Tucked behind the busy restaurant Ladybird, Facet Gallery is close enough to the Atlanta BeltLine to be easily accessible, yet hidden enough to provide an intimate experience. From the outside, the place feels welcoming; from the inside, the barren, white walls are latent with possibility.Peter Ferrari, a well-regarded Atlanta artist, is a bit like the space he co-owns: warm and welcoming on the outside with a lot at stake on the inside.
Peter and his co-owner, photographer Elliot Liss, acquired the location in 2017. “We wanted to run a multi-disciplinary space where we would bring in different mediums, creators and makers,” says Ferrari.
Peter was born in Atlanta. As a child he moved around due to his father’s job, but returned to the city in 1991. He liked to draw but didn’t consider the arts as a viable career path. Passionate about graffiti and contemporary art during his teenage years, Peter tried his hand at painting public walls, but was redirected to the canvas by his mother, a writer and educator who preferred that her son expressed his creativity in a safer environment.
He arrived at Emory University with no particular idea of what he wanted to do in life. As a freshman, he enrolled in a sociology class that gave him a new direction. “It was a social issues class and the teacher was this cool guy, Beatnik type of dude, who was very progressive. I wasn’t particularly political back then— I was 18, I didn’t know that much— he ignited this idea in me that there’s a lot of inequality in this world that is often ignored,” Peter recounts.
He credits his sociology studies for helping him find his place. “My father was born in the Belgian Congo, so I have colonialism in my blood. I wanted to understand my own history and the role different cultural factors played in where I am today.”
After graduating from Emory, Peter went back to school to get his master’s degree in Montessori education. For six years, he worked as a Montessori teacher at a private school for three to six year-olds.
“To this day I feel like that’s how we can affect the most change in the world— through children. They’ll sponge up whatever they are around, good or bad. Being able to create environments for children that encourage learning, critical thinking and problem solving is more important now than ever, because the job that a six-year-old will be getting when he or she is 25 doesn’t even exist yet.”
While teaching, Peter had the opportunity to paint a large mural that garnered much attention. He decided to save money and try living a year as an artist— he’d go back to teaching if need be. That was seven years ago. Most of his income comes from designing and painting murals, including corporate interior murals. He has created art for NCR, Microsoft and Red Bull, as well as for numerous local businesses— his work became part of the fabric of the city.
“Atlanta street art has become ‘authentic Atlanta.’ People want to tap into that authenticity you find in Cabbagetown and in Old Fourth Ward, even in Midtown now,” he explains. “I think public art has had a huge impact. Everyone wants to paint murals and be featured with Living Walls or Forward Warrior. The DIY ethic is really big in Atlanta, and I think that’s because the city accommodates it. It’s not like L.A. or New York where you have these 200 year-old institutions that require a M.F.A. or a stamp of approval from the old guard. Atlanta respects people who just come out and do it.”
His involvement with Living Walls inspired him to create Forward Warrior, which started in 2011. Now in its sixth year, the annual mural event in Cabbagetown employs 30 to 40 artists who paint over the weekend.
“It’s a way to bring exposure to the artists who need it,” says Peter. “I was really fortunate to be able to paint murals early on with a lot of artistic license. I’m trying to give back to other artists that I feel are just as talented if not more talented than I am and who really just need that initial boost. I’m trying to make sure it’s really equitable, that we have half men, half women, that we bring in more artists of color, and people from marginalized groups.”
He realizes that his influence is mainly due to building social capital. “People have to trust you — when a job or a project comes up, you want to be on that shortlist. You can only get there through your past achievements, by showing people what you can do. A big asset for me now is that I’m on people’s shortlists. I feel really privileged.”
Public art gave Peter security and confidence as an artist — and he wasn’t shy to flex his creative muscles when his passion and livelihood was threatened.
“It all started with this Facebook message I got from the City of Atlanta— they were telling artists that they were going to start enforcing this very old public art ordinance that has been in the books since the ’80s. Essentially, it required that any art that was viewable by the public in private or public spaces had to go through City Council, the Department of Transportation, the Office of Cultural Affairs and the Department of Urban Planning. That’s really hard to do,” he explains.
It was too much of an imposition for artists and business owners to go through the process. “I’ve done it myself once and it was a pain in the ass, it took a lot of time. So, we all got this notification— they wanted us to apply for amnesty and basically get grandfathered in. We were all shocked and were wondering: ‘Amnesty for what? Are you going to start painting over our murals now?’ It was this feeling that what we had been working on and this culture of murals in the city were being attacked,” Peter says.
A few notable arts pioneers organized forces. Peter joined lawyer Gerry Weber, who had been involved with the ordinance in the past and who is a First Amendment lawyer that argues in federal courts in regards to freedom of speech. Lawyer Zack Greenamyre (another Emory alum) tagged along. Weber and Greenamyre took the case pro bono and asked Peter to be a plaintiff against the City of Atlanta.
Peter, together with artists Yoyo Ferro, Fabian Williams and businessman Grant Henry (owner of Edgweood bar Sister Louisa’s Church) signed their name to be plaintiffs.
