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'Hey, you're hogging the paint!' 

Atlanta's artist couples learn to share their space

In romantic comedies, couples meet "cutely": their dogs' leashes intertwine or a conversation starts when the bumbling hero spills orange juice on the pretty heroine. The first time Atlanta photographer Matt Haffner met his future wife, fellow artist Laura Bell, it was more like something out of a David Cronenberg movie.

One night, while they were both attending grad school at Philadelphia's Tyler School of Art, Laura watched a head-on car collision unfold from the window of Tyler's print-making department. A familiar bald head was illuminated by the car light.

She thought, "'Oh, that's that guy from my art-history class.' I guess I noticed him at that point."

Now, sitting in their tidy one-story Kirkwood bungalow, Matt nestles their 9-week-old daughter Matilda in the crook of his arm. They offer coffee. Matilda softly coos, as content and mellow as her parents. Domestic bliss radiates.

Matt and Laura, who both teach at Kennesaw State University, each does his and her part to make their home and professional lives run smoothly. Which means that when Laura was recently preparing for her solo exhibition Morphosis of ornate, lacelike paintings at Atlanta's Kiang Gallery (through Feb. 23), Matt was taking care of Matilda, cooking and doing the day-to-day trade-off thing that defines the rhythms of an artist couple's life.

The Haffner-Bells can seem like the Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt of artist coupledom with their progressive approach to shared child care, household duties and support for each other's work. Being a couple in the same profession has obvious advantages: similar nontraditional hours, a shared understanding of the vagaries of the art market, a respect for your partner's life choices. And it also has its challenges.

When so many couples live in separate spheres – at least where their work is concerned – artist couples share not only a career, but similar values and ideas about what constitutes success.

There is "total understanding of the angst and drama," say Atlanta artists and Georgia State University professors Craig Dongoski and Pam Longobardi, in a jointly composed e-mail.

The popular stereotype is more often of mercurial artist couples: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. But Atlanta artist couples, established or emerging, often suggest a very different reality.

Ann-Marie Manker and Joy Phrasavath have been together for a little more than a year. Having both owned Atlanta alternative galleries (ArtSpot and L'Avenue), they have the kind of quirky kinship that suggests junior-high BFFs. They appear to have achieved art-couple nirvana.

For a recent trip to Paris, they packed coordinated red, white and blue outfits and headed off to the Kara Walker show at the Musée d'Art Moderne, letting their Gallic freak flags fly. They "crashed" last year's Little Five Points Halloween parade dressed as a dead Indian bride and groom wearing a sign that explained "Just Buried."

"Some people might think we are kooky or eccentric, but we are in heaven," Manker says.

Several decades older, painter Mark Sandlin, 50, and his nationally known ceramist wife Red Weldon-Sandlin, 49, give off similar utopian vibes. They are the glowing, sunny, real-life answer to the scary-Scientology perkiness of Cruise and Holmes.

Since meeting in Atlanta in the early 1980s, they have been virtually "inseparable," laughs Red.

She's not kidding. The couple shares a car, a cell phone, an e-mail account, a love of old-fashioned architecture and a desire to be together – a lot. What might be suffocating for other couples is clearly heaven for Red and Mark, who will unveil their collaborative meditation on Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird this April at Inman Park's Whitespace Gallery.

When the larger "straight" world can often be suspicious, even dismissive of people who make art their career, there is a safety and security in spending your life with someone who gets it.

But being an artist couple isn't all pure bliss. Most admit there are unique challenges, too.

"We do both have the same depressions and anxieties about feeling good about our work or worrying that we're not going to have another show," Laura Bell says.

Jiha Moon and Andy Moon Wilson met in 1999 at University of Iowa graduate school. A sought-after conceptual artist whose paintings combine Eastern and Western elements, Jiha's work can be seen through Feb. 22 at Saltworks Gallery.

There are risks in allowing too much melding of careers, as Jiha discovered when she curated her husband Andy in a Washington, D.C., art show in 2006. Jessica Dawson, writing in the Washington Post, said, "When it comes to nepotism, the best strategy is to avoid it."

"I am currently in a show at her gallery in New York," Andy says, "but I doubt they'll ask to represent me. There is a danger that I'll be accused of riding on Jiha's coattails, because she is such a star, and I'm still flying under the radar."

But in the end, there is something to be said for the eccentric connections that define these relationships, too. Even the problems can seem quaint.

"Normal couples don't fight about color," Andy says. "Only artists do that."

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