Courtesy Callanwolde Fine Arts Center

The year is 1972, the Omni Coliseum opened to host the Atlanta Flames and Hawks, NASA launched the Space Shuttle program and Callanwolde began its next chapter. Today, the community art center serves 12,000+ people annually through art classes, gallery exhibitions, musical performances, summer camps, field trips, venue rentals, and more on its Briarcliff Road grounds.

 So much is happening here on campus every day,” said Andrew Keenan, Executive Director of Callanwolde Fine Arts Center. “People come here for very specific reasons and may not know the full breadth of programming.”

To celebrate their 50th anniversary in 1972 style, Callanwolde invites you to break out your tie-dyes, bell bottoms, and platform shoes on Oct. 2 from 5:30 to 9:30 pm. Tickets are $50 and include heavy hors d’oeuvres, beer and wine by Zest Atlanta Catering, and disco dancing with tunes spun by DJ Ballroom Blitz. The event will also showcase its artists’ talents. Buy tickets at this link.

Pro Prime Movers, Callanwolde’s resident dance company, at its spring event. (Photo by Julian Mejia)

“Our resident dance company, Pro Prime Movers is picking a popular 70s song to perform for the crowd,” Keenan said. “When they perform – it’s jaw-dropping.”

Each of Callanwolde’s three ceramics directors will display several pieces at the event. Rick Berman, the first Ceramics Director (1973-1980), remembers converting the basement duck pin bowling alley into a pottery studio.

“We opened with five-morning wheel classes, five evening wheel classes, and a waiting list,” Berman recalled. “It was a huge success and it’s been like that ever since. We developed a real family there and it just keeps getting better.” 

Candy Caserella, a pottery student since the late 1980s agrees. She recently purchased a Callanwolde Legacy Brick with the inscription “A place of joy.”

 “It’s a fabulous place to create and meet people interested in arts,” Caserella said, emphasizing the reasonably priced, high-quality instruction for beginners on up.

A historic image of the Callanwolde mansion. (Courtesy Callanwolde Fine Arts Center)

 Completed in 1920 as then Coca-Cola Company president Charles Howard Candler’s home, it was named for his ancestor’s “Callan” Irish castle and “wolde” for woods.  In 1959, Mr. Candler’s widow donated the estate to Emory University which later passed it to First Christian Church. The church sold off 16 acres and leased the mansion to establish an art gallery. As the property deteriorated, the church put it up for sale –  including the mansion, carriage house, gardener cottage, two greenhouses, and outbuildings.

 “1972, that’s when DeKalb County took formal ownership of the property,” Keenan said. “They started leasing it in 1971. It took a year to raise the money.”

 The Callanwolde Foundation aided by a matching grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) raised the funds to purchase the estate. Callanwolde operates with DeKalb County as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

 One improvement came from an unusual source.

“We didn’t have classes in the summer for many years… until 1996,” Keenan said. The Italian Olympic Committee rented the mansion for its 1996 Summer Olympics hospitality headquarters and paid its rent in air conditioning installation.

Today, the estate boasts five gas kilns, seven electric kilns, 25 throwing wheels, 12 looms, a Jewelry studio, 3,000 square feet of dance space, and a photography darkroom. Music is piped through the mansion by the original organ’s built-in pipes and ceiling panels. The grounds feature gardens, nature trails, and a 550-seat amphitheater.

While the historic property requires constant upkeep, Callanwolde’s board is prioritizing community engagement and access. Keenan described a four-pronged approach that includes financial aid for students and programming focused on veterans, Title 1 public schools (K-12), and underserved seniors. 

A ceramics class at Callanwolde. (Photo courtesy Callanwolde Fine Arts Center)

 For seven years, Callanwolde has partnered with the local Department of Veterans Affairs to offer weekly painting and drawing classes to veterans.

“Our instructors work with students to find out what really interests them,” Keenan said. “The students are encouraged to talk about their work. It’s amazing to hear them open up – that’s the real therapeutic part.” The VA partnership is expanding to include veterans transitioning out of homelessness.

 Veterans can also access financial aid to take other classes at Callanwolde.

“My lady went to Callanwolde through the VA program,“ Eugene Sparrow said. “One day when I picked her up I saw the jewelry-making class. They give scholarships to disabled people. I’m a disabled vet. I was awarded the scholarship to start the jewelry-making class. I’ve been there five years.”

Sparrow creates chainmail jewelry by bending wire into rings and then weaving the rings together. He plans to sell his necklaces and bracelets at an upcoming Callanwolde artist market. 

 “When I’m creating jewelry – I’m at peace,” Sparrow said. “It’s real comforting on days when my body’s aching. From the ground crew to the director, they treat you as a person. They want you to do well in the classes, but they also want to know you.”

 Callanwolde is taking its instruction off campus to reach Title 1 schools.

 This fall, instructors are teaching ballet and jazz to 4th and 5th graders in an afterschool program at Kelley Lake Elementary School in South DeKalb.

“We are providing proper dance shoes and brought in a Marley Dance Floor and bars,“ Keenan said. “It’s a pilot. We want to finish this first one and then expand.”

 The focus on community engagement inspired donor and artist, Tony Ragunas (, to recently join the board and help raise more funds to make Callanwolde a “city-wide resource”.

Artist Tony Ragunas recently joined the board and is helping Callanwolde with fundraising efforts. (Photo by Mark Alberhasky)

Several years ago, Ragunas took a pottery class at Callanwolde with his teenage daughter. He was impressed by the quality of instruction with “less theory and more doing” and pursued more classes.  

“I actually took my 90-year-old mother with me to do a painting class,” Ragunas said. “She loved it. We have our paintings hanging side by side – hers is probably slightly better than mine.”

Ragunas is being modest. He has honed his pop-art painting style and “paints for charity”.

 “He gives a 100% of the proceeds to nonprofits [including Callanwolde] for everything he sells,” Keenan said.

 “I have a relationship with Ferrari Atlanta,” Ragunas said. “I sold a painting at a charity event they did. The same person who bought that painting bought another for $12,000.”

The next 50 years are ripe with possibility.

“Our future is very bright,” Keenan said. “I’ve been associated with Callanwolde for 20 years [as a student, board member, and executive director].  I’ve never been more optimistic. We have the opportunity to do so much more for the community.”

Clare S. Richie

Clare S. Richie is a freelance writer and public policy specialist based in Atlanta.