Under cover of the almost-morning darkness, a caravan of cars carried a most unusual load. In the middle, a trailer bed balanced tons of metal that had been welded, shaped, willed into two soon-to-be-gleaming arches, more unassuming than it would be at the end of the 16-hour day it would take to install the pieces into one 27-foot sculpture in downtown Atlanta.
In front and in back, other cars towed two desk-sized leaves and machinery. All occupants wore peach-colored T-shirts. It was cold for August, even for the time.
It was 4:45 a.m. as Gregory Johnson’s stainless steel sculpture of a peach rode down Ga. 400, narrowly passing under the first bridge from Lumpkin County before cruising by stoplights and underpasses until it reached the Georgia World Congress Center. Its home.
The trip south was the almost-final step in a two-year process that began not with a peach, but with a pear.
“At Christmas Eve, we were sitting and having some champagne talking about how Atlanta needed a peach. And it had to be spectacular.”
That’s Johnson. The artist whose work — 20 years’ worth of traditional bronze statues and six years’ worth of modern metal pieces — span the world, from seven countries all the way back to Lady Justice at the Forsyth County Courthouse.
“My friends sit there, and we literally cut up a pear, and we had toothpicks left over from our hor d'oeurves. And we cut up the pear. By New Year’s Eve, I had made about two or three clay models. They were real heavy. I didn’t really like it. And then one night it occurred to me the design, and I woke up and drew it out.”
Add in some more modifications, a lot of bids to corporations, even more offers to engineers and almost as many no’s, the Peach Bowl Inc. had commissioned the project to go near the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium just in time for the 2017 Chick-fil-A Kick Off Game.
“When I got to [Peach Bowl President and CEO Gary P. Stokan’s] office, I sat down in his board room and he said, ‘The only reason you’re sitting here is because [acclaimed former University of Georgia football coach] Vince Dooley told me to take this appointment.’ He said I had 15 minutes. An hour and 45 minutes later, with him swiveling around and looking at the poster, he fell in love with it.”
Two years after the pear turned into a peach and 3,000 sanding disks later, James Carnes took a picture of the arches, still secured on the trailer in the middle of the blocked-off Andrew Young International Boulevard. The sun had not yet risen, but there was light enough.
“I gotta send this to a buddy of mine. He saw this and said no way you’re gunna get that down there.”
Carnes is the welder who has helped Johnson with all of his projects for the past four years. They, along with Scott Lacey, took thousands of pounds of metal and found the peach in it at Carnes’s shop, C&A Welding. “James has a fix for everything,” Johnson said. “Since I’ve been here, only once has he said I don’t know. Typically, he’ll say let me think on it.”
Still hours later, the massive crane creaked an inch one way, half an inch back, to move each piece of the peach into place, fitting finger-sized pins into holes. Both crane and peach were heavy and large enough to slice off a hand with the slightest mistake, but, just as they ran their hands over its surface thousands of times to sand it to its mirror finish, they buffed the tiniest scratch and led the hanging arches into place.
As Atlanta came to life in the morning commute, so did the peach. Sleepy at first, slowly awakening with each crane move. Hordes of collared button-downs and business casual suits arriving to work caught a glimpse on a smoke break, strolling past on their way to lunch at the CNN Center.
Sun bounced off the now set-in-place arches later that week, combined to form the Modern Peach, Johnson’s tallest sculpture yet. Passersby stopped to look, point, take photos in front of the reflective surface, looking upward to the grand design.
Atlanta has its Olympic rings, its Martin Luther King Jr. statue. It got its falcon. Now, Atlanta has its peach.
Gregory Johnson has his work displayed around the world, but the joy in the process of seeing his creations come to life is as present as ever.
Gregory Johnson has always liked to draw, and he has always been good at it.
He’s now a seasoned artist — his nearly 1,000 sculptures stand in 17 counties in Georgia, 40 state and seven countries and have homes in front of the Forsyth County Courthouse and Administration Building, Fowler Park and Sawnee Mountain. The Forsyth resident’s journey has taken him on turns and changes in medium, but it has always been on the path of an artist.
