Bits and Pieces of Durham, and Life, as Art
Before the pandemic shut everything down, visiting artist John Felix Arnold was working with students to create a conceptual portrait of Durham—his hometown—in the Ruby.
John Felix Arnold was the last resident artist in the Ruby’s painting studio before the pandemic. Wanting to bring art to a corner of the building that hadn’t been activated yet, Bill Fick, the Ruby’s assistant director for visual and studio arts, asked Arnold to create an installation in the entrance area by WXDU and to involve students in Fick’s drawing class in the process.
For Arnold, who was born and raised in Durham, the project became a meditation on his hometown intensified by his mother’s health crisis—until the work was cut short by everybody’s health crisis. He’ll be back to finish up when such things become possible again, and an exhibition of his work is slated for March 2021 at Anchorlight gallery in Raleigh.
What follows are Arnold’s thoughts about working in the Rubenstein Arts Center before his residency was cut short by COVID-19.
Childhood in Durham, Turn of the Century
“My focus during my residency in the Ruby was to create a conceptual portrait of Durham as I’ve seen and experience it that uses actual materials from the area.
I was born in Durham Regional Hospital in January of 1980 and grew up in East Forest Hills, riding bikes and catching lightning bugs and soaking in all the ambience of Durham in the ‘80s—the ghost-town vibe of downtown, 99-cent movies on University Drive, midnight gunshots and sirens. My parents, Jennifer Potts and Jack Arnold, were both dancers from the South who got married in the late ‘70s and decided that Durham was the place to be. They split when I was about two. My mom stayed in town and became a founder of the Ballet School of Chapel Hill. Dad left to do graduate studies in dance and join Pilobolus Dance Theater, but then ended up back in Durham. He was on the board of American Dance Festival, so I’d be at the festival in the summer dancing around with Chuck Davis and the African-American dance ensemble.
I started going to the Durham Arts Council for art classes at around age seven or eight and continued off and on until I left for college. I still appreciate how they didn’t try to make us do one thing one way and had us switch gears between realistic and abstract work. Those classes helped me develop not only technical skill but critical thinking skills.
One of my first teachers there, Rodney Berry, really helped open a path for me into art. I remember getting put in time out in first grade because the teacher told us to make a self-portrait without embellishing anything and I drew myself as a vampire with teeth and blood. Mr. Berry would come to class with a stack of comic books, and whatever was on his lesson plan, it was always okay with him if we drew comics. I still like working with comic book imagery because it’s a shared mythology that combines collective cultural memories with very personal associations and experiences.”
Bringing Students into the Process
“Part of my plan for the installation was to incorporate a lot of historical, geographical imagery and I thought that would be a great focus for my work with the students. I wanted to come to the class sessions armed with a lot of different options for them. So, one day I was in a fabric store and saw these plastic flowers and thought they were the kind of things I would like to draw if I was in a drawing class.
One thing that sets Durham apart in my memories is its place on the boundary of the urban and the natural. Nature is lush and vivid all over the South, there’s almost a creepiness to the way it weaves itself into the human-made world. That’s another reason I brought plants to draw.
I also had pieces of wallpaper that are probably 80 or 100 years old and hand-painted. They’re from a house in Old West Durham that was being gutted. I thought it would be a great project for the students to draw natural elements on the wallpaper, which I could then paste into the piece, thus visualizing the way nature consumes the things we build.
The students were a lot of fun to work with, and some were really skilled at drawing. There was a woman from Duke’s MFA EDA program in the group, Moriah LeFebvre, who’s doing very cool work following Durham’s evolving landscape as her kids and other kids around town are growing up within it. That was a great connection to make.”
An Installation Comes to Life
“That entrance in the Ruby is the most challenging space I’ve ever done an installation piece for, which is great! The overhang is a huge mass that makes the dynamics and balance in the space really tricky to work with. I’m honored that Bill thought I was up for the challenge. The breakthrough was when I realized that I could create a section that spills out and around the overhang. Then the piece came alive, like an organism that’s growing and evolving and just had a growth spurt.
Most of the boards came from a big wood pile in a shed way out in Orange County. It’s old barn siding and things like that gathered from all around the Triangle. I mixed in some boards I bought at Home Depot, because the corporate presence is very much a part of Durham’s modern mythology.
It was all coming together during spring break, and since the installation is right by WXDU, someone at the station was trying to set up an interview. I remember we finally got it scheduled and then the pandemic bombshell hit, and all that was over.
The piece is definitely not finished but it’s at a point where I felt fine stepping away. I found a form that envisions the place I’m from, and honors it, using artifacts of the place shaped into something like an organism moving through time and space. I still want to figure out how to incorporate some of the pieces of wallpaper and drawings and whatnot, but the final product is going to be more subtle and refined than I originally envisioned, and less cluttered.”
Art as Catharsis
“When I got to the residency, I was going through some really hard stuff with my mom, who has Alzheimer’s. We had to put her in a memory care facility. I was having these freight-ship sized realizations, that the home I grew up in was never going to be the same, the person who’s been the bedrock of my whole life was never going to be the same. It was that cinematic moment when everything has to burn down for you to be able to see a new sunrise.
Into Awakening is a direct representation of what I was going through. It started as a different painting, meant to be part of a series I was working on before I got to Durham. As overwhelming emotions started pouring through me, it became a cathartic process of action painting.
The wispy, shadowy figures are a visual metaphor for time that I’ve been using in a lot of recent work. It comes from watching leaves fall from trees in the autumn and also from a lifetime of looking at the way certain Manga artists draw flowing hair. The way the shapes morph and undulate as they move through the picture plane represents the way time is always moving, everything is passing, nothing is forever. I put them at the bottom as a kind of emotional foundation because they’re very comforting to me.
I started collecting sticks from the woods all over Durham. I’ve been looking into the tribal culture and spiritual practices of my pre-Roman, pre-Christian ancestors in Europe, who would collect bundles of sticks that could be burned to release spirits. For me, the bundles are a way to package all the formative memories of the place I was born and the people and things that connect me to it. And it was beautiful and healing to just walk around Durham collecting sticks, reconnecting with the East Coast color palette at the end of winter, which felt ancient and melancholic after so many years on the West Coast.
I feel really fortunate that my relationship with art has always been a true means of expression, a way for me to process my perceptions of things and my existence in the world. Making art during those hard times last winter in Durham was a lifeline for me.”