When Dave Alsobrooks tried to figure out how to balance his passions for marketing and the fine arts, his business partner told him that rather than trying to segment the two parts of his life, he'd do well to find ways to interleave them.
"'You're an artist who does design, I'm a designer who does art,'" Alsobrooks said in recalling the conversation. "I'd always compartmentalized my work in design and fine art, and fine art was always an escape from the other. He helped me understand that letting those overlap would be a good thing."
Which helps explains why Alsobrooks, who with Dan Carlton heads up downtown marketing and brand management firm The Paragraph Project, has made time to be an artist-in-residence at Golden Belt concurrently with his day-job, and why he plans to continue renting a studio there to hone his art.
And in planning the "New Neighbors" project, which opens this Thursday as a public-art installation of sorts in East Durham, Alsobrooks similarly found opportunities to overlap varying interests and passions.
The exhibit is about creating art, but it's also about creating an opportunity to bring both funding and attention to non-profits and causes doing good work in the community. And it's a project that's fundamentally about both preservation and renewal -- highlighting the under-occupied historic homes in East Durham, with a hope of inspiring the people who live in those neighborhoods today as well as those who might move in.
Durham's eastern neighborhoods have gotten a significant amount of attention in recent years, thanks to the works of a range of groups: from neighborhood groups like Uplift East Durham and newly-formed neighborhood associations in Cleveland-Holloway and the Golden Belt area, to the transformative nature of the Golden Belt arts development itself, to municipal efforts like Eastway Village and Hope VI housing, to affordable housing work by local and national non-profits.
At the same time, Preservation North Carolina and Preservation Durham have been encouraging ongoing investment in the area through Project RED (Revitalizing East Durham), with PNC's web site stating the non-profits expect to spend at least $1.2 million acquiring and rehabbing historic homes in the area and seeking new buyers for them.
Their site lists a half-dozen or so properties available for sale, many for less than you'd pay for a mid-market new car; among them, the old Y.E. Smith school pictured above in Alsobrooks' initial mock-up.
But today, these properties are largely empty of people, of life.
And that's where Alsobrooks comes in.
His exhibition highlights the vacancy of today's structures while imagining them having new life underway. As his web site notes:
It’s a community outreach and arts initiative rolled into one local project. Vacant buildings and homes share one thing in common: empty (or boarded) windows. What if we could visualize New Neighbors living their lives in abandoned properties? Fleeting glimpses of them going about their day. Not in a particularly voyeuristic way, but in a I-feel-good-knowing-someone-has-moved-in-next-door kind of way. This is precisely what the New Neighbors project will create. Empty and boarded windows on the front facades of vacant will be filled with bold color and illustrations of potential occupants living their lives in all their mundane glory. The models are real Durham residents from all over the city.
Starting yesterday, Alsobrooks began, in fact, "boarding up" the windows of the Y.E. Smith school and neighborhood houses with his artwork, even as the proceeds from the artwork's eventual sale -- a future Durham Art Council auction is planned, with proceeds benefitting Project RED and other preservation efforts -- will serve to draw in new life.
Alsobrooks noted that the project was interesting to him from an aesthetic point of view, and also provided a nice match for the community outreach/project component associated with his recent stint as an artist-in-residence at the Golden Belt complex.
But Alsobrooks' interest in preservation also emanates in some ways from his work at Paragraph.
Their offices are on Gregson St. in space shared with Trinity Design/Build, an old retail center that was LEED-certified at a Platinum level. Alsobrooks said that experience has gotten him "indoctrinated on the preservation movement," saying North Carolina was far ahead of other states in terms of support for preservation, from tax credits to resources.
He noted that former Trinity Design/Build partner Aaron Lubeck pointed him to the Y.E. Smith school, which will be an anchor site for tomorrow's twilight tour.
Alsobrooks described Golden Belt as the "bridge" between his work life in a rehabbed building on Gregson and the open possibilities in East Durham. In the former, old abandoned buildings have become offices, residences and retail; in the latter, beautiful buildings like Smith and older houses for mill workers and managers sit abandoned, seeking the new life Alsobrooks envisions in the windows. And in between sits Golden Belt, itself recently reclaimed and still the most significant revitalization effort east of downtown.
The artist is quick to point out that he is "thankful that all of these areas are all in one place."
"I've been in too many places where there isn't variety" in neighborhoods and economics, Alsobrooks said. "I'm not a fan of coming in and changing one area to be like another; that's not where I see this project going. I want people to see possibilities of places, not wholesale change."
"The diversity of Durham, that's a big appeal to me," he continued. "To me, that's an ideal situation."
One thing that will change: the paintings themselves.
They'll stay in the windows of the selected buildings for a while, and as outside-mounted art, they'll be touched by the effects of nature, animals and the like.
"I don't consider them finished until they've been in the weather for four to six weeks, and live in that neighborhood for that amount of time. And then I can say they are done," Alsobrooks said. "The notion is, to be a neighbor, you have to live somewhere."
Those who come out for the opening-night tour of Alsobrooks' work will have a chance to briefly imagine themselves living in the neighborhood, too.
Docents from Uplift East Durham will give area tours, while staff from preservation non-profits will explain how the economics of renovation (including tax credits) work.
Meanwhile, food trucks from OnlyBurger, Farmhand Foods and Daisy Cakes will be on hand, and there'll be book and food drives running concurrently with the twilight tour.
The tour starts at the former Y.E. Smith School at 107 S. Driver St., a massive, now-vacant structure where the largest single installation will be staged.
But like everything in East Durham, that may change soon. Preservation NC's web site says the 45,000 sq. ft. early 20th century building is under contract.
Perhaps there'll be some organic new neighbors there soon?