Valerie Gilbert

Valerie Gilbert was raised in a military family so she has lived in many places, including overseas.  She traveled a circuitous route before landing in Decatur about 23 years ago. “I have a friend who lives around the corner on Midway and she told me about this little house that was about to come up for rent.  I jumped on it.  I felt like it had a lot of potential and that I belonged here.  I loved Decatur, that it was close to Atlanta, but not too close, and that it was a cool funky little community.”

Valerie was involved in the professional world of art, showing, and selling her clay-based creations. Before moving into her home in Decatur she was working out of the Beacon Hill Arts Studios. After undergoing a divorce and purchasing her home, Valerie became concerned about her ability to support herself with her creative process. So, she decided to pursue a teaching certificate at Georgia State University (GSU). “While attending GSU, I’d drive past Renfroe Middle School (in Decatur). I kept thinking, ‘That’s where I want to teach.’” And eventually she did.

Valerie found teaching art at Renfroe Middle School gratifying. “I loved the students at Renfroe. Middle school kids have a great sense of humor and they are full of surprises. There was never a dull day. Some students really loved art while others didn’t.  My art class was a place where I could meet all these kids in the middle.” Unfortunately, due to Valerie’s demanding teaching schedule, she did not find the time to devote to her own art.

After teaching for 15 years, Valerie retired in 2016. “I love making large figurative clay sculptures, but I don’t feel strong enough to do that anymore. So, I’m switching back to working with mixed media. I gave up my identity as an artist for a while to be a teacher. I put it in a box and buried it, and now I’m trying to recapture that identity. I have a studio in my backyard which I just cleaned and organized so I’m ready to enter the last phase of my life as an artist!”

 

Ms. Hardy

Willie Mae Hardy was born on a plantation in 1908 in Talbot County, Junction City, Georgia. Her grandmother had been enslaved. After the Emancipation Proclamation the family remained on the plantation as tenant farmers. She recalled life on the farm as being hard. Her days were spent doing chores such as picking cotton, plowing the fields, caring for the hogs and chickens, and tending the garden. Despite her limited education she taught herself to read and write. One of the most frightening memories she has from her childhood occurred during the Jim Crow era. The Ku Klux Klan came to their family’s home and took away her cousin, Dan. She never saw him again.

In 1939, Willie Mae moved to Atlanta with her husband in search of a better life for her only child, Cassie Nell. She joined the Butler Street Baptist Church where she became a devoted member. She also worked as a housekeeper for various families over the years. Cooking was a passion and collard greens were her specialty. In 1966, Willie Mae’s daughter lost her husband unexpectedly, and Willie Mae moved to Decatur to help care for her seven grandchildren. She has continued to live in the same house with her daughter ever since. Today, Willie Mae’s granddaughter, Veronica Edwards, also lives in the house and cares for Willie Mae and Cassie, who is 91-years-old. Willie Mae’s secret to a long life is, ”Stay out of trouble, get a job, and if you do the right thing the Lord will bless you.” At 109 years old, Willie Mae is blessed.

 

 

Robert Griffin and Andrew Currie

In 2003, Robert Griffin and his partner, Andrew Currie, were invited by friends to attend a festival in Oakhurst, a neighborhood in Decatur. Although they lived in Midtown, only 6 miles away, they had never visited this area of town. That day changed the trajectory of their lives. Andrew recalls, ”Honestly, I will never forget this. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon with great music. We looked around and there was this incredible feeling of welcomed diversity, old and young, black and white, gay and straight, and everything in between. It felt like we belonged.”

Not long after, Andrew and Robert drove by a house in Oakhurst that caught Andrew’s attention. Robert was resistant. “I was like, no! The property was overgrown, the windows broken, and the porch was terrible. It was just awful.” Andrew insisted it had good bones and structure. They bought the house, and that is where they have resided for the last 14 years.

