This is one of my images selected for the Director’s Cut Exhibition at the Atlanta Photography Group Gallery. Please join us for the opening reception on June 29, 6-9 pm. The exhibition was curated by Beth Lilly, the Executive Director of the Atlanta Photography Group, and includes photographs by 20 artists. The exhibition dates are June 29 – August 5.
John Ellis embodies all that is good about Decatur. He represents all that is possible when a community celebrates diversity and strives to ensure that all its members are included in the fabric of daily life. It is these qualities that shape our youngest citizens into young adults who are confident, loving, creative, and eager to step beyond our small borders into the world with outstretched arms, ready to embrace friends they have yet to meet.
John is a musician, artist, and writer. He lives with his two moms and younger brother. He also has two dads who live close by and play an active role in his life. John has resided in Decatur 18 years, his whole life. He is keenly aware of how Decatur is unique, in part from hearing his parents’ stories. They grew up in the South and came from religiously conservative backgrounds. They were gay and didn’t really know it, and they didn’t know how to communicate that to their parents. “I feel like anyone growing up in Decatur can really explore oneself to the fullest extent. In terms of starting a foundation for a lifetime of growth, Decatur is a really good place to start. It is just so accepting, incredibly nurturing, and loving.”
John has much to be proud of from his years at Decatur High. He has won a national award for a website illustration and a multimedia story. The journalism website at school he helped overhaul, and the corresponding magazine, Carpe Diem, won a Pacemaker Award, which is considered to be the “Pulitzer Prize” of student journalism. John will be attending Guilford College in the fall and plans to major in Psychology and minor in Fine Art. “Right now, I’m interested in art therapy. I’m not dead-set on that, but the one thing I do know, is that I want to help people. I’m very excited to embark on this next chapter. I think about what’s going to be next and what’s been, and I realize that I’m not done with Decatur. I’m not severing attachments, I’m just moving on. I’ll be back.”
Robert Leonard’s home sits on one of the most beautiful pieces of property in Decatur. When he purchased the house in 1978 the neighborhood was in distress. “The house was in very bad shape. Everyone who came in and looked at it said I was nuts to buy this place. The backyard was so overgrown with privet that I didn’t even know there was a stream back there, a four-car shed, and a small little barn.“ Over the years, Robert has slowly worked to fix up his modest house and rehabilitate the two-acre property.
Robert has always been connected to the land and the great outdoors. In his younger years, he spent a lot of time in the woods in Colorado hunting and fishing. He also lived for some time on his Uncle’s farm where they raised pigs and chickens, and grew crops. “When I got this house I looked at it and I had all this property and decided I could do this, and slowly this is what I have done.” Today, his backyard is a little slice of paradise with a gurgling creek, and native trees and plants. Robert also has a community chicken coop, beehives, and a vegetable garden that he shares with his neighbor.
Robert’s generosity extends throughout Decatur. “I care about my community. That’s why I work with Habitat for Humanity during the Martin Luther King weekend. It’s nice to work on people’s houses. They are very appreciative.”
Meh Sod Paw was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. Her parents and four siblings had fled persecution from their home country of Burma. For eleven years, Meh Sod lived in the refugee camp until her family was relocated to the United States in 2007. “It was hard coming to a new country. When I came here, I did not know much English. All I knew was the alphabet and numbers. Making friends and the academic work was hard. “ Luckily, Meh Sod was accepted into the Global Village Project (GVP), where she received intensive English instruction during her middle school years. Meh Sod transitioned into her local high school in Clarkston where she thrived academically and became involved in various clubs and activities. “I joined Toastmasters where I learned how to speak and write. I also joined a women’s leadership program, Beta Club, and I played volleyball for two years.”
Initially, Meh Sod’s family resettled in Stone Mountain, but that was problematic. “There weren’t a lot of refugee families there. It was scary. I don’t know why, but some people threw rocks at our doors and our windows broke. When we moved to Clarkston we made friends. There were still a lot of problems in Clarkston, but it was a place where we connected with other families and were able to share our culture with friends and people from other countries.”
Upon graduating from High School, Meh Sod was awarded a prestigious Millennium Gates Scholarship. It pays for her tuition and expenses at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, where she is finishing her first year. “Being here is like a new world. We have people from many other countries. I’ve made new friends from Turkey, Nepal, and also some from here. I have a great support system and I can always go to my the professors when I need help.” Meh Sod is considering becoming a teacher. “ When I was living in Thailand, it was one of my dreams to become a teacher. I had teachers who were very inspiring, and I was told that education was very important.”
Wiley Roberson has deep roots in Decatur. His parents traveled from Walton County, Georgia to Decatur in 1921. They settled down in the African American community of Beacon Hill, where they raised 11 children. “I was born at 921 Atlanta Avenue, September 13, 1934. The Beacon Hill community was our village. We had everything that we needed. We had businesses, a doctor’s office, grocery stores, a movie theater, restaurants, and a funeral home where the courthouse is sitting now. We thrived.”
In the mid 1960s, urban renewal and white flight occurred. Wiley states that these changes proved to be positive for the people living in his community. “We had a chance to get out of this village and expand and go live in other areas which wasn’t possible back then because the railroad track was our dividing line. The white people started moving out and blacks started buying over there. I have had a wonderful life in Decatur but I’ve seen it change dramatically.“
Wiley is a lay minister at the Lilly Hill Baptist Church on Robin Street, the only structure that still exists from the Beacon Hill era. It has been there for 104 years. “When it’s time to go to Sunday school and church, I like to dress. God wants us to look the best we can, be the best we can, and smell the best we can. I’m not a casual person. I love to dress and I love men’s cologne.”
Wiley was a skilled carpenter, but he also had a talent for singing. “I love to sing gospel songs and I sing at funerals. I have a deep, resonant voice that comes from my stomach. It resonates with folks.” Wiley also loves to cook.” I bake cakes from scratch and and sell them to folks during the holidays. My specialties are old fashion pound cake, key lime and red velvet cakes, and potato soufflé.” Wiley’s secret for baking a successful cake? “ Take your time, have everything at room temperature, and have a good attitude.”
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!”
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.