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Tales of the rails: Train culture animates Paper Twins’ BeltLine “Wanderers”

Railroads run through Atlanta’s history. They birthed the city by intersecting their lines here, sped its development and led General Sherman to burn it down. The Atlanta BeltLine’s conversion of a 22-mile loop around the center city into a community amenity will add another chapter to the story.

Artists the Paper Twins and gallery owner Lloyd Benjamin discuss a figure in the Twins’ “Wanderers,” part of “Art on the BeltLine”

Even as that chapter unfolds, two artists represented in the “Art on the BeltLine” project, on view through August 31, offer an engaging footnote. The women, who call themselves the Paper Twins, created “Wanderers,” a series of eight painted plywood figures depicting the people who ride the rails without a ticket.

Most of us associate train-riding with the men of the Depression, who did so out of necessity, and the hobos who still do. These grizzled characters appear in “Who Is Bozo Texino?,” filmmaker Bill Daniel’s evocative 2005 portrait of the train subculture, centered on a search for the boxcar graffitist famous for his drawing of a man wearing a hat shaped like an infinity symbol.

But they aren’t the only ones. There’s a youthful cohort of men and women who have taken to the tracks. Some are disaffected outsiders, like the older generation. Others are attracted to the freedom of the zero-carbon-footprint life, the adventure of (free) travel, and/or the thrill of operating beneath the radar, against the law.

Mike Brodie: Savannah

The old guys have only their graffiti to mark their existence. The young riders, children of the Internet, bring cameras, document their experiences and post them on Flickr. A few, such as Mike Brodie, even hang them in art galleries.

Lloyd Benjamin’s gallery Get This! is Atlanta’s ground zero for such art. The dealer, who started riding trains as a teenager, screened Daniel’s film in 2005 and showed Brodie’s “The Lost Boys and Girls of the Modern Day Railway” in 2007.

The Paper Twins: Homage to boxcar graffitist Bozo Texino (detail). Twin No. 1 saw the film, and it made an impression. One of her pieces in “Wanderers” is a cutout depicting a Texino figure drawing his signature image, which she mimicked on a rusty old box beside the BeltLine’s path. Family history may have fueled the rest. Her grandfather road the rails during the Depression after losing his job as a telegraph operator. He might have cooked a meal over a fire by the side of the tracks just like in her tableau “Mulligan Stew.” 

Twin No. 2 took her imagery from Brodie’s photographs. (Benjamin helped her contact him for permission.) When the Twins took Benjamin to see “Wanderers” recently, he immediately recognized Twin No. 2’s cutout of a disheveled girl (see image above) as Savannah, Brodie’s ex-girlfriend. He also identified the pillow of the sleeping figure nearby as a bag of coal.

Brodie doesn’t live on trains anymore, Benjamin says. Uncomfortable with the art-world success of his photos a few years ago, he quit the rails to get a degree in diesel engineering. Now, after an apparent change of heart, Brodie is represented by Yossi Milo Gallery in New York. Daniel, 51 and a recent recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, is on to other subjects.

The Paper Twins: “Mulligan Stew”

Benjamin, 31, is still not beyond taking a ride now and then. Just last month he hopped a train with Doodles, a 22-year-old California street artist who had completed a mural for Atlanta’s “Living Walls” project. Benjamin showed me an iPhone video he made during the ride — a hypnotic view of tracks and trestles whizzing by as seen through a hole in the bottom of the train car.

Benjamin went as far as Philadelphia, visited friends there and took a plane home. A bit of countryside, a bit of Zen, a bit of whiskey, a bit of fellowship. Not bad for a weekend wanderer.

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