In its brief compass, Pulaski Street represents a portal connecting two worlds of Athens, at once old and new. An artery of Broad Street, it conveys the traveler from university precincts to the hinterlands, from the bustle of downtown to a quiet, almost bucolic neighborhood.
Exhausted and financially strapped from his experience trying to make it in New York’s frenetic art scene, Mullins decamped to Athens in the early 1990s. He got the parcel of land he now inhabits for a bargain then. The realtor knocked off a few thousand from the listing price because he noticed Mullins kept large dogs as pets; the seller figured that might deter the heroin addicts squatting on the property and the occasional fugitives who cut through its grounds.
Times have changed on Pulaski Street since those days. The refurbished Leathers Building across the street houses a yoga studio, a wine shop, and an excellent BBQ joint. The angular profiles of modernist homes now punctuate a quiet, leafy neighborhood thrumming with prosperity.
Mullins greets me with enthusiasm, sliding back a gate stamped with his name. A statue of Zeus looks down mutely from brick frontage. Paving stones guide us to a koi pond fed by a gentle, trickling cascade. Constructing this oasis in the middle of the city has taken decades of work, salvaging beauty from the detritus of neglected property.
Looming in the background is the nucleus of the property, a converted cottonseed oil warehouse that serves as his capacious studio space. This vaulted tin and wood structure and the lawn sprawling out behind it have become the sites of a quiet revolution, where Mullins is fashioning a life and a body of work that challenges the dominant paradigm of artistic success. He’s piloting a disruptive startup, one that positions the artist as an entrepreneur and trades in a very different kind of currency than the art world recognizes. The path Mullins is carving represents a stark alternative to the way we see the artist in the contemporary world.
Fine art is a business that profits by concealing its infrastructure, commodifying authenticity, and restricting admission. At the pinnacle of “success” stand contemporary artists whose names fetch millions at galleries and auction houses: Koons, Prince, Hirst, Murakami, and so on. Their work attracts buyers not only for its aesthetic merit but also for its market performance. Caveats apply, but investing in the right kind of art reaps lucrative dividends.
As with any commodity, perception of value is what drives pricing. Dropping millions of dollars on a Hockney original or a Warhol print only makes sense if it’s likely to appreciate over time. What makes this artwork valuable is the buzz swirling around the artist, the aura of genius, and the scarcity of available supply.
Stakeholders in this venture carefully manage this celebrity branding. A constellation of critics and auction houses function as gatekeepers, policing the boundaries of what qualifies as fine art and what’s not. The price of entrance varies, but usually includes training in elite art schools, gallery representation, solo shows in New York or Los Angeles, reviews in the right organs of criticism, and finally entrance into museums and auction houses.
Earlier in life, Mullins dutifully followed this prescribed path. As a thirteen year-old in the Washington D.C. suburbs, he earned a scholarship to the prestigious Corcoran School of the Arts and Design. He was a skateboarding punk riding the Metro with the stodgy suits heading toward the Capitol. He’d marvel at all the monumental art surrounding him, then get off at his stop and go draw pictures all day. He became determined to make it as an artist.
That ambition eventually took him to New York, where he worked with a number of renowned artists. He got represented in galleries. Critics began noticing his work. It looked like Mullins might break through in a notoriously competitive art market.
But the strain of holding it all together left Mullins beleaguered and restless. He was working odd jobs at all hours of the day to make ends meet, leaving little precious time for producing art. He chafed at the constraints of working within the gallery scene. So, on the verge of making it from within the system, Mullins left it altogether.
He exchanged the concrete jungles of New York for the marble quarries of Carrara. It was a radical change, one that reshaped the trajectory of Mullins’s career. As a sculptor, it connected him with the region that had supplied Michelangelo with his materials and steeped him in the storied craft of Italian artisans. Mullins began to appreciate a different currency in art: the time that allowed for the creation of timeless art.
When he decided to move to Athens, Mullins was venturing into new territory. The Classic City was renowned for its music scene, but not its fine arts. There wasn’t a thriving gallery scene or teeming hordes of buyers and critics.
What there was in Athens mattered more to Mullins: affordable land, tranquility, and nearby quarries in Elberton, the granite capital of the world. From the decaying ruins of the cottonseed oil factory, he began to form an imaginative new world. His yard filled with sculptures. Buyers from around the world commissioned work from him.
In the solitude of his Pulaski Street studio, he began asking himself what’s become a consuming question. It’s one he repeats while twilight descends: “What is value?”
The rhythmic drone of cicadas revives as Stan Mullins reveals the answer he’s found. It’s time — both in the sense of freedom to create on one’s own terms and in the integrity that artistic production under these conditions carries across generations.
Mullins uses traditional techniques to cast classical subjects in monumental clay, stone, and bronze. He doesn’t employ 3-D printers or a corps of assistants to execute his artistic vision. He’s not making brazen political statements or commenting ironically on art history in an age of mass kitsch. His work is as likely to show up in public spaces as in galleries or private collections.
That’s not to say he’s a nostalgist embalming the past. Take the bronzed bust of Pandora Mullins recently fashioned, for example. The legend is familiar: the first woman opens a forbidden jar, releasing all the evils that stalk the world. It’s a myth designed to explain lost innocence and account for suffering that marks our world. But Mullins makes it a parable for the Information Age and the temptations of curiosity. He installed a halo of lights around his Pandora. Crucially, there’s no jar or box near the bust. Instead, he exposed the empty interior of the cast bronze. Evil originates not from without, but from within us, he suggests. In the hands of a master sculptor, classical myth speaks unsettling truths to the present.
What Mullins is doing is creating enduring value from the raw materials of stone and marble for broader public consumption. He likes to work with the character of the sections he’s quarried, not impose some inflexible grid on them. He’s a master, not a machine. Putting it differently, he does the work of several machines, in ways they could never replicate. That stamps his work with authenticity. It creates a lasting currency in monuments that will outlast ephemeral trends and momentary fashions. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” opined Keats, and that’s precisely the long game Mullins is playing.
Our culture venerates entrepreneurs. Why? They disrupt conventions. They have the imagination and courage to create worlds that didn’t exist before. Most of all, they have the cachet of controlling their own destinies. We long to wield that power over our own lives. That’s why we project our aspirations on Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jay Z, and Oprah Winfrey.
Maybe we ought to think the same way about artists like Stan Mullins. He’s rewriting the playbook of how to make it in the art market. He’s redefining value in an unlikely place. And he’s creating a corpus of work that recasts classical themes in ways that speak to the present moment, yet will endure. In pursuing this, he represents a kind of archetype for artists struggling to make it on their own terms outside the system.
It’s something to consider as I travel along the length of Pulaski back into the restless energy of downtown Athens.