Fifty years ago, a former almshouse in Chastain Park transformed into a center where people of any age and skill level could learn how to make art.
Now the Chastain Arts Center and Gallery is celebrating its golden anniversary with special exhibits while continuing to teach painting, jewelry-making, pottery-firing and more. It’s Atlanta’s oldest community arts center, according to the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs.
“This place has a special atmosphere,” said Karen Lowe, the facility manager and curator at the 135 West Wieuca Road N.W. arts center since 2010.
“Students come here to begin art and to continue their art. We have students who have been coming almost since it opened, and there are students who have become professional artists and who return regularly to sharpen their skills and to enjoy the camaraderie of other artists.”
The center has several longtime instructors, too. Dolores Kennedy is one of them. A Brookhaven resident and graduate of the former Atlanta College of Art, she’s been teaching painting and related subjects at the center for 45 years.
Kennedy recalls signing up to teach at the center when the Buckhead area was a sleepy and remote bedroom community to Atlanta. She was one of only three instructors, and the only painter; the others were a potter and a weaver.
“It was up to me to suggest classes and I chose beginning watercolor and basic drawing,” she says.
In those days, the center had no air conditioning in the summer, and heat in the winter came from old steam radiators. The lack of basic comforts were part of the building’s history as one of two racially segregated almshouses — county homes for seniors and people with disabilities who were poor — built near each other in 1901 to 1911, before Chastain Park existed. The other, far grander almshouse is now the Galloway School’s signature Gresham Building. Both Neo-Classical buildings were designed by Thomas Henry Morgan, an architect whose firm was behind many of Atlanta’s civic and educational buildings — including Agnes Scott College’s main building — and early skyscrapers, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
In 1968, the city of Atlanta bought the almshouse, shut it down and turned it into the arts center. Ten years later, a former caretaker’s outbuilding in the rear was turned into the gallery and connected to the main building.
Today, the center is busy with dozens of courses. The fall schedule begins Sept. 4 with more than 60 classes in the visual arts. The majority are 10-week sessions for adults, and there are classes for children, pre-teens and teens. The classes range from beginning painting and drawing to advanced courses in painting and composition, as well as a full schedule of pottery classes, jewelry making, printmaking and others.
The center is celebrating its anniversary with several shows and events, including the two-part “Fifty-Fifty” exhibit, which showcases the works of the center’s instructors and students.
The first part, “Vessels,” featured the work of past and present Chastain instructors in pottery and jewelry making and their interpretation of a vessel. It ended Aug. 18.
The second part presents 50 works in a variety of mediums by current Chastain Arts Center students. The show, also in the gift shop space, opens Sept. 7 and runs until Nov. 8.
On Aug. 11, the center celebrated its official 50th birthday with public festivities on the grounds. The event included outdoor painting, food, live music — and plenty of art.
A major exhibit, “The Chastain Experiment,” was unveiled in the art gallery during the Aug. 11 event. It features the work of 10 of the center’s artist-instructors. The large-scale works — seven feet by eight feet — were created directly on the gallery walls. The art is on display through Sept. 8, then the works will be scrubbed off or painted over.
“Even though these are ephemeral paintings, every artist created a significant piece of art,” said Lowe.
And for those who would like to learn more about Chastain Arts Center itself, there’s plenty more of that on display, too. Premiered at the celebration was a video about the center’s history, told through more than 50 interviews with past and present instructors, students and employees. Shown on a large screen in the gift shop, it will run for several months.
For more information about the center, see ocaatlanta.com/chastain.