Although Robert and Andrew have embraced living in Decatur, they have witnessed a shift in the diversity which leaves them concerned. Robert points out, “The changes since we have moved here have been dramatic. We left Midtown because it was becoming gentrified. It has followed us here to Decatur.” Andrew adds, “We are a victim of our own successes. Decatur was smart enough to invest in all the right things. The schools are a magnet, and that is a great thing. As a result, we are bringing a lot of people in, but the mix is getting off. I have grown to love the inclusiveness, the range of people and the attitudes. It can’t be beat. But, I fear that Decatur may lose a bit of its soul if we’re not careful.”

 

 

 

 

 

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I am honored to have “Singers at Woodruff Park” selected for the exhibition “Where Are We?”. Please join me and my fellow photographers for the opening reception Thursday, May 11, at the APG Gallery, from 6-9 pm. See below for details.

Where are we

Damico

Matthew Damico started working as a patrol officer in Decatur in 2009. He eventually transitioned to his current position as a School Resource Officer (SRO). His past experience working with troubled youth made him the ideal candidate to work with the students in the City Schools of Decatur. “Each one of those communities has a specific need. With the youngest students, I’m present to be a positive role model, create exposure, and help them form as little citizens. Middle school students rarely engage in criminal conduct, but they often have issues where they need support. In the high school, the overwhelming majority of students are fantastic young people, but everyone makes mistakes. One of our goals is to act as a liaison between the police department, the school and the community, to not treat every criminal act simply as the criminal act but to look at it from a holistic approach.”

Officer Damico‘s success and popularity amongst the students is a result of long-term relationship building that occurs over the years. “One needs to take the opportunity to plant the seeds for a positive relationship. You can’t rush it. I take every child’s safety and wellbeing to heart. I prefer my children to make mistakes when they’re young. Nothing can’t be fixed at this stage. I want them to leave our community at 18, ready to be healthy members of society.”

Officer Damico advises his charges to, “Be mindful. Don’t get hung up on long-term distant points. Just focus on being healthy, happy and successful today. If you take care of today, tomorrow’s going to be all right.”

One of the challenges that Officer Damico faces is that police officers are often pre-judged. “Before I get out of the car, people have already decided what my feelings are regarding race, gender, ethnics, politics, and that’s difficult. I really want people to see me as an individual.”

 

 

 

Faiza Haji Photo

Faiza Haji immigrated to the United States from Kenya in 2006. Faiza was born in Kenya of Somalian parents. Faiza has embraced the Somalian tradition of poetry which is embedded in the culture of the people. Both Faiza and her mother are poets. “I’m very passionate about spoken word poetry. I love being able to communicate with different groups of people and move them with my writing.” Faiza has found a supportive and accepting community in Decatur, where she is a student at Decatur High School. “Many teachers have inspired me to do things that I would have never done if I had not met them, like tennis. I actually played for a year. It was the most amazing experience I have ever had. It had been on my bucket list.”

“Since Decatur is a majority liberal community, it’s very accepting. Being a Muslim in these times in America is nerve racking. Everyone has a different view of Muslims, and there are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes. I feel that we don’t fit under those stereotypes because Islam preaches peace. I don’t want people to label me based on how I look or my religion. I want people to look past that and see me for a spoken word poet and an artist. It’s very hard to be the community that is always being attacked.  Not only am I Muslim but I am also a black woman. It is a lot to carry on my shoulders.”

Faiza’s experience living in America as a minority has inspired her career choice. ”I want to go into civil law because I want to stand up for people who don’t have a voice. That’s what I do with my poetry.”

Easter Bunny

Happy Easter to those who celebrate this holiday and Happy Spring to those who do not. Today a neighbor of mine hosted his traditional Easter egg hunt for the neighborhood children. While the youngsters searched for hidden eggs the adults sipped on Bloody Marys. Robert always makes a guest appearance as the Easter Bunny at the beginning of the festivities. I snapped this picture just as Robert had finished dressing for the occasion.