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Building a community 

Open house showcases the work that helps define the local arts scene

Making art can be a lonely business -- long hours painting, no co-workers, no boss to keep you on task. One antidote to the terminal isolation of the artist's life is the arts community offered at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Since 1978, the Contemporary has selected a small group of Atlanta artists to participate in its prestigious studio program for up to three-year stints.

On May 20, the rest of us can share in that community spirit and gain access to the artists who create their astoundingly diverse work. The second Summer Open Studios fundraiser is a kind of art-world open house in support of the Contemporary's operating budget.

Situated in a U-shaped configuration on an open courtyard, the placement of the 14 studios creates a user-friendly vibe. Within easy proximity for borrowing tools or just checking in, artist Pam Longobardi is doing just that, dropping in on sound artist Craig Dongoski (who also happens to be her husband) as he's explaining the experimental sound-painting process he will be demonstrating for Summer Open Studios.

The Contemporary Studio Artists Program, which recently received its first NEA grant in support of the program, offers that most priceless of commodities for a working artist: affordable studio space in a high-profile location with a steady traffic of visiting artists, curators and collectors circulating through the Contemporary's exhibition space and offices.

"There's a validation to it," says Mark Leibert, a painter who was recently selected for a studio. Today he's in his second-floor light-filled studio unpacking his flat files. After the experience of spending years in a remote studio in the Virginia countryside before he migrated to Atlanta, Leibert is clearly warming to the idea of the community and exposure a Contemporary slot brings.

Mary O'Horo, formerly of Seattle, worked in isolation for years in her northeast Atlanta studio, and also was anxious to be a part of the community. With its exposed brick walls, spare decor and a dog-eared copy of Joseph Campbell's biography A Fire in the Mind, O'Horo's studio is a study in minimalism, a reflection of her equally pared-down paintings, which examine "concepts from the scientific world and the spiritual world and their convergence."

The most engaging and direct advantage of Summer Open Studios may be the chance to view work that runs the gamut from esoteric to accessible. Meeting the artists on their own, familiar turf also offers a more relaxed and low-pressure alternative to the gallery opening.

"It's intimate in a different way," says studio artist Pam Longobardi, of the difference between the studio visit and her openings at Sandler-Hudson Gallery. "Your books are there, and you get into conversations about interests." Longobardi, who recently participated in the Georgia Air Quality & Climate Summit 2006 at Georgia Tech, has been in her studio for more than three years and will feature videos at Summer Open Studios of starlings and frogs whose habits reflect larger environmental changes.

All the artists do their own thing, but often share dramatically similar interests. Photographers Angela West and Sheila Pree Bright, for example, both treat the South in their work. Pree Bright was recently awarded the 2006 Santa Fe Prize for Photography for her New South stereotype-defying portraits of Atlanta's upwardly mobile black suburbanites.

West also offers intimate images of Southern life, though hers -- which will be featured in July at the High Museum -- are more nostalgia-drenched portraits of the Old South and her small, Georgia hometown of Dahlonega.

In addition to meeting these studio artists, visitors can play just these kinds of fun connect-the-dots games. Summer Open Studios offers an opportunity to see the rich variety of artists working at the Contemporary, but also provides a chance to see the surprising connections, all under one roof, that define the local art scene.

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