Traveling through downtown Cumming, it’s hard not to see the city’s emphasis on art, with sculptures of historical figures like John Forsyth and Col. Hiram Parks Bell or nods to the past in the form of war memorials or a poultry farmer and young girl outside the Forsyth County Administration building.
But the man behind those works, local sculptor Gregory Johnson, admits for all the art looking to the past, he would like to see more modern or conceptual work across the county.
“I think once you get past the concept of ‘sculpture has to be something’ rather than an emotion, a feeling, an expression or just interesting to look at, that’s the first step,” Johnson said. “Education, in the art world, I think that’s lacking everywhere, not just Forsyth County.”
Pointing to more modern works in cities like Atlanta, where Johnson has a large peach sculpture outside the CNN Center, or the Cloud Gate – also known by its nickname, The Bean – in Chicago, Johnson said more conceptual works look ahead, rather than behind, and can even bring more people to an area.
“I tend to think that traditional realism looks to the past, and modern art looks to the future,” he said. “There are more things you can do with modern art, which includes interpretation, movement, interaction, participation, lighting, mechanical elements to make it kinetic, whether it’s wind or motor-driven.”
Johnson, whose art appears in 40 states and seven countries, which he estimates is viewed by more than 10 million people each year, has a few thoughts about where such works could go in Forsyth.
On a recent vacation through Spain, Portugal and southern France, Johnson said nearly every city had works in traffic roundabouts, which he said, along with pushes for new artworks at gateways leading into towns and cities, presents an opportunity for more areas for art in the community.
“For us, a gateway might be Hwy. 20 or Hwy. 369 or Ga. 400 as you come into the city or into the county, and it’s the first glimpse of what lies ahead, and that sets a pretty good tone for your expectations,” Johnson said. “Then we have something called roundabout sculptures, where they want something that is beautiful that doesn’t obstruct your view but allows you to drive around and see something of beauty.”
Additionally, Johnson said he would like to see places in the community where visitors can check out several pieces at once, such as a meditative garden at Northside Hospital Forsyth or a sculpture park.
“It’s just a place where you walk and there’s four, six, 10 sculptures along your path, and some of them are amazing,” he said.
Johnson said there is also a changing perception about the importance of art in communities. Whereas artworks were formally often handled by local parks and recreation departments, Johnson said officials in economic development have taken a big interest in recent years.
“I think we fail to look at sculptures and murals as an economic development tool,” he said. “I think we fail to look at it as mild, pensive entertainment. What is going to a sculpture park? It’s kind of a form of entertainment.”
Growing the community
While Johnson has ideas for major artworks, there is also a local push to get more of the community involved in the arts.
In downtown Cumming is the Cumming Arts Center, a rebranding of the Sawnee Association of the Arts, which has been in its headquarters at the Brannon-Heard House since 2018 and features local artists working in a variety of mediums including painting, woodwork, pottery, fabric jewelry, sterling silver and more.
President Carole Kjellsen – who creates Fabergé Egg-like works using real eggshells – said the group is currently the largest it has ever been at about 160 members. But with a population of more than 220,000 residents, Kjellsen said she feels Forsyth is lagging behind neighboring counties.
“We’re hoping that we can at least get to 200 this year,” she said. “I’ve always said we were the fastest-growing county in the country for years and we are the wealthiest county in Georgia, but we have been lagging behind most counties when it comes to the arts, especially the metro counties because everybody is bigger and more well-known than we have been.”
To grow the interest in local art, the group has taken on classes, events and regularly rotating what art is on display to give ways for the community to get involved.
“What we do is we change out the art every eight weeks so that you come in here in January, you see one set of artwork. You come in here in March, it’s all different artwork,” Kjellsen said. “We also have a themed gallery room, where for January and February, it’s new beginnings and love, so that area will be just artwork related to those topics.”
In 2019, locals may have noticed a large new work done by members of the arts group and some 100 local students: a new mural at the Cumming Fairgrounds depicting historic buildings, statues and outdoor areas like Lake Lanier and Sawnee Mountain.
Kjellsen said while the work has received a lot of positive responses from the community, it’s far from the only place in the community where local artists' work can be seen.
“We’re always looking to do more community work,” she said. “People really come to us, like Sexton Hall and [District Attorney] Penny Penn at the courthouse wanting artwork, so we try to fill that. One of the furniture stores asked us for artwork a few years ago because they have their vignettes set up, bedrooms and living rooms and whatnot, they wanted artwork, so they came to us.”
While the arts center is always looking for new artists, Kjellsen said the group is also looking for members who might not be artists themselves but are fans and supporters of the arts or an artist.
“One thing we need is more supporters of the arts,” she said. “If you want to come and you are an artist, of course, you’re welcome, but we need the people who believe in the arts. They can join as members. There’s an entry-level membership that’s $50, that’s what we all pay, and you just list yourself as a supporter of the arts, and you’re welcome to do anything that we do.”
Kjellsen said those interested in joining can sign up online at SawneeArt.org.