February 5, 2001
By Eric Rangus email@example.com
Artistic brilliance. Subway station. At first thought, the two dont really have much to do with one another. But in a city like Atlanta, where function usually overwhelms aesthetics and transportation is often a nightmare, a little beauty sometimes comes in handy.
And is sometimes found in a place thats least expected.
On Dec. 16, two new MARTA stations opened on the North line: North Springs
and Sandy Springs. North Springs, the line terminus, is a concrete-and-steel,
above-ground station overlooking Georgia 400 on one side and a freshly
built apartment complex on the other.
Sandy Springs is a bit different. A massive, three-story underground
station the size of two football fields, Sandy Springs glows not just
in newness but in the reflection of halogen light off millions of 2"
x 2" white ceramic tiles that cover the walls.
Mixed among the masses of white are dozens of 12x12 modular zigguratsred
and pink on the northbound side, green and aqua to the south, and each
accompanied by two shades of gray.
By themselves, the modules are wonderful examples of artistic precision,
as the colors blend into one another like bars on a television test pattern.
Still, they lack context.
However, when the station is viewed as a whole, it is only then that
the sheer beauty of the project comes into focus and the jagged ziggurats
spring to life.
Variation on a Theme of Modules is the title of the work,
sprung from the mind and eye of Katherine Mitchell, who teaches in the
studio arts program of art history.
"Its a little bit of a musical title, Mitchell said.
I knew that I wanted to work with modular structures and to vary
them throughout the station, so the title seemed very natural.
The stations design would make a geometry student dance with delight.
The 12-foot-high ziggurats (a ziggurat is a shape in the form of a stepped
pyramid) tower over travelers awaiting trains. Each ziggurat has a identically
shaped counterpart on the other side of the track, and the color schemes
are symmetrical in their design. Amazingly, just eight colors (plus white)
were used in the station design.
The module design is consistent throughout much of the station, but Mitchell
does vary her style in a few places.
Rectangular designs overlap in a tapestry of motion near the escalators
at the north end of the station. The platform near the turnstiles at the
stations entryways are designed with a wallpaper of
tile, which eliminates the white tiles and gives off an air of busyness,
as the complicated and colorful walls dominate view.
The only place where the northbound reds and southbound greens intermingle
is in the domed atrium at the stations north side, where the tunnel
from an office complex leads travelers into the station.
Variations on a Theme of Modules was a project five years
in the making. In January 1995, Mitchell was one of 11 artists invited
to apply for the job of designing the Sandy Springs station. Rather than
submit a design up front, she was simply asked to provide examples of
I had been working with minimalist, modular forms for many years,
and in the early 80s I got very interested in architecture,
The sharply modular style of her past pieces impressed the architects
and MARTA, and Mitchell won the contract. Upon being notified that she
had been selected, Mitchell had four weeks to come up with a design for
I knew I didnt have time to do a long meditation on public
transportation, and thats one reason why I used the modular motif,
she said. Its something I had done before, and I felt that
I could make it work.
After her initial submission, Mitchell was granted an additional four
weeks to refine the design. The plan was approved that spring. But that
didnt end thingsnot by a long shot.
They began changing the building, Mitchell said. And
that went on for years, literally. For the first 10 changes, I felt like,
This is wonderful. Im getting a chance to continue to refine
and make improvements. But then, after the 20th [alteration], I
began to think, What did I get myself into? And I hoped I
wasnt losing control of my vision.
She didnt. Much of her original idea for the building, including
the modules, remains intact. She got to see the building for the first
time in early 1999; prior to that, Mitchells work had been confined
to grid paper (sometimes 20-foot-long sheets rolled out in her home studio)
and computer screens.
The whole thing was an enormous learning experience, Mitchell
said. I had never worked with architects. Im used to working
in my studio, and if I dont like something I can just tear it up.
There was no way that I could go to that construction site and say, This
isnt working out.
In many ways, this project is a culmination of a lot of what Ive
been working toward, Mitchell said. In reaction to the project,
Ive moved off in a different directionlooking at nature instead
of architecture. Im still involved in pattern and geometry, but
looking for different, more subtle color relationships and that kind of
Mitchell has been active in the Atlanta art community since late 1960s,
when she graduated from the Atlanta College of Art. She also studied at
the Tyler School of Art in Rome and earned an Masters of Fine Arts
from Georgia State in 1977.
Her work has been featured in more than 20 solo and 100 group exhibitions.
As of Jan. 26, the Emory community doesnt have to jump on a MARTA
car to see Mitchells artistry, either.
Some her pieces are on display as part of the Science & Art:
Shared Frontiers exhibition in the Schatten Gallery in the Woodruff
Mitchell has taught in the studio arts program for the last 20 years.
She is teaching two classes this semester: Drawing I and Drawing and Painting
Mitchell is happy now to return to some of her own, small-scale work.
As far as diving into another project the size of Sandy Springs? Maybe.
I would consider it, Mitchell said. I would want to know a little more about what I was getting into up front.
Im getting to the age now where the five-year chunks of life Ive
got are beginning to seem pretty precious.