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There is a room in Durham that tells you much of what you need to know about the Bull City's past.

Georges Rousse shows Durham the big picture 

The past meets the future when a French artist comes to town

There is a room in Durham that tells you much of what you need to know about the Bull City's past. It's located in the Chesterfield building of the vacant Liggett & Myers cigarette factory on West Main Street. Deep inside the first floor, there is a conference room of the kind you know from movies that were made in the 1940s. The soundproofed walls are oak, and there's a table that's more than 20 feet long. A pull-down screen is at one end of the room. On one wall is a giant painting of the Liggett & Myers building as it must have looked in the mid-20th century, and as if this image were an actual view out the window, there are drapes on either side that can be drawn to cover it. On the table is an ashtray, still containing cigarette butts.

This room is the seat of power, the archetypal room where the executives must have met and discussed quarterly profits and how to keep expanding the market for their Chesterfield cigarettes (celebrity endorsers: Fred Astaire, Perry Como, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Kirk Douglas, Joan Fontaine, Glenn Ford, Arthur Godfrey, Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Bob Hope, Alan Ladd, Peggy Lee, Fred McMurray, Stan Musial, Maureen O'Hara, Gregory Peck, Tyrone Power, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Stanwyck, Ed Sullivan and Ted Williams).

This was Durham, as it existed for much of the 20th century, when tobacco was king. But that was another century, and a smoky one it was.

Sometime in the 1970s, Durham began to resemble the unfortunate locale of a Bruce Springsteen song, a hometown full of vacant stores and a troubled racial climate. It was three decades ago that a young Pennsylvanian named Frank Konhaus matriculated at Duke and subsequently remained to become a Durhamite. At Duke, Konhaus studied chemistry, a pursuit he would abandon in favor of becoming a self-taught audio and visual engineer and founder of Kontek Systems.

"When I came here, downtown was a ghost town, which it was until about five years ago," says Konhaus, who ended his tenure at Kontek on Aug. 1. "There were a lot of false starts—'This'll put us over the edge. This'll put us over the edge.' But now I think there's a critical mass."

Konhaus and his wife, downtown architect Ellen Cassilly, are responsible for instigating a phenomenally successful community art happening known as the Warehouse Interventions that has drawn out extraordinary reserves of energy and creativity from Durham residents who have participated.

Not even a year ago, Konhaus, an avid collector of fine art photography, hit on the idea of bringing to town Georges Rousse, who specializes in trompe l'oeil compositions using geometric shapes and post-industrial decay. A series of community meetings followed, a letter was written (nous sommes ventilateurs, the computer-translated epistle went, before the French-speaking Cassilly corrected it to the vernacular to make it mean "we are fans"), and Georges Rousse, the globetrotting French artist whose work is sold in galleries alongside such art superstars as Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz, agreed to come to Durham to ply his trade for 23 days.

At this moment, Konhaus and I are watching Rousse at work in the Chesterfield cafeteria, a place where time has stopped, like in a Twilight Zone episode where all the people have vanished, leaving behind interior spaces made naked by their absence. Even the clock on the wall is frozen at 25 minutes and 12 seconds past 10. Aided by four carpenters and a high school girl armed with high school French, Rousse is hard at work, just a few steps away from that crazy film noir conference room.

Rousse himself is a dynamo, ceaselessly courteous, yet uncomfortable with his actually serviceable English. He's a small, energetic man who dresses daily in the same uniform of a black Izod shirt and black jeans, and he's in fine physical condition, owing to the 10 km he runs most mornings (in Durham, he jogs the American Tobacco Trail) and his frequent trekking vacations in Nepal. Although Rousse is a Parisian, his annual schedule of 30 projects keeps him in constant motion. Prior to his September residency in Durham, he was in Spain and Luxembourg. After Durham he will travel to New York, Paris, Spain and then on to São Paulo, Brazil. He is accompanied on this trip by his wife and business manager Anne-Marie, who is beautiful and elegant in the way that only French women can be. While she snaps pictures with her ever-present digital camera, Rousse struggles in good humor with the most difficult challenge of his Durham stay.

The project at hand is an anamorphic shape, Konhaus tells me. (One of the carpenters calls it a "twisted tunnel.") At any rate, it's an architecturally impossible structure of ripped two-by-fours stretched and contorted at odd angles and sheathed with sheets of thin plywood, painted blue. But when photographed from a single, precise vantage point, as Rousse will do, it will appear to be a blue square floating amid the drab furnishings of a North Carolina warehouse.

The last time a French artist came to Durham to work, it was a filmmaker who wanted to document the trial of a wealthy citizen accused of murdering his wife. But the French artist currently toiling in Durham's unused industrial spaces is uninterested in this city's current cause célèbre, that murky incident last March that prompted national television coverage and feature stories in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone.

