First, Jim Lee bought the materials. He stripped back the sheetrock wall. He pulled out the insulation batts to find brick underneath. He tore up the disposable floor, sanded, and stained planks of wood to perfection. He put in flooring, then a skylight, then track lighting, then arranged 27 art pieces around the space.
And he did all of it in a gallery 1/12 of a normal size.
Lee’s exhibition, named upstART Gallery, is currently being hosted by Durham’s Pop Box Gallery through Saturday, July 1, at 304 South Driver Street.
“In being mobile and being able to pop up in multiple locations, we are engaging different communities,” Ritchie says. “We’re hoping that we are highlighting the artistic talent and creative communities that already exist in the communities in which we locate, and helping to nurture and grow that artistic community in each location.”
As the namesake suggests, the project got its start in a box: Last year, Boxyard RTP offered a grant for new businesses to lease their storage containers, and Gragg and Ritchie jumped on the opportunity, hosting over 40 exhibits from local artists like William Paul Thomas, Saba Taj, Derrick Beasley, Zaire McPhearson, and Catherine Edgerton. Local curator Gail Belvett gave slow art tours of these exhibits, offering viewers the chance to connect with the art without feeling rushed.
After that three-month residency, Ritchie and Gragg, alongside Belvett, began looking for their next temporary home. They found it in Old East Durham, where they’ve hosted three exhibits over the 10-week lease: a community art show focused on the relationships between the BIPOC community and nature; Kennedi Carter’s one-week photography exhibit portraying vintage pinup photos of Black women; and Lee’s upstART Gallery.
UpstART Gallery is a project two and a half years in the making. The carefully constructed wooden box—a 48×24 floor plan, with 14-inch walls and a 6-inch roof structure—holds miniature art from 27 local artists. The art pieces inside the gallery, ranging from a tapestry the size of a fingernail to mosaics made from bits of eggshell, are all for sale, as is the gallery itself.
“I’d like someone to walk out of here with the gallery,” Lee says. “Give it a home.”
The art inside the mini-gallery ranges across styles and mediums, but the narrative that inspired upstART—which is displayed across the left wall of Pop Box—has remained constant in Lee’s mind even before he began construction.
As the narrative details, Lee grew up in Durham exploring construction sites with his best friend, Gene Turner. The two boys loved adventure; Lee was always finding creative ways to put scavenged materials together. When he began construction on upstART, the story of Ahmaud Arbery—a young Black man who was killed for poking around a construction site, just as he used to—was woven throughout.
“That could have been me,” Lee says. “I still like construction sites, but I don’t go in them anymore, for safety reasons.”
Over the last two and a half years, his Durham home became his own construction site. At 83, Lee has a litany of careers behind him: linguist, journalist, farmer, professor, and throughout it all, self-taught artist. He’s done exhibitions of photography, 3-D objects made of found material, and audio art.
Lee likes to put artistic constraints on himself. In past projects, those constraints have been around content or subject matter, but upstART was the first time he’s limited himself by scale. It was also a first for many of the 27 artists who responded to Jim’s community call for 1:12-sized art.
To create the miniature gallery, Jim bought tools and materials with a $1,000 grant from the Awesome Foundation of Raleigh alongside contributions he’d received from friends along the way.
The construction progress photos accompanying Lee’s narrative, which are displayed at the gallery and on his social media, are so convincing that some of his close friends who have glimpsed the photos don’t even know that the gallery isn’t life-sized. Those who are aware of the gallery’s miniature nature have kept quiet, reveling in the illusion’s power to dumbfound and delight.
Pop Box, meanwhile, is going on hiatus as its founders pursue other opportunities this year: Gragg has a fellowship in Cambridge; Ritchie is working on opening a new creative space in Durham, alongside her wife, Shirlette Ammons; and Belvett is working at the Nasher and carrying Pop Box’s collaborations on until it’s time for the project to pop up again.
Lee and the contributing upstART artists will be popping back up in the Durham arts scene too, though perhaps without the size constraints of this project.
“I hope people will understand how deeply personal and political the work is but also appreciate what it took for the contributing artists to really shift gears,” Lee says. “Most of these people do much larger work—they took this on as a challenge, had fun, shifted gears, and just showed up.”
He hopes visitors will do the same. Have fun, shift gears, show up—and maybe even buy the next tiny “Mona Lisa” along the way.
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