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February 5, 2001

Everyday art

By Eric Rangus

Artistic brilliance. Subway station. At first thought, the two don’t 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 that’s 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 ziggurats—red 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.

"It’s 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 station’s 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 station’s 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 station’s 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 past work.

“I had been working with minimalist, modular forms for many years, and in the early ’80s I got very interested in architecture,” Mitchell said.

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 the station.

“I knew I didn’t have time to do a long meditation on public transportation, and that’s one reason why I used the modular motif,” she said. “It’s 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 didn’t end things—not 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. I’m 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 wasn’t losing control of my vision.”

She didn’t. 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, Mitchell’s 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. I’m used to working in my studio, and if I don’t like something I can just tear it up. There was no way that I could go to that construction site and say, ‘This isn’t working out.’”
Throughout the construction, Mitchell would bounce back and forth between the site and tile maker, supervising the effort.

“In many ways, this project is a culmination of a lot of what I’ve been working toward,” Mitchell said. “In reaction to the project, I’ve moved off in a different direction—looking at nature instead of architecture. I’m still involved in pattern and geometry, but looking for different, more subtle color relationships and that kind of thing.”

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 Master’s 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 doesn’t have to jump on a MARTA car to see Mitchell’s artistry, either.

Some her pieces are on display as part of the “Science & Art: Shared Frontiers” exhibition in the Schatten Gallery in the Woodruff Library.

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 I.

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.

I’m getting to the age now where the five-year chunks of life I’ve got are beginning to seem pretty precious.”


Back to Emory Report Feb. 5, 2001