An unexpected group of emergent artists blooms at King Plow

Artist and teacher Michael David's Fine Arts Atelier is 'a painting hothouse'

A hothouse, or greenhouse, can be just about any size or shape as long as it lets in plenty of light. Light facilitates growth; the hothouse accelerates it.

"This is a painting hothouse," says artist and teacher Michael David, gesturing purposefully at the 2,400-square-foot open studio he runs at the King Plow Arts Center on Atlanta's Westside.

The concrete walls and floors and exposed brick of the labyrinthine former industrial complex don't exactly exude warmth, especially on a gray fall day. But a towering grid of factory warehouse windows finds moments of light in the overcast sky, filtering them into fat, shifting beams that spill over artworks leaning against walls, stacked in corners and sprawled across workspaces.

David runs the Fine Arts Atelier, an experiment in teaching for him that's evolved over three years from a series of straightforward painting workshops into a way of life for David and an unexpected group of emergent artists.

"Forty- to 60-year-old women usually aren't taken seriously and are seen as hobbyists," says David. "But I found that they could be great if they took themselves seriously. The fact that they had histories, the fact that they were desperate for this and open and sensitive and intelligent made the work grow in a way that no one ever imagined. They paint like their lives are on the line."

"These are not dilettante housewives," says Bill Lowe, a longtime Atlanta gallerist and art dealer who curated The Irascible Muse: A Coming of Age ... and fried green tomatoes for his eponymous Midtown gallery. The exhibit features 85 works of art from 17 atelier artists and is the gallery's most diverse show in its 22-year history. Lowe knows he's "taking a chance" on these artists. "I haven't done a group show in years and now I'm showing 17 people no one's ever heard of," he says. Since the show's opening, Lowe has begun representing seven atelier artists.

While there are a few male artists active in the workshop, it's dominated by women who, for the most part, always put marriage and motherhood before individual creative pursuits.

"I have been painting off and on for years after my children got to a certain age, but not with this level of focus or confidence or inspiration. I was kind of floundering," says Donna Horn, an expert, if very self-critical, drawer. "I felt hampered by the fact that I could draw. I wanted to be an abstract painter at a certain point. Michael's helped me develop a way where I can use my drawing as less controlled, and I have these layers of information and things that kind of reflect who I am."

Thirty-nine-year-old mother of two Erika Page grew up in a one-stoplight town in rural Louisiana "where there was zero opportunity for me," she says. Page's large-scale abstract paintings are a ferocious crashing of lines, colors, and textures. Her massive works have an engulfing quality similar to a 3-D IMAX movie, the work opening up as if to consume the viewer.

"I used to call her a hillbilly Pollock," says David. "She came in and showed me these paintings and this one photograph that were ... "

"Decoratively sad," offers Page.

"I've never seen anybody understand abstraction as quickly as she did, and as intelligently as she did. The transformation of it has been astounding," says David.

A painting wunderkind that came of age in 1970s New York, David was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1984 at age 30 (at the time, the award's youngest recipient ever), as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Art Award, among other accolades. David, who has work in a number of high-profile permanent collections, including the Guggenheim and the Met, is renowned for his encaustic painting technique in which he mixes pigment and heated beeswax.

In 2001, David was diagnosed with bilateral neuropathy, a result of inhaling the toxic fumes cooked up from heating the wax for his large-scale artworks at scorching temperatures. It left both his legs partially paralyzed. An eminently physical painter, David was dropped from his longtime gallery, New York's legendary Knoedler & Co., and eventually headed south to work as an artist-in-residence at the Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture and the Environment in Palmetto, Ga. There he started a Fine Arts Workshop with artists Scott Browning and Thomas Swanston and "much to my regret I found out that I was really a great teacher, which I didn't ever really want to be," says David, laughing. "I mean I got into fistfights with my teachers in college and here I am with some kind of karma."

When David opened the Fine Arts Atelier at King Plow a year later, classes were open to anyone but quickly filled with aspiring women artists.

"There is something very specific about the ability of women to form a community and to support each other and at the same time to compete with each other. It's one of the reasons why the atelier has worked as well as it has," says David.

"Women are the ones who stay, because it is a community," says Page.

While David says he doesn't believe in masters, there is a kind of guru aspect at play, with all the intellectual and emotional intensity that accompanies such a dynamic. "Michael has that gift to see an individual strength or individual direction within that person and hone in on that," says Page.

"Membership was open in the beginning and I'm very protective of everyone that's here now and what we're doing. Hardly anybody ever leaves," says David.

Many of the women are vying with newfound ideas surrounding identity in their paintings. The works are affecting, sometimes guarded, often tumultuous, and other times downright haunting. For example, Ellen DeLoach's eerie self-portraits possess an airy heft, the figures fighting their way out of the abstract hellscapes that form the backgrounds of her paintings.

"In the history of art it's not that women were more talented or less talented, it's just that it's hard to raise babies and be a wife and be a painter," says David. "There's this wealth of incredible talent, work ethic, desire, skill set to organize, manage time, not bullshit, have something to say about a life that maybe you've given things up for. Maybe now you have a chance to express yourself. That's very emotional."

"I don't know how long it will sustain, I don't know if it can sustain," says David of his painting atelier. "I don't know if it can be institutionalized, but for the current moment, it's like this touch point, a hot point."

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