Out of the Briar Patch
Eatonton’s plans for revitalization through the arts
Written and photographed by Phil Pyle
If there is a sign of the times, it should fly above the county courthouse in Eatonton. In years past, Putnam County’s economy thrived in large part from three major sources: its historic dairy industry, Georgia Power’s coal-powered Plant Branch and manufactured homes giant, Horton Homes. Fast-forwarding to 2016, through several years of financial crisis, declining real estate, and growth in alternative and renewable energy sources, Putnam County now finds itself with far fewer dairy farms, a stalled manufactured homes industry, and a shuttered power plant. The empty storefronts that line Eatonton’s downtown square are daily reminders of how anemic its economy finds itself today.
In 2013, Lou Benjamin spearheaded the founding of the Briar Patch Arts Council, a non-profit organization whose purpose is to recognize and revitalize the art community in and around Eatonton.
As Benjamin explains, “In 2010, we met with the Georgia Department of Economic Development, and their determination was for us to focus on tourism. By leveraging our heritage in the arts, we realized we would be able to attract visitors and ultimately turn Eatonton into a destination. This began the founding of the Briar Patch Arts Council.”
This concept of tapping into the arts to drive tourism – and life – back into a city is not new and not localized to Putnam County nor even to Georgia. In fact, in the 1950s, the famed Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts was begun to revitalize a blighted section of Manhattan. Similar successes followed suit in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Baltimore. On much smaller scales across the U.S., towns such as Eugene, Oregon, Dunsmuir, California, and Yellow Springs, Ohio, also breathed vitality into their main streets through the arts with simple but effective measures of painting lampposts and decorating storefront windows. Today, these towns are blossoming and continue to be destinations for both tourists and artists alike.
“A lot of storefronts around the square were empty,” Benjamin continues, “so we approached the owners to allow us to display pieces from local artists in their windows. We also had artists paint manhole covers around town. These little things make a big difference. Putting art out there, making it visible in what otherwise are empty windows and sidewalks, gives people something to look at and inspires thought and conversation.”
Putnam County’s literary heritage, centered around Alice Walker, Joel Chandler Harris, and Flannery O’Connor, is showcased in the Georgia Writers Museum, which opened in 2014 at its temporary location on the courthouse square. Likewise, to showcase the artistic heritage of the area, plans for the Artisans Village have begun, which include renovating two existing historic buildings adjacent to town square.
Artisans Village president Kevin Tomson-Hooper explains, “The Writers Museum is in a temporary building now. Its permanent location is still under renovation across the square, but putting up the temporary space lets people know we exist. It creates awareness, and that’s what we want to do with the Artisans Village with the gallery on the square.”
This summer, the gallery plans to open in a temporary space at 110 West Marion Street on the courthouse square, allowing a rotation of various artists to both work in plain view of viewers and display their crafts in the store. Phase two of the Artisans Village is the renovation of the livery stables, which will house “hot arts” such as glassblowers and metalworkers. A few feet from the livery stables is a 13,000-square-foot warehouse, which will require the most extensive renovation. Besides creating booths for a wide array of artists, it will also include air conditioning, a permanent gallery, and a retail marketplace.
As Tomson-Hooper continues, “Rather than visitors coming to see an art gallery and walk away, we plan for the Artisans Village to be a destination for an interactive experience. Having both buildings relatively side by side with open doors between them, visitors will be able to flow between the buildings and not only watch the artists work, but they will be able to participate in classes and workshops that some artists will be offering. It will be a true artist colony.”
Achieving the ultimate vision for the Artisans Village and the Georgia Writers Museum will carry a price tag of approximately $1.7 million, which the council plans to raise through donations, grants, and philanthropic events throughout the next couple of years, as well as money raised at the gallery on the square. An art guild is currently being formed in Eatonton and will serve as another ally to stimulate awareness and raise capital for the Village.
“There are 2.6 million people within a one-hour radius from us,” says Tomson-Hooper, “and there is a steady stream of expendable income that passes to and from Lake Oconee.” Indeed, getting just a fraction of that 2.6 million to stop, linger, and spend in Eatonton would be a boon for its economy. Empty storefronts would be able to hang up “Help Wanted” signs for coffee shops, restaurants, boutiques, and more galleries. Artists would be able to move to Eatonton and sustain their livelihood in the Artisans Village while they add more crafts to the gallery shelves for tourists to buy. The vision is an ideal “win-win-win” for residents, tourists, and artists alike.
“The Artisans Village project, along with the Writers Museum, is singularly the most important thing happening for Eatonton right now,” proclaims Shelagh Fagan, Chair of the Historic Preservation Commission. “I believe it is in the hands of the most competent and capable people, and we have 100 percent confidence they will see it through. We are extremely anxious to see what it does for us.”
Indeed, though downtown Eatonton may appear to be dormant to passersby, a closer look reveals a rising creative current, which at the hands of a few courageous, smart, and determined idealists, just may be strong enough to awaken it and bring Eatonton and Putnam County back into the limelight. After all, carved into a stone pillar in front of the courthouse, atop which Brer Rabbit confidently stands, is a sign quite befitting the time:
HE SURVIVES FOREVER BY HIS WIT
HIS COURAGE AND HIS CUNNING