“From my perspective, it was pretty easy. I just signed my name. I don’t really receive money from the city, my clients are mostly private entities and collectors, so it wasn’t a huge risk for me. But I also didn’t know what they could do— are they going to retaliate against us? But it went really smoothly.”
The judge almost immediately ruled that the public art ordinance was unconstitutional and violated prior restraint [the government isn’t allowed to restrain speech before it happens and art is considered speech]. Right now, there’s not an ordinance in place but the City Council is trying to do another one.
“They had a meeting for public comments recently— they cancelled it last minute. There’s a little bit of trickery going on— there are a lot of folks who are opposed to this ordinance; public art is huge in Atlanta and people love it. So I think they are trying to confuse us with dates moving around because they don’t want a lot of people showing up complaining about a public art ordinance. That’s the next hurdle: how do we get 200 people to show up at the City Hall and say ‘hey, we don’t want this’,” Peter explains.
He hopes that City Council will see the issue of the ordinance as outside the council’s purview. Peter strives for a free art market in which there’s a common understanding among artists to be cognizant of where and what they put out.
“If you say that everybody HAS TO go through City Council to put art anywhere, it will slow things down, stop a lot of murals from even happening; it will raise the question of what art is,” Peter explains.
If someone wants to paint their mailbox pink, is that art? If someone wants to hang something in their window, is that art? “It’s very nebulous, with an unclear understanding of where the line is drawn— for example, there’s no timeframe for how long the City Council would take to approve art. If they don’t like it, they could put the application to the bottom of a stack of inquiries and delay the issue.”
Peter jokes that he’s trying to knock off as many murals as he can while there is no ordinance in place. If one comes to be, he hopes it won’t be strictly enforced. “It would make Forward Warrior impossible. Me getting 35 approvals for 35 murals, that is just not possible.”
While the fight on behalf of artists and property owners in the City of Atlanta is not over, Peter and the team of artists and lawyers are motivated to continue. In 2017, ArtsATL awarded them the Catalyst Award for Social Discourse as part of its annual Luminary Awards — an important recognition of well-placed efforts.
Outside of this issue, Peter is enjoying his life and work as an artist. He says he doesn’t have “regular” days— it all depends on the projects he’s working on. One day he might be loading trucks with materials, another day he might be tirelessly creating art. “I’m shooting for 10 hours of solid work every day: I get up, make coffee, I come to my studio in the gallery and go through emails. I try to have at least two, three hours of creating every day, whether it’s a current piece or drawing on my iPad,” he says.
Peter doesn’t believe that inspiration just strikes. He’s hard at work experimenting, making mistakes and painting over them. He describes his work as graphic,
with bold lines, shapes and multiple layers. His work is very diverse, giving his clients a lot of styles from which to choose.
Instagram has made it easy for him to find his favorite artists. Peter mentions Eric Jones and James Jean as current favorites. “There’s a lot of neo-expressionism out there in which you blend representational and abstract looks. I like that. Graffitis have also been an inspiration: the color palettes, the movement, the energy. I love nature, I do a lot of hiking— I draw flowers and abstracting those shapes has always been interesting to me. Contemporary graphic design is also really cool. Sometimes you don’t even know what’s going to inspire you, until you realize that ‘oh hey, I can use that for this.'”
He thinks that with any art, be it music or visual arts, you’re building on the artistic achievements of the past. “I think in their hearts, most artists want to break down conformity, to break down the rules set by the previous generation. It’s difficult— you want to take from the past and create something that never existed before,” he says.
He’s looking forward to traveling the world and painting murals.
“It’s not just about surviving as an artist, it’s about thriving. Part of that is financial, part of that is creative— I’m trying to find that balance where I tap into a certain lifestyle that’s true to my vision. Some artists are commercially successful, but what’s the real message you are trying to communicate?”
He feels content with his life’s work and thinks he’s leading his “best life.” Nevertheless, he’s not sitting on his laurels. “I’m always reaching, always maturing. I’m focusing on the daily thought of ‘what do I need to do to keep building on what I have?’. Overall, being an artist is so rewarding,” Peter says.
He believes that art is a pure meritocracy, in which if your work isn’t good, people won’t buy it. “Hype can only get you so far. Right now, we have a lot of folks with great talents and a lot of folks with great hype. Hopefully the public can distinguish between the two.”
I ask him whether he has a mantra that pushes him forward in life. He recounts a really bad breakup in 2011. “I had been with this person for four years, and she just ran off with someone else. I was really distraught. My buddy at the time, he was coming out of a divorce and so any time we would get caught up in our depression, we would say ‘forward warrior: you’re doing great things, keep going, eyes on the prize.’ And so when I started the event, I adopted the saying as the emblem— that’s what it’s all about: who are the artists that are pushing the scene, who are the artists that are moving ahead despite the politics and the nitty-gritty BS,” Peter explains. ‘Forward Warrior’ became a rallying cry, a reminder to keep pressing on because the journey is the destination.
In the near future, Peter will be painting a mural for MOTHER bar and restaurant in Edgewood and a sign for Tecate Bar; he also has a big project coming up in Upper Westside Atlanta. Cheers to a warrior marching forward.
By Loli Lucaciu