During my recent trip to New Mexico to visit my dad, we had the opportunity to stay in our friend’s beautiful casita in Abiquiu. The landscape in Abiquiu and the surrounding region is where Georgia O’Keeffe drew inspiration for much of her art. She visited Ghost Ranch, a dude ranch just north of Abiquiu, for the first time in 1934, and was inspired by the stunning landscape. She returned every summer to paint until she permanently moved to Abiquiu in 1949. She resided in New Mexico until her death in 1986. Growing up in New Mexico, I was greatly influenced by O’Keeffe’s paintings. Her interpretation of the landscape shaped my appreciation for the land which I still consider magical. Her sense of color, composition and perspective inform the way I see and photograph today.
On June 29th, I flew out to New Mexico to visit my dad. When I boarded the plane in Atlanta I cursed under my breath for being assigned a window seat at the very back of the plane. Little did I realize that from my seat I would have the honor of witnessing the return of Rudy Redd Victor’s remains to his family in New Mexico. Rudy had been missing for 43 years. In June of 1974, twenty-year-old Rudy was last seen in Montana while on leave from the Air Force. He and his girlfriend were headed to Colorado to visit family when he fled the car after an arguement. Since Victor never returned to duty, the Air Force initially listed Rudy as “absent without leave” and then as a deserter. In 1982, a rancher in Montana found a skull on a steep hillside and kept it for two years as a souvenir before turning it in to the local county coroner. Investigations at the hillside found remains which included a lower jaw. Tests at the time were inconclusive and the remains were shelved. As a result of new technological advances, Rudy’s dental records were recently matched to the skull found in Montana in 1974. After 43 years the family finally has closure and Rudy Redd Victor’s military record has been updated to remove his deserter status.
Jon Abercrombie’s life work has revolved around building community. His experiences growing up in a segregated South and the turmoil of the civil rights movement deeply influenced his vocation. More importantly, it was the people from his childhood and those he met along the way that moved him to devote his efforts towards social justice.
After Jon graduated from college he worked with delinquent youth in Memphis, Tennessee. “I remember sitting on the front steps of a public housing project with an African-American mother giving her advice about how to raise her children and to recruit her support for sending them to camp. I remember this moment, I’m talking, and I’m looking at myself, and I’m looking at her, and I’m saying there’s something absurd about a white man from far away telling a black mother how to raise her children, not knowing any of the things that she faced. That was it. At that moment, the notion of building community is what settled on me. I wanted to live in a world where black mothers came together and decided how to raise their own children, had ownership of their community and the housing they lived in. That was when I came back to Atlanta and got involved with building housing to give people equity, a chance of building separate lives from government dependency. I worked with Charis Community Housing using volunteers to build homes in Atlanta and then moved to Decatur.”
“In Decatur, my life has focused heavily on engaging people and giving them a voice. In the late 1990s we started the Decatur Round Tables. These Round Tables were a way to engage people in changing their community and ensuring that people who had been left out would no longer be left out. “
Jon has also been facilitating group discussions with the refugee community in Clarkston surrounding early childhood education. “I remember the big gymnasium where we used to have the public conversations. There were over a hundred people, most of them refugees in seven different language groups, each language group with translators. To be in that space and listen to all of these conversations and deliberations was amazing. In spite of their tragic histories they practiced the best of democracy. That picture sticks with me. These are the things that have shaped me, these experiences with people and their voices.”
At 69-years-old, Jon is in the process of moving into a new phase of his life as he is learning to live with Parkinson’s. “I am thinking about how to live out my life, one that started in the racial hatred of the South, and one which continues to be plagued by a system of racial inequity, fear, and divisiveness. With time and love being most valuable to me, I will paint deep from my heart. I will paint to overcome the black and white palette of fear of those we do not know. I will paint with a multi-colored palette to capture the love of the God we do know.”
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.”