Michelle Gonzalez-Green's elbows are covered with paint and she can't stop smiling.
"I sold my first artwork and we were barely open an hour," she says at the opening of The AfroBombastic Exhibit, which launched The584, Gonzalez-Green's downtown Durham design studio and community space, last Friday. "I've almost made my first month's rent."
The584, named after the South Bronx apartment block that Gonzalez-Green's grandmother lived in for fifty-seven years, inhabits the space above H. Eugene Tatum III's law offices on East Main Street, looking out at Carolina Soul Records and Bar Brunello through a trio of second-floor windows. Tatum had been using the room for storage but is more than happy to see it rejuvenated in Gonzalez-Green's hands.
She plans to use the small walkup as her own art and design studio and gallery. Multitalented and restless, she welds, sculpts, does installation and mixed-media work, and has tech and maker skills. And she's anxious to install a makeshift darkroom, too.
"I want to explore everything in a space that's big enough for me to do it," Gonzalez-Green says. "But I also need other people to share it, in part for inspiration."
In addition to providing a home for her work and curation projects, The584 will be open for community use for exhibits, meetings, workshops, and other purposes. She's envisioning an 80 percent people-of-color constituency. Kept intentionally unfinished, the space is a throwback to times when urban real estate was rough, cheap, and abundant.
Gonzalez-Green has certainly seen a lot of spaces and organizations come and go as development and gentrification have shifted socioeconomic lines and deepened racial disparity in Durham. You need a handful of fingers to count off the Durham nonprofits she's worked for, including SEEDS, SeeSaw Studio, and Liberty Arts Studios & Foundry, of which she was executive director until a few weeks ago.
"It's going to be that small, underground space that used to be around in Durham and New York—places I know—and they don't exist anymore," she says. "Everything's, you know, fancy schmancy now. It's to prove a point that you don't need a large space to have dope art."
A basic working space is all Thaddaeus Edwards needs. Starting a few weeks before the opening, he and the rest of the African-American improv comedy troupe Improv Noir started gathering here for rehearsals on Sunday afternoons.
"It's important for there to be people-of-color-owned spaces in Durham, but especially art spaces," Edwards says. "That needs to continue, and I want to put my own energies into these spaces."
"Pay me in pork rinds and we're good," Gonzalez-Green jokes. Her highly negotiable rental terms could also include cash, barter, or the purchase of studio things she needs. "All they need is space downtown where it's private, and that's really hard to find now for artists in small groups. So I get to curate what comes here and also what happens here."
What happens in the space will have a lot to do with what happens around it. Gonzalez-Green reconfigured The AfroBombastic Exhibit barely a week before it opened after a long conversation with a homeless man behind the building. She wanted to express his experience of displacement through personal and political histories that are as coded into the landscape as they are into the memories of the people who've lived through them.
It's a toehold on the front lines of the battle between new Durham and old Durham. Lean out the windows of The584 and you can see multiple glass-box construction sites rising. Look to the right and you can glimpse the base of the fallen Confederate monument a block east. Look straight down at a pothole in Main Street and an old streetcar rail peeks through the broken asphalt.
"This is the first African-Latina-run art site in downtown Durham," Gonzalez-Green says with justifiable pride.
Visit www.the584.com for upcoming exhibits and hours.