The idea was to get people to write short messages with a black marker on white ribbons based on the theme of "What Ties Me To You," and then tie those ribbons across bamboo poles. As Atlanta residents began flocking to the trail, they started leaving messages such as "I Love A Sunny Day" and "Smiles Take Less Energy Than Frowns." By mid-November, there were more than 1,000 messages flapping in the wind.
"At first I was worried that not enough traffic would go out on the trail to use my piece," Cates said in a recent phone interview. "I've been proved very wrong."
Cates is one of a number of artists who've contributed to the new Eastside Trail, a 2.25-mile-long paved walking and cycling trail that's the newest segment of the BeltLine project, which seeks to transform an old railroad corridor into trails, parks and other public uses. Atlanta BeltLine Inc. and its partners have invested more than $1.3 million in public art, including 16 permanent pieces in three parks and along the BeltLine, according to the group's 2011 annual report.
The projects on the Eastside Trail range from permanent art works to temporary ones such as Cates'. Passers-by can also find dentist Alex Rodriguez' "Whirling Wheels," which consists of poles anchoring small windmills made of bicycle parts. The work is designed to show the "ease and mobility and the freedom of movement the bicycle provides to the people of all ages along the Atlanta BeltLine," a printed description reads.
Other works include "Fantasia"-like murals painted under some overpasses; two full deer sculptures made of bent steel lines, showing how they might react if seen in the wild; a steel sculpture of a northern white rhinoceros near Inman Park; a colorful set of linked benches called "River Bend"; and hanging strings of beads designed to make the top of one overpass look like a "floating sea of diamonds" as in a ballroom.
Cates, a costume designer at The Galloway School Theater Company, said she got the idea of "What Ties Me To You" from her 20th wedding anniversary.
"I started to really think about all of the things that tie the two of us together, and the idea blossomed," she said.
In September, she set up a table where people could use black markers to write messages on white ribbon, which could then be stretched across bamboo poles. The display also includes a Tibetan prayer wheel.
Cates said she and her husband penned the first messages, and that as they were loading up her cart, three BeltLine construction workers "wrote a ribbon and put one up." Others quickly caught on, and soon the white ribbons were filling the spaces between the bamboo poles.
"It's invigorating," she said. "It's also a relief to know they got it."
On a recent sunny autumn day, Cates tends to the display as people come by and write concise messages.
"Some people will write something very inspiring and beautiful," she said. "Other people will write swear words and profanity and all sorts of things." She said she took down only two profane messages she thought would be offensive.
Cates goes by to restock the ribbon supply on occasion, and was touched when a neighbor said she'd been checking on the black markers on her own, too.
"It's really neat to see what I envisioned in my mind come to life," she said. "Now it's so full. It's very, very rewarding in different ways to see how the public has stepped in and owned it too."
But these messages will vanish when the project comes down in late December.
Cates said she contemplated what to do with the ribbons, and felt "the words are not mine to keep — the wishes and thoughts and prayers for others."
So, she said in an email Friday, she plans to do a final count of the ribbons and then "burn them to release the inscriptions and messages to the wind."