Eyedrum: An oral history 

How a series of scrappy loft art parties helped incite Atlanta's underground art scene

Eyedrum's trademark silo at the former MLK Drive space

Joeff Davis

Eyedrum's trademark silo at the former MLK Drive space

PHOTOS: See Eyedrum's legacy in pictures

When Marshall Avett and Woody Cornwell started shuffling furniture around their Trinity Avenue loft in the summer of 1997 to make room for a small skronk-jazz art party, it was the beginning of an Atlanta arts legacy. A year later, when their monthly parties at the Silver Ceiling, as their loft soon came to be known, grew into crowds of 100 to 150, Avett and Cornwell rented the storefront space below at 253 Trinity Ave. and christened it Eyedrum. It was the summer of 1998 and the city's post-Olympic hangover hung like a specter over downtown Atlanta — a derelict urban frontier, ripe for a real estate blitzkrieg.

At the time, Nexus, the grassroots artist's cooperative that once harbored Atlanta's most rough-and-tumble artistic spirits, was growing up and transforming into the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Nexus' transition left a void for raw, local arts of all disciplines. Eyedrum unwittingly filled that void with its gruff, DIY confines tucked away amid the canyons of decaying downtown Atlanta.

Eyedrum was a shining beacon in a tangled stretch of the city reaching from Castleberry Hill to what is now the Edgewood Shopping Center, wielding influence in a scene comprised of those willing to embrace music and arts that were as contemptuous as they were conscientious. Indie rock acts as varied as Oneida, Don Caballero and the Black Heart Procession to Simeon Coxe of the Silver Apples to DJ Cut Chemist all performed there amid exhibitions with titles such as The Penis Show, Switch and Liquid Smoke.

After a series of noise complaints from the neighbors, in September 2001, Eyedrum moved into the exponentially larger 3,000-square-foot space at 290 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, where it upped the volume on all of its activities. In June 2006, the organization was awarded a $30,000 Warhol Foundation grant, which funded the '06-'08 arts programming.

Over time, interest in Eyedrum's activities waxed and waned, and mismanagement brought the venerated gallery and music space to the brink of financial collapse. Massive, emergency rent parties pulled Eyedrum out of a nosedive on more than one occasion. Still, the organization remains a constant fixture in Atlanta's underground arts scene, even after losing its lease at 290 MLK in 2010.

In the meantime, Atlanta's emerging art community has grown dramatically. WonderRoot, the Goat Farm, the Creatives Project, Beep Beep, Mint, and Kibbee galleries, Living Walls and various other permissive, DIY-spirited arts organizations and spaces have come to dominate the local art scene. Eyedrum blazed the path for them all, but with its legacy resting now on a timeworn Castleberry Hill warehouse with no water supply, a tenuous rental arrangement, and programming regularly rerouted to other venues, Eyedrum's future is unclear. Nevertheless, the noises that began emanating from that Trinity Avenue loft nearly 15 years ago can still be felt, resonating across the city.

For this oral history, CL interviewed Eyedrum's co-founder, boardmembers, artists and regulars.

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