By Kent Kimes / Sr. Staff Writer
On Monday when Gregory Johnson retired for the evening, he slept straight through the night for the first time in a year.
That’s because a 10,000-pound weight had figuratively been lifted from his shoulders earlier in the day.
Installed Sunday and Monday on the Georgia World Congress Center’s East Plaza, Johnson’s sleek stainless steel 28-foot-tall, 5-ton Modern Peach sculpture commemorating the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game was officially unveiled today during a ceremony and champagne toast attended by officials from the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Florida State University, University of Alabama, Georgia Tech, University of Tennessee, Chick-fil-A, College Football Playoff, ESPN, Lions Club and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority (GWCCA).
Peach Bowl Inc. commissioned Cumming-based artist Johnson to create the piece and the organization donated the sculpture to the GWCCA campus, where 25 Peach Bowls and 11 Kickoff Games have been played.
Johnson, who has created more than 1,000 sculptures that are displayed across the globe, including 17 in Georgia, spent two years working on the Modern Peach, from planning and design work to fabrication and installation. The last eight months were particularly intense as he and his team spent six days a week working on the project. “It has been an amazing journey. I have an amazing team that I have the privilege to work with,” Johnson told the crowd that gathered today on East Plaza.
Johnson’s other public installations include modern works at Avalon in Alpharetta and a 25-foot piece in Braselton entitled Asclepius, named after the Greek deity of health and well-being.
But the Modern Peach is his largest and most complicated. “About 175 artisans, engineers and people have touched this peach so that we could design it, create it, build it, and install it,” said Johnson.
Peach Bowl Inc. executives wanted the sculpture in place prior to Saturday’s first Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium to jumpstart the 50th anniversary of the Peach Bowl, which shifts from the Georgia Dome to the new state-of-the-art stadium on Jan. 1.
“We decided to donate the peach art to the GWCCA campus since it is on the walking path for our Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games and Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl,” said Gary P. Stokan, President and CEO of Peach Bowl, Inc. “It’s also next to the College Football Hall of Fame – which we led the relocation of and construction on the GWCCA site – and it will be seen by millions of people who will attend events at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Philips Arena and the Georgia World Congress Center over the years.”
Peach Bowl Inc. was kicking around ideas “as to how we could commemorate our 50th Anniversary Golden Season in 2017,” said Stokan, when legendary former University of Georgia football coach Vince Dooley approached them with an offer to meet Johnson. Dooley, who is a member of the Peach Bowl Hall of Fame, had commissioned two traditional bronze works by Johnson, and the coach was supportive of the artist’s vision to create and site his monumental peach in Atlanta.
After its installation on Monday, the enormous sculpture a few steps from Andrew Young International Blvd. was shrouded in black all week leading up to today’s unveiling, drawing various crowds of curious onlookers.
In this age of selfies and social media, the Modern Peach was designed with photo ops in mind, with an inset step built into the base where people can stand and/or pose, with the iconic symbol of the Peach State and the GWCC as the backdrop.
“My hopes are that it brings joy and a smile to everyone who sees it,” said Johnson. “I like looking up…that is inspirational. This is a metaphor to looking up spiritually towards God, towards peace and hope and positive mentalities.”