Living Walls: Caroline Caldwell talks painting in Old Fourth Ward

Artist reflects on painting in historic Atlanta neighborhood


  • Joshua Gwyn
  • UPSIDE DOWN: Caroline Caldwell’s unfinished wall at Egdewood Avenue and Hilliard Street.

When Caroline Caldwell first visited Atlanta last summer for the Living Walls Conference, the Philadelphia native was just here to watch and learn. The Vandalog contributing writer and student at Sarah Lawrence College is back in town as a participating artist, working on a wall at the corner of Edgewood Avenue and Hilliard Street in Old Fourth Ward.

Inspired by folks like John Fekner whose public art speaks to the environmental, social, and political aspects of the community in which they’re created, Caldwell’s hope was to honor the rich tradition of historic Atlanta neighborhood. After a long day of painting, Caldwell spoke to Creative Loafing about trying to strike that balance between public art and the community, and how it’s easier said than done.

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You’re here now as an artist. Are there different nerves and feelings this second time around?
I’m looking at things in a very specific way. I knew I was going to do a mural of a house. Whereas last year I might’ve driven around different neighborhoods and looked at different things, this time I was looking for specific architectural elements so I sort of keyed more into specific things that had to do with what I was painting and what about the city inspired me and inspired the mural.

In terms of this wall, did you find that Atlanta lent itself, architecturally, to being good canvas?
Totally. I’m an outsider and this is an outsider’s perspective and I haven’t spent much time in this city, but to me it almost felt absurd calling it a “city” because I’m from Philadelphia which is one the oldest cities and I live in New York City which is one of the biggest cities, so I came to Atlanta and I was just like, “Where is the city? Where are the buildings?” Looking at these buildings I noticed they’re all pretty new and I’m sort of a sucker for architecture and Philadelphia’s buildings are significantly older than Atlanta. I was looking for architectural details and it’s like wow these more concentrated areas are so brand new and that made me curious to what is the history of that. How did this develop? I guess going through the rest of the city and seeing the housing that really spoke a lot to me and it spoke a lot to the history of this town. Even though I was looking specifically for my mural it taught me a lot about this area in a small way. If anything, it inspired me to do the research, to actually look into the questions that I have but it made me ask questions which is the important part. It inspired me to want to know more about this city.

Folks get heated about muralists and say, “They don’t even know anything about the neighborhood they’re in.” It’s refreshing to just hear you say, “do the research.” In doing that what did you come find out about Old Fourth Ward that inspired you?
I think what you said is really important. The placement is so key. I’m really happy to be painting where I’m painting. I’m a couple of blocks away from Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth home which to me is very special. I’ve listened to a lot of his speeches, so for me it was really special to be in this area and to be in this sort of weird mix of something that is up and coming and something that is also preserving the old and that’s what this area is. It’s a very fascinating place.

So one of your volunteer assistants said you’ve had hard time getting this done in terms of your interaction with the community. I believe she said, “No artist has had as hard a time as Caroline”…
I’ve tried to be really selective with what I whine about because at the end of the day I’m imposing my art on these people. We’ve had a lot of interesting characters that have come down the street. I guess not all of them have made us feel safe and comfortable and happy. For me, the biggest problem was not what they were saying but the fact that it was distracting me. I’m on scaffolding so I never really felt unsafe. I did think my paint was going to get stolen a bunch of times, but I never really felt like my physical self would be harmed, but I know my volunteers did a couple times to the point where one actually left. She was like, “I have to take a walk.” This guy, he said some really gross sexual stuff and then threw up. He threw up but then didn’t go.He just hung out. I was like that should be your cue to leave, but you’re just going to stew in it I guess.


  • Joshua Gwyn

At first I wanted to paint a picture of Martin Luther King Jr.’s house and then people were like, “We don’t want you to do that.” I was a little torn because I felt weird doing something in this neighborhood and the fact that none of these other murals have anything to do with this really, really rich history. It’s a history that means a lot to me. I’m not black but I think the Civil Rights Movement was one of the most important movements in history, especially for this country, so it means a lot to me and I felt weird doing something that just totally didn’t acknowledge the area. So many people were giving me opinions on my subject matter and saying, “We’re offended that you want to do MLK’s house.” I was just like, “Why? I don’t understand.” I hate to drop the “R” word but they were like, “because you’re white.” If you know MLK’s history then you know this is for the people. I felt really uncomfortable about that and it was people in this neighborhood. So I was like if it’s going to offend people in the neighborhood I’m just going to make it something neutered of a history so it doesn’t offend people. It seems to be a really touchy subject which is true with any history of oppression where it’s, “Who is portraying it and how are they portraying it?” You’re entering into this very sensitive area and you have such little time here and after talking to the curator it seemed like the easier thing to do was to just do something neutral.

That’s interesting because earlier this week a local artist called out Living Walls and a mural in Castleberry Hill that wasn’t reflective of that community …
That’s a conversation. I think this is a really important conversation and I’m really happy that people are opening this up and that there are more voices involved. It did make me feel very uncomfortable like am I going to be somebody who continues to perpetuate something that doesn’t acknowledge this really rich history that is unique to this one specific location. There are some artists that have come through Living Walls who are so good about knowing where they’re from. It can’t be like every mural is Fredrick Douglass and a quote. At the end of the day, acknowledge the history but there needs to strike a balance between recognizing history and making sure that the image empowers the audience, or compels the audience, or provokes the audience to question something. If you can do that by acknowledging history, do that. If you can do that by doing some interesting work of art, do that. I think there’s a couple of Living Walls artists from previous years that have done a good job of talking to the community. As a newcomer these are questions that I have too and I’m lucky that I’m following these people that I’ve seen work really well and I’m happy to be a part of this conversation.