but a new flock of young creatives has migrated to Atlanta – for the exact reasons people were leaving Atlanta before.

"Right now, [artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers] could go to New York and be part of the scene, or they could come here and create it," says West. "Every scene has its peak that, in hindsight, everyone wishes they had been there for. That's right now in Atlanta. Whatever happens right now, whatever we create – that's what Atlanta will be known for."

Of course, the city has a ways to go – and no matter how empowered and idealistic WonderRoot continues to be, it can't single-handedly elevate Atlanta's arts scene to Portland status. The city – and its creative scene in particular – is in the throes of pubescence, with a rapidly changing body and heaps of peer pressure pulling it in different directions. The process is, well, awkward. There's a sense that Atlanta's on the international radar and there's a palpable pressure to participate, to keep up, to do something significant. Sure, Atlanta could become the Next Big Thing, but several big obstacles remain, as well as one pressing question: Will Atlanta's political and civic leaders continue to focus on wooing big businesses and growing the city at all costs, or will they place a priority on improving local communities by expanding such quality-of-life amenities as transit, greenspace and the arts?

A growing contingency of artists and activists is pushing for sustainable, locally focused city growth, with more attention being paid to the interests of under-served populations (artists, cyclists, walkers, low-income families, etc.). The hope is that Atlanta's leaders will follow suit.

"We need different organizations, galleries, publications, and collectives with differing interests and ways of doing things," West says. "This city, or the art thing here, shouldn't be run by just a few people. The more, the better. And what's great about Atlanta right now, is you can actually be a 25-year-old and open a gallery, or start a nonprofit and make it work."

In the past five years, independent galleries run by twenty- and thirtysomethings, including MINT and Beep Beep, have joined ranks of more established indie entities such as YoungBlood and Eyedrum, all of them adhering to the mission to support local, emerging artists. Patrons can find high-quality, low brow art from across the spectrum: homemade 'zines and books, locally produced clothing and accessories, and cheap prints of your favorite local paint slingers' work (the accessibility of affordable art, and disseminating it to the masses, is highly prized in this subculture; there are a surprising number of 25-year-old art collectors in Atlanta).

The cross-pollination of projects is rampant. Take Vacation: The North Highland store was originally backed in part by Nisa Asokan, former board president at fellow indie arts nonprofit Eyedrum. Asokan also plays in the avant garde, noise-installation band Chinese Frankenstein with former Atlanta Contemporary Art Center communications director Stan Woodard and Artlanta blog keeper Allison Rentz. Chinese Frankenstein has played shows at WonderRoot. You can pick almost any band, artist, or art space in this city right now and play a similar game of Connect the Creatives.

But what distinguishes Atlanta's current grassroots arts movement from its predecessors is its positivity: The actions and ideals are of a similarly revolutionary nature, minus a reactionary attitude. Young creatives here are focused on positive forward motion.

That's not to say the kids are ignorant of the social and political issues surrounding them. In fact, the opposite is true. A kind of balancing act characterizes the movement. While Atlanta's young creatives are socially and politically active, and attempting to achieve structural change in Georgia on a legislative level, they're also not waiting around for the Man's approval before pushing for ground-level change. What in past generations would've taken the form of rebellious, defiant, fuck-you-ism is now more of a calculated lead-by-example movement. Dissatisfied artists in today's Atlanta aren't angrily spray painting the capitol building so much as they're putting on ties and scheduling meetings with lawmakers.

During the most recent legislative session, for example, Georgia's art supporters rallied against a proposed budget cut to eliminate the Georgia Council for the Arts, a move that would have devastated many arts organizations in the state. Artist Santiago Paramo shouted his disapproval all the way to the Gold Dome in a hundreds-strong march April 19 in opposition to the proposed cuts. The next morning, he stood composed and armed with facts, knowledge and well-conceived arguments at the state Senate budget committee meeting. In the end, the state preserved the Georgia Council for the Arts' funding.

Full circle

As WonderRoot celebrates the anniversary of having a physical space to call home, Atlanta's emerging artists are fine-tuning their communal DIY cycle. Six years ago, when WonderRoot was struggling to raise the money to file for nonprofit status, Eyedrum opened up its space to the fledgling organization for a benefit party. Eyedrum itself came from humble roots. It initially operated in the basement of founder Woody Cornwell's apartment on Trinity Avenue, back in 1998. Eight years later, Eyedrum was in a position to help out the new guys. And now six years after that, WonderRoot is in the position to nurture fellow grassroots arts groups. WonderRoot is hosting a benefit for MINT Gallery July 31 and is sponsoring new arts collective Dodekapus as it strives to attain that oh-so-coveted 501(c)3 status.

Formed in early 2010, Dodekapus is a growing network of interdisciplinary young artists who have already hosted art, music, and dance events in Castleberry Hill, as well as several citywide bike races. The group has plans in the works for a kids' art stroll and a July 17 show at Westside art space the Goat Farm. And if you've taken a drive along Freedom Parkway in the last few weeks, you've might have peeped "Wickerpus," the collective's 20-foot wicker octopus, currently under construction for Art on the Beltline. The group's underlying mission lines up well with WonderRoot's – both are working to bridge the gap between community, artists and the urban environment.

"WonderRoot was all support and praise and inspiration and a constant reminder that we had this undying energy," says Dodekapus co-director Trevor Jones. "To hear that from Chris [Appleton] was like, 'Fuck yes, we got something right.' All of us are trying to do the same thing. We just need to work together. And we're the same age and WonderRoot was in our same position a few years ago. WonderRoot has been so on board with all of the projects we want to do – and they've already done so much. It's inspiring."

While in the midst of developing the plan for the next five years, Appleton and West feel pretty damn good about where they are.

Says West: "I think the 20-year-old version of myself would be proud of WonderRoot today."

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