Unnoticed in the uproar of last March, Rousse made his first visit to the area, and Cassilly and Konhaus showed him a dozen potential sites around downtown Durham. He settled on four, and Cassilly and Konhaus began raising money for the venture. Their friends, neighbors and fellow supporters of downtown culture quickly ponied up a sum that now exceeds $41,000. The fee Rousse required was actually quite modest at 5,000 euros ($6,678), but, as Cassilly points out, since Rousse's artwork depends on gaining access to a diverse array of dying architectural spaces, it makes little sense to restrict the ability of communities to hire him.

The bulk of Rousse's income comes from the sale of his photographs. Konhaus tells me that the final product, whatever is depicted, is otherwise unvarying: Each image is reproduced into a series of five prints that measure exactly 120 cm by 165 cm (about 47 by 65 inches). Each print is aluminum-mounted with no Plexiglas face mounting (which is often done to protect the surface of the print). And each print sells for exactly 14,000 euros, which converts to $18,700. At press time, six installations were in various stages of completion at the four sites, which translates into an output that could theoretically exceed $500,000 in value. However, the reality is more modest. According to Cassilly, Rousse rarely sells more than two of a given series. (Those interested in acquiring a Rousse print should contact Konhaus at info@rousseprojectdurham.com.)

For five days I followed the progress of the Warehouse Interventions and found a fascinating spectacle of contemporary art bridging the past and future of Durham. One afternoon last week I visited Walker Stone, a third generation tobacco man who owns one of the project sites, the Liberty Warehouse located between Rigsbee and Foster streets. He sat me down beneath a 128-pound marlin he caught off Mazatlán decades ago and escorted me into a sepia-toned Durham, when downtown was all tobacco everywhere, not only in the obvious old buildings but on nearby lots that now contain a McDonald's, a tire shop and Central Park next door.

Stone's grandfather started in the tobacco business in 1925, and the warehouse was begun in 1938 with the northern half added in 1948. Every year by Labor Day, the farmers would come from a hundred miles around to sell their tobacco—once by horse-drawn buggies and later by mechanized transport—which they would unload along the drive-through ramp inside the warehouse. On auction day, Stone would shadow the buyers from the cigarette companies, occasionally putting in his own bids on behalf of the farmers in order to keep up the prices.

In the manner of a harvest festival, Durham would come alive during this time. "It was an exciting time for families," Stone says. "They would buy clothes for the children, for this was the only paycheck they got all year."

Big purchases also would be made, which is why there were so many furniture stores. One of these old stores is Wade Penny's Bargain Furniture at 309 E. Chapel Hill St., another of the Warehouse Interventions sites. Penny, too, remembers well the clockwork rhythms of the tobacco season that sustained his own family, a process he'd described to me two days earlier as we watched the transformation of his second floor into a ghostly tableau that looked like the set of a film by F.W. Murnau or Jean Cocteau.

That slow, bucolic world of the cigarette economy is gone now, and the Liberty Warehouse—which ended its handling of flue-cured tobacco in 1984—is the only remaining tobacco facility still untouched by redevelopers.

"I saw the writing on the wall, with health issues and taxes taking their toll," Stone says. "I'm of the opinion that it didn't kill everyone. There were a lot of women who smoked pipes who lived to a ripe old age." Spoken like an industry man, but Stone allows that he quit smoking 10 years ago and feels much better.

Stone didn't let his nostalgia for tobacco stop him from reinventing his warehouse. "I wanted to bring in artsy kinds of things. I thought it would help out this area tremendously, and I think it has."

Among his early tenants was the Scrap Exchange, a hugely popular mainstay of the burgeoning Foster Street art scene and an indispensable repository of cast-off goodies. Across the street is a building that was once a bank and then a hardware store; it's now owned and occupied by an architecture firm headed by Ellen Cassilly.

Stone takes me down to the basement of the warehouse to show me Rousse's work. Eleven rows of wood pillars have been painted so a thin, horizontal white rectangle appears to float in the air. Some drywall has been added to complete the effect. Stone regards the fine art in his basement with bemusement. "It's 'art' and 'fashion,'" Walker says with finger quotes, "not art as I know art or have known art." But Stone's professed bafflement is a friendly one—he seems to be enjoying it even if it's not his cup of tea.

Much of old Durham is already gone. In place of the grimy but lucrative trade in nicotine, there are capacious investment properties that are the condos and Jamba Juices of the future. In place of the quiet, old Duke University that Wade Penny attended (Class of 1957 and co-chair of the 50th reunion committee) is the hugely swank research institution built by Sanford and Krzyzewski.

