DURHAM — Stacy L. Kirby, professionally attired in a white shirt, tie and suit jacket and seated behind a desk crowded with papers, ink stamps and a manual typewriter, gave everyone who walked in the door of her small office a warm smile.
"Hello, come on in," she welcomed newcomers. "If you'll just take a seat and fill out one of these forms, we'll get you processed right away."
She handed each visitor a small clipboard with a form on it. The instructions asked each person to list the personal belongings he or she brought into the office - and by "personal belongings" Kirby meant anything from the contents of one's pockets or purse to emotional baggage left over from childhood.
The first tipoff that Kirby's cluttered office might not be quite what it seemed was its location, in one of the two big display windows fronting the former Bargain Furniture Building on East Chapel Hill Street in Durham.
For despite the filing cabinets, carbon paper and wall calendars, this was no ordinary paper-shuffling bureaucratic outpost. It was, instead, "The Declaration Project," an interactive work of performance art and one of the 14 art installations in a new initiative designed to bring new life to vacant (and a few not-so-vacant) storefronts downtown.
The Durham Storefront Project will remain in place until Jan. 2. It features an array of artistic styles and visions by a host of local artists in display windows and other storefront spaces.
"About a year ago Chris Chinchar, the co-organizer, and I were talking about the number of empty storefronts in downtown Durham," said organizer Jessica Moore. "It occurred to us that this might be a pretty simple way to activate some of those under-utilized spaces, to add some vibrancy and interest to the area and help get more people walking around downtown.
"We sent out a call to artists and had a meeting to talk about the possibilities. Everybody jumped right on it."
The participating artists walked through downtown and identified storefronts - most, but not all, vacant - they wanted to work on. The project's organizers contacted the building owners or managers to obtain permission and work out the details, and the artists set to work.
"I love downtown Durham, and I loved the idea of this project," said Renee Leverty, who collaborated with another artist, Jackie MacLeod. "I wanted to do something inspirational and beautiful and be a part of something that brings the community together.
"You can see how much Durham has changed, and even in places that are abandoned there's still beauty. Art can bring that out."
Activity old and new
Leverty and MacLeod selected a window space at 104 W. Parrish St., where a new bakery, Loaf, was preparing to open. The artists happened upon a photograph from 1953 that showed hundreds of people in a line stretching around the corner, waiting to get in the door at their installation spot. It wasn't a bakery then, and the people were there to pay automobile fines.
"We don't know why there were so many there on that day, but we thought, wouldn't it be neat to try to bring the historical story forward," Leverty said. "So we cut silhouettes out of steel in shapes of people, and a dog, and created a sort of line of people in silhouette in the window front."
Across the street, at 111 W. Parrish St., artist Julia Gartell has created an installation that uses the plywood of the boarded-up storefront as its base. She has added found objects, old shutters and other materials to transform a simple barrier into an interactive work of art.
Around the corner at 111 Orange St., 72 paper cutout snowflakes hang suspended in the window of Scratch Bakery in a piece by Catherine Howard called "Sweet/Silent." Each snowflake bears a sketch reflecting ideas of home, family and food.
Opposite Kirby's Declarations Office in the former Bargain Furniture Building is a piece by Cici Stevens that plays upon the nature of the business that once dwelled there. The display window that once showcased furnishings and home decor now contains another kind of home, a gathering of found birds' nests that, like the furniture store, stand empty.
Meg Stein has filled a window in the Teermark Building on West Main Street with a delicate installation called "Flight," which consists of some 3,000 toothpicks, each hanging from a separate length of fishing line. The mass of tiny objects brings to mind a flock of birds, a school of fish, or falling leaves.
"I was interested in the way that massive quantities of these very simple, everyday and often overlooked objects can reveal compelling and subtle distinctions and can create a sense of awe for the viewer," Stein said.
The lightness of her piece contrasts with the massive solidity of the Teermark Building in which it stands.
"I'm a big fan of presenting art in everyday and unexpected locations," Stein said. "And I'm excited about the DSP and excited to see what folks come up with. It's great also that the DSP will fill all these unused spaces downtown - and that it will fill them with art."