A Community Portrait of Durham began with the desire to bring the city's residents together to share why they call Durham home. The idea struck me after seeing Waste Land, a documentary directed by Lucy Walker, at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The piece depicted artist Vik Muniz's trip to a Brazilian landfill. He patiently engaged the recycling pickers, asking them to share their stories. Together they created stunning, enormous portraits from the recyclables, the same materials their gloved hands sorted every day.
"The moment when one thing turns into another is the most beautiful moment," Muniz said in the film.
I wondered if we could bring this same process of community building, storytelling and transformation to Durham. In July, at our first meeting, a group of 20 residents agreed we could. "What is Durham?" we pondered. Vital, funky, creative, engaged, diverse, gritty, rhythmic and full of heart. We talked to churches, school art teachers, college students and business owners to gather participants, but we didn't know how many people—or, really, who—would participate until the image was captured Sunday, Oct. 3.
After 10 weeks of discussions, canvassing and preparation, the Sunday that we had only sketched on paper and imagined in conversation finally arrived. It was a breezy 70 degrees, clouds dotting the royal blue sky. Our group of steadfast volunteers gathered that morning in Durham Central Park. We started at The Scrap Exchange, hauling heavy tables, rolls of fabric, suitcases and a velvet chaise longue down Foster Street to the park. We used all the pieces to build a massive rectangular frame.
When the time came, folks eased into place within the rectangle, careful not to crowd their neighbors. The 300 people filled the space to form a human collage in the red, yellow and blue shapes of the Durham city flag.
A boy held a sleek blue skateboard. A girl wore a stuffed bull on her head. A woman sported a handmade Interstate 85 sign convened. A 93-year-old woman sat in a wheelchair in the front row. As photographer Jeremy M. Lange hovered 50 feet above, he waved his arms to liven the crowd, which responded with hoots and cheers. I pondered what this celebratory release looked like from above. Isn't mirth transcendent?
As the crowd packed together, I saw Wool E. Bull and the Duke Blue Devil. But where was the N.C. Central Eagle? Where were the schools, the Latino families and the crowds that packed Phoenix Fest just a day earlier? Clearly, part of our outreach failed. As one newspaper article noted the next day, racial and ethnic diversity—a source of beauty and pride in our city—was lacking in our portrait. The crowd was colorful, costumed and joyful; it couldn't capture all that makes up this city.
See the photo at 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15, at the Durham Arts Council. Tell us what you see and, as importantly, what you don't see. Let's continue this conversation.