The school has a fancy new museum now, and it was there, at the Nasher Museum of Art last Wednesday, that Georges Rousse wowed an overflow crowd with a PowerPoint survey of his work. After a quick trip through his early work, he displayed his dazzling array of spatial inventions, his ability to turn even the most unpromising disused room into a fantastic, momentary gallery of invention. And he's no airless aesthete—one of his most moving images is a site in Hiroshima that features a pre-nuclear bomb map of the city superimposed on a vacant space. It's an eloquent gesture of restoration and remembrance. Throughout, Rousse's presentation is punctuated by oohs and applause, and the crowd erupts into an ovation when he finishes. A local artist, who is not easily impressed, gives me his four-word review: "Genius comes to Durham."

Along with the new museum, there is new blood being infused into the community. The very first person I met on a Rousse site was a young woman named Audra Ladd, who had moved down from Boston a month ago. Ladd is finishing a master's degree in urban planning at Tufts and has a background in public art and community nonprofits. When she happened upon a newspaper preview of the project while standing in line to open a bank account, she volunteered and was promptly appointed a site captain at the Baldwin Building location at 107 W. Main St. Ladd says that she and her fiancé, a grad student at Duke, "chose Durham particularly because there's so much going on." She envisions that they will remain here. "That was definitely part of our decision, as opposed to Harvard and Cambridge, or Princeton, N. J. The energy is growing here and will continue to grow."

An unavoidable topic everywhere is the Jaume Plensa debacle in Raleigh. There are occasional notes of schadenfreude, as in the snickers—or maybe just chuckles—that greeted Nasher director Kimerly Rorschach's announcement that Plensa will be speaking there next month. On a certain level, the condescension is understandable: Raleigh is the city that nurtured a certain art-hating U.S. senator, and the city whose newspaper recently thought its readers might be offended by the sight of a naked man in a 500-year-old work of public art known as the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (for which it was roundly ridiculed by media-watching sites on the Internet).

But mostly I encountered variations of the nuanced tact expressed by successful public artist Michael Waller, co-creator (with Leah Foushee) of the 14-foot-long bronze bull that now sits outside the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and is headed for a new downtown plaza. He's the facilities manager at Liberty Arts, located in the Liberty Warehouse, but also a down-home native of Kinston and nobody's art snob.

"People from North Carolina have a hard time wrapping their heads around it. It wasn't really well thought out. [Plensa] just kind of threw it out there. I don't think people in Raleigh are not sophisticated—look at the N.C. Museum of Art—but I don't think it was the right project."

But one irony is that one of the proudest know-nothingisms that Jesse Helms represented was suspicion of public funding for the arts, insisting that any art with value would survive in the marketplace. One might say that this is exactly what's happening in Durham. According to volunteer Charlene Reiss, a question often asked by awestruck visitors to the sites is, Who was the sponsoring institution that brought this? "We'd say, 'Your fellow citizens, not people waiting for the government to do something.'"

Reiss, who is credited profusely by Konhaus for her organizational brilliance on the project (her title is "logistics and volunteer czarina" and her accomplishments include finding a French-speaking carpenter to work on the technically challenging Chesterfield Building site), has a particular interest in the issue since she is working on a Ph.D. thesis on nonprofits, advocacy and citizen participation. But however much opponents of lavish public arts spending might be cheered by the Durham experience, Reiss says, "If you leave art to private funding, then art will only go where funding is available. Communities that are struggling are not going to get art."

There's no telling where Rousse's photos from the Durham project will end up, but for many volunteers, that may be beside the point. Over 150 people volunteered, male and female, old and young, arty and not arty, and two local documentary filmmakers, Kenny Dalsheimer and Penelope Maunsell, hope to have an hour-long account of the event completed by spring.

On my way out of the Chesterfield site, while eating a few blocks of chocolate given to me as a parting gift by Rousse (merci beaucoup), I pause in the disused inner sanctum—the executive conference room I'd seen earlier with the hardwood walls and the painted window with real drapes. Now a restaurateur is here, sizing up the room with a couple of companions. He sits in a chair, folds his hands across his chest and does a fair imitation of an executive barking out a command to sell more cigarettes to kids. This guy is opening up a new restaurant across the way in the tobacco warehouse now known as Brightleaf Square, and he's looking for vintage furnishings.

Thus the past of Durham gets chopped up, packed into boxes and shipped to its future. Some of it, however, will first pass through the lens of Georges Rousse.

See for yourself

There are two more opportunities to visit Georges Rousse's Durham installations. Family and Education Day is Saturday, Sept. 23 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. A final celebration is planned Tuesday, Sept. 26 from 5-8 p.m. at the Baldwin Building. All four sites will be open then, too.

The sites:

  • The Baldwin Building, 107 W. Main St.
  • Liberty Warehouse, 500 Foster St.
  • Bargain Furniture, 309 E. Chapel Hill St.
  • Chesterfield Building, 701 W. Main St. (use Main Street entrance near Duke Street)

To learn more about the project and see examples of Rousse's other works, visit www.rousseprojectdurham.com.

  • There is a room in Durham that tells you much of what you need to know about the Bull City's past.

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