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Donna Pickens: ArtsXchange Pioneer

When looking at the old Arts Exchange campus in Grant Park, you couldn't help but notice a great presence on the grounds below the front of the building: What most recently resembled Indian mounds of the American plains was once a giant earthen amphitheater where performances were viewed. The Structure itself was a piece of art people could interact with: A sculpture made of 250 tons of earth, in the shape of a person with arms outstretched. Donna Pickens, an artist and educator who worked at the Arts Exchange for many years, put it there.

Donna Pickens moved to Grant Park in 1983, a year before the Arts Exchange opened, and she got her own studio at the Arts Exchange in 1985, a year before she started her master in Fine Arts in sculpture at Georgia State University. She taught ceramics and sculpture classes for both children and adults during most of her tenure at the Arts Exchange, which was vital to supporting herself and her community as a she paid for her degree and developed as an artist and educator.

Donna Pickens with Student at The Arts Exchange Circa 1986


“I’ve really always been an educator as well as an artist…one of my loves is to teach…so [the Arts Exchange] allowed me to teach people in the neighborhood, to do some art camps, and get a lot of other people inspired by art, so that was great.”

“I was teaching classes [at the Arts Exchange] pretty much from the time I moved in until the time I left – and that helped me a lot…It was very affordable—I don't even remember how much it was, but it was a great space for someone to work—like me, you know, starting out…I was having to pay for school, so I really couldn’t afford much, but living in the neighborhood, it was super. We were just a couple of streets over, so it really wasn’t hard for me to get over there.”Donna was one of several Georgia State students with studios at the Arts Exchange at the time. With a place to work, teach, and meet other artists, the ground was ripe for creation and collaboration.

“[The Arts Exchange] was an affordable place for us, and as a result, it gave us a way to get together, and talk, and come up with these ideas, and collaborate…It was sort of a breeding ground for innovators…for people who just had these far-out ideas…you know, artists that were just very creative and wanted to make an impact on the community, and to help other artists…and it was a space where you could work with a number of different artists of different backgrounds, races, and create. So I think it was really an invaluable source of inspiration for the community…and I’m sure a lot of people would say that who had spaces there. It was great."“I think that one of the things I loved about the Arts Exchange is that it was racially integrated. It was a workspace where you had artist of different backgrounds and races working together, and that was really great … it was a great mix of people.”


Among the many works she did at the Arts Exchange, one of her greatest—and by far her largest—was the 250-ton rammed earth sculpture Prima Mater (1990), a functional piece that served as an amphitheater for a symposium on religion, humanity, and identity entitled, “Rethinking the Sacred Image”. She served as a producer on the interdisciplinary project: the symposium included an open forum at the Robeson Theater with religious scholars from across the country, an exhibit in the Sinclair Gallery by colleague Thomasine Bradford, and two performance pieces played out on the stage of Prima Mater itself. At 5 feet high and 48 feet in diameter, Prima Mater remained on the grounds in front of the Arts Exchange and continued to be used as a performance space for years to come.

Donna describes the sculpture:

“It was an image of a new person coming out of the earth…it was called Prima Mater, which means first mother, so it was honoring a time when God was not just seen as male—God was female for thousands and thousands of years…and then it changed to male. So the idea was that it would be…a new person coming, rising from the earth, and it was in the form of a person, and the audience sat in the arms…like risers.”

Prima Mater. Donna Pickens (rammed earth, 1990) from “Rethinking the Sacred Image” Photo: Betsy Rivard - Atlanta, Georgia, 1990

“The image for this came from a very vivid dream I had about a Native American healing ceremony during which this image was being made in the earth, and I first created a smaller version of this in an exhibition at the old Inman Park School, in the basement there. Prima Mater was also created to honor the earth, as in Native American cultures; hence the name meaning “first mother” or earth mother. In addition to the two performances in the space, there were a number of other ones over the years by different dance groups.”

The creation of Prima Mater and its corresponding performance pieces was a herculean feat, not accomplished without help. Donna worked with fellow Arts Exchange artist and Georgia State classmate Thomasine Bradford to raise money for the project; they acquired funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulton County Arts Council, the CITY OF ATLANTA Bureau of Cultural Affairs, the Georgia Council of the Arts, and several private foundations.

To create Prima Mater, Donna brought in rammed earth expert Steve Midgett of North Carolina; and for the performances, she hired choreographer Ron Frazier and composer Sandy Corley to put together the dance and musical elements. A giant speaker system was mounted to the amphitheater to create the sensation that the piece was alive, and over 100 volunteers were enlisted to help bring the project to life.


In order to get the 250 tons of dirt for the project—a special kind mixed with sand—Donna made a deal with the Motocross event that was happening downtown at the time: they were using this type of earth as track for the dirt bikes, and when they were done, she could take it for free—but she had to move it herself, and she had to do it that night. she hired several dump trucks to do the job, and accompanied the trucks on the journey.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, however, she had to improvise what to do with the earth once she got it. As she remembers:

“My most favorite memory of this is when I had to get this dirt…[the trucks] were supposed to come in to a side entrance to dump the dirt in the field [at the Arts Exchange]…but at the last minute, that was closed off because of some construction…So when we got there with the dump trucks, they had to dump it [directly] in front of the Arts Exchange: 250 tons, up by the building, not down in the lower field…And this happened at—I don’t know, maybe 10 o’clock at night…I’m riding in a dump truck with somebody, and decide that we’ve got to dump this, because there’s no other thing we can do (laughs)…I call Alice Lovelace [then-executive director of the Arts Exchange] and tell her…here’s this huge mound of dirt that’s dumped in front of the Arts Exchange, that I’ve got to somehow move down to the lower field right away…So you can imagine, Alice was a real trooper to believe that I would get that thing over in the right place soon, and not block the doors…(laughs) But anyway…I was able to get a backhoe to come in and…push it over into the lower field where it could be used for the sculpture.”

In addition to the physical undertaking required, the financial one was great as well.

“It’s kind of hard to believe we did all that now (laughs) because we were in school the whole time, too…I mean, it was a big budget…and unfortunately…we didn’t have enough money to finish it…”

Unfortunately, due to a lack of funds, she and her team were unable to purchase a protective layer of stucco that could preserve Prima Mater for a longer time. After some decades, the piece has lost much of its original shape; but the memory of the project and what it signified still stands.


In addition to Prima Mater, “Rethinking,” and her work at the Arts Exchange, Donna participated in and helped organize art shows across Atlanta, including the storied Mattress Factory shows of the 1980s and 1990s with fellow Arts Exchange resident Jack Sinclair. Donna maintained her studio at the Arts Exchange for nearly 10 years.


Since the early 2000s, Donna has lived in Montgomery, Alabama, where she worked for 13 years as Assistant Curator of Education at the Montgomery Museum of Modern Art. She recently retired, and now works part-time with the Alabama Arts Alliance, providing teachers across the state with workshops and curricula to encourage and integrate art in the classroom. She also enjoys doing her own artwork, including ceramics and a newfound love for encaustics. She plans to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new ArtsXchange in East Point this June.


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