Don't let the orange and white barrels or the hum of downtown Durham's construction deter you--they are merely the theatrical backdrop for PeaceFire Galleries. Located at 105 E. Chapel Hill St. directly behind Durham Arts Council, PeaceFire embodies its name; it is a tranquil oasis and a cauldron of possibilities at the same time.
Co-owners Inga "Nandi" Willis, a writer from Atlanta, Ga., and Sima Flower, a visual artist from Columbia, S.C., opened PeaceFire in June 2004 as a gallery and boutique, but, says Flower, "it has become a hub for people to connect ... a vortex."
Flower's beautifully handcarved woodworks line the walls and dangle from the ceiling. Intricately designed paintings, puzzles and figures celebrate the creativity and power of female life energy. "People often come in for incense or mudcloth," says Flower, "and walk out with a painting."
Between walking in and walking out, it's difficult to resist the lure of the soft red velvet couch or the handpainted blue chair beside it. Something about the atmosphere makes you decide to have a cup of tea and stay awhile. PeaceFire is more than just its physical location. "When we got to Durham," says Willis, "we wanted to create the type of relaxed space where people can exchange ideas and work. We've always had an open door. Art for us is activism."
The activism was never more apparent than in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when the duo founded PeaceFire Relief Effort (PRE) and turned the space into a receiving area for donations. Now relocated to Northgate Presbyterian Church, the nonprofit's mission is to offer direct assistance to the victims of natural disasters.
Willis says, "Because the hurricane was so divisive, it was really something to see blacks, whites, women, children--people--come out to help other human beings. The response was overwhelming. We had to shut down regular business in the shop for weeks. That moment offered us an opportunity to see PeaceFire from the outside. We had a space, people had a need, we opened our doors. Service is everything."
Flower and Willis' next project is to expand PRE to offer direct assistance to struggling artists in the form of space to exhibit, grants or whatever else is needed. "We consider starving artists victims of natural disaster too," says Willis. "Art is natural. Not to be able to do your art is a disaster."
The gallery should provide inspiration to artists who lack support. "I'm from a city of people who 'do,'" says Willis. "If the doors won't open at the various art councils, you have to open your own door. That is what we did. That is why we exist. Otherwise, we would be sitting with a house full of work that would not be seen."
"Our walls should be filled with art from local artists," says Flower. "We have space. It is up to local artists to utilize it." Reiki practitioner Janine Gomez relocated her practice to PeaceFire. "Our doors are always open to enterprises that gel with what we do," says Flower.
Part of the reason for creating PeaceFire was to offer artists an opportunity to show works that might not fall into easily-recognizable categories. Flower used to have trouble finding a place for her work in galleries and art councils. "She works in wood, which is often relegated to 'folk' or 'craft'. There is no way anyone could look at the intricacy, time and talent it takes to do what she does and call it anything other than 'art,'" says Willis.
Flower's art is finding a home in new venues, though: She's preparing for an installation entitled seven doors fifteen windows at The Studio Gallery in Soho in March. She has also been doing stage and set design, and one of her pieces was recently featured at the H Street Playhouse in Washington, D.C.
Willis' current medium is music. She has collaborated most recently with Anthony Hamilton on one of the tracks on Santana's new CD, All That I Am. She has also teamed up with local singer Purple St. James (formerly Yazarah) to found Mahogany Records in another DIY effort to give local art a greater audience.
"The great thing about our dynamic," says Willis, "is that we never rest in the contempt of sexism. ... Everybody is a door. Women have a tendency to be inclusive, which has allowed me to become a better writer and Sima a better visual artist. If you believe in what you do, you'll be inclusive."
"We're just two little ladies," says Willis, "and not that that isn't amazing, but we succeed because we are truly supported by our community."
The persistent presence of downtown construction has made parking difficult and cut down on foot traffic, but the two will not be deterred. Willis invokes Bob Marley's words, "I did not come to bow; I came to conquer," and then says, "We did not come to Durham to lose. We are survivors. Durham has been a blessing for us. It has given us an opportunity to make our dream happen. We definitely feel part of a community. Our doors are open--come. Park in the Carolina Theatre garage or the Post Office garage if you can't find a place on the street. We'll be here."
PeaceFire is open for Durham's Culture Crawl this Friday, Jan. 20 from 6-9 p.m. Their regular hours are Monday-Friday noon-6 p.m. and Saturdays by appointment. Contact 682-5808 or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Visit www.peacefirereliefeffort.org to learn about PeaceFire Relief Effort.