“I was a weird little kid. I mean, I’d rather be up in the living room drawing with my pencils than out in the street playing football or baseball, and, of course, that’s why I suck as an athlete. These hands were meant for drawing, not for catching balls.”
His hands appear strong, weathered by work but not worn down. His tanned skin and dark white hair sit more naturally, at least in the last few months when I’d been following him around, in his work attire — T-shirt, often bright, shorts that sit just above the knee, often khaki or dark beige, and hard, covered-toed shoes — than the one time I saw him in a suit.
After college, he moved to Georgia from Illinois and became a figurative painter.
“A lot like Norman Rockwell. I love old people on porches. But they didn’t sell well, and people don’t want them in their restaurant of their corporate lobby. So I ended up going into traditional bronze sculpture, and I hung out there for about 20 years … About six years ago, I decided to go into the modern world. It was a freedom that I didn’t have. The problem with being a traditional bronze sculptor is you’re sculpting dead generals, dead presidents, dead children — which is really heartbreaking — veterans, etc.”
Since working with metal and stainless steel, he said he likes the clean, simple finish of a piece.
“I like simple. I like elegant. I like modern. I like forward-thinking. I like things that look like they’re in motion. And most of all, I like things that when people walk up to them, they go ‘well that reminds of me of,’ and you never saw that in the piece. So people can come to the piece. There is no right or wrong answer. If you see something in it, if you feel something in it, well that’s a good thing for me.
“With all my artwork, I want it to be an inspiration. I want it to bring a smile to your face. I want it to have the ‘wow’ factor where you round the corner and you go, ‘My gosh, look at that.’ And to distract people long enough for them to come see an object of beauty, maybe get a feeling or harmony and beauty, a piece of excitement, a giggle. That, to me, is the nicest compliment people can pay an artist.”
James Carnes has always been a welder and has always enjoyed doing it, but he had to pass seemingly insurmountable obstacles to relearn how to get in the shop.
James Carnes was on a family trip at a resort in Mexico almost six years ago when his world changed forever.
“There was a pier that went out into the ocean, I would say a dock, probably, about four feet out of the water. And we were just diving off it and found something on the bottom, hit my head, and there I was.”
The shop foreman of C&A Welding in Dahlonega was paralyzed from the neck down.
He’d always been a welder. He’d held a welding job since getting out of school, doing other gigs but always running a small personal shop. He decided to open his own business about 12 years ago. It was a mobile shop then, so he had to stop after the injury.
“I like the fact that you’re not just going to the same ol’ job every day doing the same thing every day. Every job’s different. You meet new, interesting people all the time. I mean, there’s always someone new coming here in the door every week. And I’ve just always enjoyed welding.
“My first year after coming home from the hospital, I didn’t think I would ever be able to do anything again. I had limited use of my arms, could hardly move my arms. My hands didn’t work at all … After about, I don’t know, six-eight months of just sittin’ ‘round, pure boredom, thinking, my god, what am I gunna do, you know, to keep from going crazy? I started digging some stuff out of the basement and putting it in the garage, just started tinkering around and trying to see what I could do, and turns out that was the best therapy for me and my hands, mentally and everything.”
Then he met Gregory Johnson.
“He showed up with the first piece, and I was kind of, eh, I don’t know. This might be more than I can do and handle. And of course my wife, she is behind me all the way and always pushing me and encouraging me to do things, and was like, ‘I can help you, I can help you. We can do this, we can do this. It’s not a big deal.’'
That was less than two years after his injury. Now, five years later, Carnes has adjusted to using equipment with his hands that are still affected by partial paralysis, and he navigates his shop with what looks like ease in a wheelchair. He is Johnson’s only welder.
“That first piece, it’s kind of circles with pieces cut out. I liked it so much and just remembered that was the first thing we started with, I actually bought one of the pieces from him. I’ve got that in the living room, and I look at it all the time and think, man, that right there is what got me out of the rut. Out of the house, back to doing something again.”