Rise of the Phoenix Fest

Artists turn abandoned motel into creative playground

Standing on a pile of mulch in the middle of Urban Sprout Farms, Nuri Icgoren is on the phone arguing with an electrician over permits. The five-acre plot of land in Atlanta's Lakewood community was once the site of an old motel overlooking I-75/85.

In mid-November it will host the Phoenix Festival. Saturday's event has been described as a day of music, literature, and visual art to bring awareness to the "creative repurposing of land that was once going to waste."

Icgoren and his older brother bought the property in a 2011 foreclosure auction. Over the past three years Icgoren, a farmer and biologist, has transformed the blighted southwest Atlanta land into a biodynamic farm focused on compost production and food distribution to local communities. When he's not spending his days working for Delta, Icgoren is knee-deep in red clay, harvesting purple basil or remediating soil with raw materials.

"The first year we came out here you couldn't see any of the buildings because it was so overgrown," Icgoren says. "There was trash everywhere."

Another prevalent characteristic of the land and found in the open, abandoned motel's rooms was graffiti from Enzo, Drue, and other local writers. Icgoren's admiration for their work led to his interest in the local visual arts community. That interest grew after a trip to Hodgepodge Coffee in East Atlanta, where a mural by local artist sQuish caught his attention. Icgoren tracked down sQuish and invited him to paint on a few of the motel's blank exterior walls. Suddenly it clicked. "I was like, man, I know I want more artists out here, and I want people to see it," Icgoren says.

The only hiccup was that Icgoren didn't know many artists, so sQuish introduced him to Make Blackout Poetry's John Carroll, which then brought an introduction to Davy Minor, the curator behind literature, art, and music house Deer Bear Wolf. After a meeting of the minds, the farmer and this creative Rat Pack hatched a plan to celebrate Atlanta's culture and bring attention to Icgoren's work at the farm.

"This is the perfect opportunity to showcase what can be done from the ashes, from the debris, from the dirt — what fruit can be harvested from this in the form of art, music, and food," Icgoren says. "I'm just excited more people are going to know about what we're doing here and raise the vibrational levels of what's happening."

So what exactly is happening when the more than 400 people (at press time) who RSVPed descend upon this slab of concrete, grass, and trash? In a nutshell, a little bit of everything: music from Little Tybee and Lily and the Tigers; live readings curated by Vouched Books and Make Blackout Poetry; on-site murals from local artists including Paper Frank and Mac Stewart; installations from Eyedrum Future, Ancestors, and others; and an artists market.

Icgoren's says the festival's planning team, which also includes Common Ground's Elizabeth Jarrett, Bang! Arts' Deisha Oliver-Millar, and Vouched Books' Laura Relyea, is driven by the common thread of bringing attention to the city's issue involving abandoned properties by using creativity to spark change. "It's great to work with them because I can sense their honesty," Icgoren says. "It's rare to find people that motivated to do something that they're not necessarily getting paid for."

At this point in the interview, Icgoren is surveying the scene of the motel's pool, which is now a habitat with lily pads, goldfish, and koi. Artists trickle in and out of the property, Minor gives them tours and helps the artists find open space and walls to work on. Though not an artist himself, Icgoren sees parallels between working in the dirt and adding life to a blank canvas.

"One of my sayings that keeps me going is, 'Nobody wants to plant the corn, everybody wants to raid the barn,'" says Icgoren, who sees the Phoenix Festival as being like starting an urban farm a stone's throw away from the interstate, as a study of the city's creative ecosystem.

"Biology's the study of life; we're bringing other members of the community and diversifying this biosphere, not just the plants and animals but the human beings, the arts, the skills, the knowledge," he says. "We're really creating a culture here in Atlanta that revolves around food and art and bettering the place for the next generation."