Jessina Leonard, a twenty-four-year-old art photographer who lives in Durham, just installed a small but compelling exhibit of her work in the Upfront Gallery at Horse & Buggy Press in the Bull City Arts Collaborative on Foster Street.
After completing her postgraduate studies in art and theology at Duke in 2015, Leonard started working at Chapel Hill art gallery Cassilhaus. That's where she met Horse & Buggy proprietor Dave Wofford, who mounted a two-decade retrospective of his letterpress work there last summer. The exhibit included not only broadsides and posters but also art book collaborations, many with photographers. Leonard was drawn to Horse & Buggy because she has a "similar appreciation for what Dave does with handmade things," she says. "What frustrates me about photography sometimes is how elusive it is, how hard it is to hold in your hand."
Wofford, in turn, encouraged her to display this exhibit, her first in the area, which opens on Friday. Leonard's digital pictures are compositionally cool yet emotionally warm. One shows the impression of a body on a mattress; another plots stray hairs on a graph of bathroom tile. The series was inspired by a Wendell Berry essay, "Faustian Economics," and American exceptionalism and overconsumption in general. The exhibit is titled The Weight We Leave Behind.
"There are two sides of the title," Leonard explains. "In one, the weight we leave behind is lighter than we imagine—maybe significant things we do aren't as significant as we like to think. In another sense, it's heavier, in that we don't have control over what we leave behind, like how a parent might mark a child or bodies mark the Earth."
Leonard's title takes on a third, unintended but serendipitous, meaning in this context. Her first exhibit also happens to be the last at Horse & Buggy Press before it leaves its home of the last decade, at 401 Foster Street, and moves to 1116 Broad Street.
Wofford's move leaves 401 Arts, the complex owned by Scientific Properties, very short on the commodity that gives it its name. Branch Gallery has long since departed; a former stained glass artist's studio is now Rise bakery. But the Durham Central Park neighborhood's loss will be Watts-Hillandale's—and, by all indications, Wofford's—gain.
Wofford, who learned letterpress printing and bookmaking at the Penland School of Crafts after studying design at N.C. State University, founded Horse & Buggy Press at Raleigh's Antfarm Studios in 1996. He moved to Durham in 2003, and for a couple of years ran the press out of a barn he rented from sculptor Al Frega. In 2006, Wofford founded the Bull City Arts Collaborative with filmmaker Kenny Dalsheimer, sharing a nine-year lease on the eighteen-hundred-square-foot space on Foster. Still, even sharing rent, Wofford and Dalsheimer found Durham Central Park financially challenging, and Wofford has been looking for a new space for more than two years.
The move spells the end of the Bull City Arts Collaborative. Dalsheimer will take his documentary filmmaking company, The Groove Productions, down the street to a suite above that of architect Ellen Cassilly.
"I have mixed emotions about leaving," he says. "The BCAC has been a special place and a unique venue for the arts and downtown working studios in Durham. I'll miss working in the same space with Dave, where we've shared music (mostly good), growing families, laughter, and each other's critical eyes. But I also know that change is good and feel the time is right for me to move on to a new page in my work."
Meanwhile, Wofford is rebranding as Horse & Buggy Press and Friends, a rubric that will encompass his letterpress and design business, his art and craft gallery, and two subletters—one of the first of whom will be Jessina Leonard. In others words, it's the BCAC by a new name, in a new place.
"Everybody calls everything 'Bull City' now," Wofford says, laughing. "In hindsight we wished we would have called it something else, and I like the 'and friends' component because that's how I approach my work."
Much like his old space, a former automotive showroom, his new one has a commercial history in which Wofford is steeped. It's in an old grocery store building, between Watts Grocery and Oval Park Grille, which formerly housed a Revco drug store, a rug store, and the instrument repair shop High Strung.
"For me, it's circling back home in two ways," Wofford says. "I've lived in Watts-Hillandale since I moved to Durham, so now I'm going to be walking to work, which I'm pretty stoked about. And one of my very first jobs I was excited about when I moved to Durham was designing menus for Watts Grocery. Having worked as a cook through the early years of setting up the press, I like that I'm hemmed in between two restaurant-bars."
Though the new location means Horse & Buggy will opt out of Third Friday art walks—which Wofford is happy about, as he can finally go see stuff on Third Fridays—he wants to take advantage of his proximity to lively new neighbors, as befits someone who is by constitution intensely focused on nurturing micro-communities.
"Me and everybody at Craven Allen Gallery are going to talk about doing double-header events to try to set up a new monthly cycle just for Broad Street, and hopefully that will pull in more people who live in Walltown, Old West Durham, Trinity Park, Trinity Heights," Wofford says. "I'll have dedicated gallery hours, written on the door, and take advantage of brunch hours, so if there's a line at Watts you can pop in and check out the show."
The Upfront Gallery, a small foyer space at the BCAC, started casually. It was mainly open on Third Fridays or when Wofford happened to be working at the studio to let passersby in.
"I'd been there about six months and I realized, oh wow, I've got these large storefront windows and this egress area that's relatively open," Wofford says. "I started with a group show of Raleigh people I knew from my Penland days, and since then it's been a mishmash of people I like and people I've gotten to know because they've been coming to open houses here for years."
Though Wofford's new space quite resembles his old one—nearly the same dimensions, lightly subdivided but open and airy with natural light, with high ceilings and rough-hewn concrete floors—its gallery will be given greater prominence, occupying four hundred square feet of dedicated space.
"Instead of solo shows like I'm doing here," Wofford says, "I'll have work by eight to twelve people at any time—a mix of pottery, glass, painting, photography."
The new space's landlord is Arthur Rogers of Eno Ventures, who offered Wofford the affordable long-term lease he'd been looking for. In Wofford's experience, landlords in Durham want to rent for two or three years, knowing that a tech company or bar that can pay more will come along shortly.
"I've been highly inefficient the past two years because I've probably spent twenty hours a month looking for studio space," Wofford says. "I'm looking to get some serious momentum and do stuff I haven't been able to do. [Rogers] is interested in the long game. I like to think the stuff I do makes a positive impact and is pretty good for a developer because he knows I'll be there twelve years-plus. Moving however many tons of equipment I have, I don't want to do it every two years. I want to put some roots down and participate in the micro-community."
Wofford is aiming for a quick turnover between spaces. After a closing reception for Leonard's show on Third Friday in February, he has to be out by the end of the month, and hopes to have Horse & Buggy Press and Friends running on Broad Street by early March. He's proud of what he accomplished on Foster Street but looks forward to trying new things on Broad, a place where his intimate, long-term vision of community—reflected in his intimate, long-term vision of printed matter—can flourish.
"It's been fun and meaningful to feel I've been a part of a community, gotten to know and work for a lot of great people, gotten to do fun as heck projects like the Full Frame program guide, which I've done for seven or eight years now—and working with so many writers and artists on fine press books," Wofford says. "As everything goes digital, you have to make that book nice enough that when a person gives it to colleagues, friends, or family, they actually read it and care enough about it that it goes on the shelf. When they move, it gets packed up carefully and passed on, and may be read for generations after that."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Greener Pastures."