Mimi Gross, Jeffrey Lamar Mathis, 10, 1981
The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center
June 20 - August 4, 2019
From 1979-1981, over twenty-eight children and young adults were abducted and murdered in the city of Atlanta. Collectively known as the Atlanta child murders, the killings drew the attention of the nation and altered daily life in the de facto capital of the South. The city imposed curfews. Some parents withdrew their children from school and forbid them from playing outside. On June 21, 1981, Wayne Williams was arrested and ultimately convicted of two murders and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. This past March, the Mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms, reopened the cases hoping to use modern technology to lead to further convictions. Williams maintains his innocence.
On Mother’s Day, May 10, 1981, approximately one month before Williams’ arrest, Mimi Gross, an artist and young single mother had just moved into a new apartment in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood. She had read about the events in the New York Times and requested that a friend send her a copy of the Washington Post since they had published images of the children. Gross remembers drawing the portraits on the floor of her apartment over a period of a few days—maybe less. The portraits were never intended for public display; they were an essential visual and emotional response to events that overwhelmed Gross, an artist who draws constantly. Indeed, drawing is one of her primary tools for understanding the world and connecting to it.
In the mid-1980s, the drawings were nevertheless shown in an exhibition organized by the non-profit group Children in Crisis in Washington DC. Years later, images of the drawings were sent to Toni Morrison for consideration as illustrations for the end pages of a novel she was editing by Toni Cade Bambara. The novel, titled Those Bones Are Not My Child, was released in the year 2000, but the publisher opted to use a map in place of Gross’ drawings. Morrison did, however, admire the drawings in a letter dated 9/4/98. She writes, “I do appreciate your quick response, your work and your clear commitment to memorializing these oh so young people.” Morrison’s use of the word “memorialize” is altogether appropriate. Gross’ drawing, and this book, are tangible reminders of lives lost and time cut short. Viewed nearly forty years after their creation, they have maintained their sense of urgency and exist much like our memories—frozen in time.
A publication titled Lost Atlanta, 1981 will be released July 1, 2019.
Work courtesy of the Institute 193 and Eric Firestone Gallery.