Ellen Cassilly and Frank Konhaus, leaders of Durham's spectacular Rousse Project | Indies Arts Awards | Indy Week
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Ellen Cassilly and Frank Konhaus, leaders of Durham's spectacular Rousse Project 

People-powered modern art

Ellen Cassilly and Frank Konhaus in front of a Rousse creation in the Chesterfield building of Liggett & Myers in Durham

Photo by Derek Anderson

Ellen Cassilly and Frank Konhaus in front of a Rousse creation in the Chesterfield building of Liggett & Myers in Durham

"It really started out quite innocently," Frank Konhaus explains. "Ellen and I said, 'Wouldn't it be cool to bring Georges Rousse here?'"

On another day, it could have just been idle talk—but they decided, why not try? By the time it was over Konhaus, a business owner and photography connoisseur, and his wife, architect Ellen Cassilly, had brought the French artist to Durham, raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay for it, mobilized a small army of local volunteers and, possibly, changed the way people in the Triangle think about public art.

The French photographer-artist Georges Rousse, as anyone who visited his installations in the warehouses in downtown Durham last September knows, creates massive trompe l'oeil structures that, when viewed from a single vantage point, give the appearance of an ethereal geometric shape floating eerily in space. His preferred canvas for these massive creations are architectural spaces of urban and industrial decline, almost exclusively buildings that are about to be torn down or renovated—which, as Cassilly wryly says, made downtown Durham a perfect fit.

Rousse first came to Durham in March 2006, staying for only a single whirlwind weekend in which the three visited potential installation sites. That Sunday Konhaus and Cassilly held their first fundraiser. "We didn't feel right asking people to donate money until we thought he was really going to do it," Cassilly says. They invited 40 people to a Sunday night meeting to explain what the project was about and then hit them up for thousand-dollar donations. They raised $7,000 that first night.

It was very clear early on that the enthusiasm this project generated was dangerously infectious. Volunteer groups around the project seemed to form spontaneously, sometimes without Konhaus and Cassilly's knowledge, including an educational outreach committee and docent groups to lead tours through the installation. Although Rousse speaks English, he was much more comfortable in French—and sure enough, Cassilly tells me, fluent French speakers soon "came out of the woodwork," including a master carpenter from Belgium who (like so many others involved with the project) thought he might be able to work one day on the project and wound up taking the entire week off to help.

"We had almost 200 volunteers," Konhaus says, still amazed after nearly a year. "We had all of the food for the volunteers donated by local restaurants. We had very active volunteers—a fabulous volunteer coordinator, Charlene Reiss, who basically worked full-time for three weeks for nothing" while pregnant and trying to finish her Ph.D. dissertation. "Somebody donated a car, somebody else donated an apartment for the artist—the community just completely opened their heart. All the tools, ladders, lifts, anything, all came through donations. Even some of the paint was donated by the local paint store."

Cassilly, too, has trouble making sense of the way this project took hold of the community: "I think it really lit a flame. It sparked something."

The result was a smash success on a shoestring budget (approximately $45,000, as compared to the $2.5 million budgeted for Raleigh's notoriously failed Jaume Plensa project), nearly all of it from private donations rather than from traditional arts organizations or governmental bodies.

Even the artist was shocked by the outpouring of community interest and involving. The Durham "Warehouse Interventions" was the first time Rousse had ever allowed the public to see the installations themselves rather than the finished project, and he's since told Konhaus and Cassilly that his trip to North Carolina represents a "sea change" in the way he approaches his work.

The accessibility of Rousse's work surely contributed to the outpouring of community interest, both in the volunteer-led building of the installations and in the large crowds that came downtown to see them. "When you say 'modern art,' most people are going to roll their eyes," Cassilly says. "Part of the appeal [of Rousse's work] is that the art can be appreciated on so many different levels—you can admire the nice colors and the trompe l'oeil, or you can start thinking about things like the perspective used in 17th-century painting."

Although the work is intended to be ephemeral rather than a permanent piece of public art—thereby escaping some of the usual debate surrounding publicly funded art and tired refrains about "wasted" tax dollars—there does exist a permanent record of the event, a documentary about the installation being put together by filmmakers Kenny Dalsheimer and Penelope Maunsell, entitled Bending Time, Capturing Space. The film is nearly finished, with a world premiere tentatively planned for sometime this fall at the Carolina Theatre. Rousse has already requested that the European premiere of the film coincide with a major museum show he is holding in Paris in 2008, which will almost certainly feature several of the finished Durham prints as well.

In some ways these installations demand to be filmed rather than photographed—film alone of all mediums can replicate the experience of being at the installation in September, approaching the "sweet spot" vantage point and seeing the illusion burst into focus. In early footage I've seen, the films does exactly this; in one scene, as the camera glides backward down white stairs in one Durham warehouse, the pieces of a blue cube seem to fly into place across the screen, until suddenly it's before you, as if it had been there the entire time. It's a remarkable visual experience.

Although the installation has been closed since the fall and the Rousse creations are starting to disappear to bulldozers, redevelopment and the elements, the work for the Rousse Project is not over. Last month Konhaus and Cassilly spent several hours manning a booth at the Durham Rising festival in an effort to raise additional funds for the completion of the film, which will likely cost as much or more than the original installation itself. Originally the filmmakers, like so many of the volunteers, were willing to make the film without the safety net of guaranteed funding, simply out of a feeling that "this must be documented"—but after the Rousse Project received a $10,000 donation from Alliance Architecture and Rigsbee Partners, Konhaus and Cassilly were able to commit to funding the film as well. (They still hope to raise an additional $15,000 to $20,000 for costs related to postproduction, travel and festival fees.)

Konhaus and Cassilly also hope for an eventual showing of the finished photographs from last fall somewhere at a museum within Durham or the Triangle, once Rousse has finished them, though nothing like that has yet been planned.

More than anything else, "Warehouse Interventions" has exposed an untapped vein of community enthusiasm and activism in the arts, not merely in Durham but potentially in every city, and it's the possibility of other spontaneous, grassroots projects like this one that Konhaus thinks will stand as the project's biggest achievement. "People will take risks again, because this was a good experience, and they've seen real benefits," he says. "It's very easy to find reasons to say no—now they have a reason to say yes."

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