The daring, ambitious, heartfelt creativity of Micah and Whitney Stansell 

Husband-and-wife artist team pairs up again for new exhibit at MOCA GA

FAMILY BUSINESS: Micah (left) and Whitney Stansell at home in College Park.

DUSTIN CHAMBERS

FAMILY BUSINESS: Micah (left) and Whitney Stansell at home in College Park.

Appearances can be deceiving. A simple wood frame house painted pistachio green sits on a sleepy College Park street. The only indication of quirk: a cow skull surveying the front porch. You'd never guess that inside this historic 1928 home the wheels of creativity spin furiously and big ideas germinate thanks to the combined forces of married artists Micah and Whitney Stansell, both 32.

The Stansells present a deceptive exterior, too. Beneath their mild-mannered Southern sweetness lie nerves of steel.

A two-headed film- and art-making team, the Stansells finish each other's sentences, collaborate on each other's projects and, generally, seem absurdly well-suited for one another. Both children of Christian missionaries and former college track stars, the coal-haired, nostalgia-steeped, über-crafty Stansells are what you get when you mix D.I.Y., family values, and a Southern version of NYC art power-couple John Currin and Rachel Feinstein. They're cute, they're talented. And they can sew.

On Aug. 26, viewers can experience an example of the couple's creative togetherness when Micah debuts his eight projected films The Water and the Blood at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, for which Whitney sourced costumes and coached actors, among many other things. Micah is one of three artists, including Katherine Mitchell and Alan Caomin Xie, who received this year's Working Artists Project (WAP) grant. WAP is an annual gift from the Charles Loridans Foundation (with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts) that awards a trio of regional artists with solo exhibitions at MOCA GA, an assistant and a $12,000 stipend for each to create a body of work. The WAP grant was initiated to keep talented artists in Atlanta.

In his usual mix of narrative gravitas and experimental techniques, the video piece suggests a meeting of home movies, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, and Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, thanks to location shooting at a Franklin, Ga., amateur wrestling match. The germ of the film is a family story involving Micah's cattle farmer father around whom he has created an atmosphere-drenched tale of a handsome man in a cowboy hat and two young children. "It has a circle of characters around that seed," says Micah. But like almost everything the couple does, the work concerns family, the past and memory.

"It's about the way you insert yourself into these memories that you weren't even present for," says Micah, in a description that could equally describe his wife's work.

The thread that unites Micah's filmmaking and Whitney's drawings and paintings ornamented with stitching, is a shared interest in the romance of the past, of the lives that came before them and the secrets locked away in families. Whitney has founded an entire body of work, including her series "An Iconography for an Imagined History," on the drama-filled life of her mother, who as a young girl pined for a father locked away in a prison cell. In the style of vintage children's books, Whitney imagines a more psychologically fraught childhood reality than Little Engines That Could and puddle ducks. "I have made my 'second-hand memories' into a physically existing history," says Whitney on her website.

Separately, the Stansells are pretty killer. But together they are Dyn-O-Mite. Evidence of their combined firepower came, for many, in October 2010 when they debuted the elaborate five-channel video piece Between You and Me at Flux, an annual public art event in Castleberry Hill. Projected onto buildings flanking an active train yard, the film unfurled against an unforgettable backdrop of urban grit. On the one-night-only evening of the performance, after weeks of stress, friends' sweat equity, and unforeseen outlays of cash, including rental of five film projectors valued at $150,000 each and balanced 25 feet in the air, the couple was dwarfed by their creation. Whitney toted their tiny then 3-month-old baby through the industrial landscape while Micah attended to the myriad technical difficulties. "It probably took six months to recover," says Micah. "Friends, I think, shudder when we call them now," laughs Whitney.

Like their now 1-year-old son Ezra, the piece was a labor of love and an example of their outsize ambitions. They strive to only do art on a grand, magnificent, exceedingly polished level, a quality it's hard not to chalk up to their shared history as competitive college athletes.

"That's what you did every time you would compete, you were pushing yourself to the brink. And if you weren't doing that, then you weren't pushing yourself hard enough," says Whitney.

"We like sports" says Micah, sitting in their bright living room filled with friends' artwork and vintage furniture.

"Baseball's our mainstream sport," concedes Micah, as if every couple has a fallback sport.

"I love watching curling during the Olympic Games," adds Whitney.

"We will watch any Olympic sport," confirms Micah.

Beyond their mutual jones for the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, the couple share similarly peripatetic backgrounds, moving with their missionary parents around the country and in some cases around the world. They met in 1998 at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., and married in 2002. They have that slightly spooky energy of couples who seem meant to be together, so alike in looks and disposition you imagine something called fate at their backs, gently nudging them toward each other over the decades.

The past permeates every aspect of the couple's life together, from their historic home and Whitney's preference for vintage clothes, to their neighborhood. The couple make their work in a similarly lost-in-time place, the still-small-town-feeling College Park. It's a place so outside the frantic pace of Atlanta's creative whirl of street art and gallery openings that business owners and residents gladly open their doors to Micah's film shoots, seem charmed by the idea of creativity in their midst, and gladly pass down the neighborhood legends that Whitney will weave into her next body of work. College Park water towers or clapboard houses frequently pop up in Whitney's paintings and drawings, and also in Micah's films. The South, in the form of College Park, is as much an authentic, rough and tumble character in their artwork, as the family members who serve as actors.

If you'd only heard of Georgia, but had never been, you'd want to go there based on the combined efforts of the Stansells who bestow an authenticity, romance and mystique on the place they call home.

Their combined work is, in a word, devotional. They spin reveries of vanished times which nevertheless shape the Stansells. They bear witness to the connections, both unseen and seen, between people, and find meaning in the places that shelter them.

Look for a repeat film effort from the Stansells at this year's Flux, Sept. 30.

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