The question is regretted before it's asked. "So, what's your favorite toy in here?" Standing behind the counter at Wootini, David Woodward answers first with his eyes. They flit around every apparent corner of this gallery, a multi-use space that hosts two- and three-dimensional art installations and also serves as a store for art toys, captivating grown-up fixations of the imagination.
Up and down, left and right across every shelf, Woodward looks for the answer. He allows a pseudo-frustrated, ultra-pensive moan, enjoying pondering a question he knows he can probably never answer.
"Oh ... hmm, I don't really know. That--that's a tough one."
The thing that makes a question like this so tough for Woodward is his passion for this stuff. He's an artist himself, schooled in sculpture in Louisiana, and he's had a lifelong fascination with toys. He's worked here since September, and he likes the job, the people, the clientele, but--most importantly--the toys.
It's no fault. In fact, here at Wootini, that passion for and fascination with almost all of these toys (Woodward insists on the term) is a job requirement. The job application, however, doesn't include the question. There's no need for that.
Woodward's zeal manifests itself in the way he describes the Mars Observer, which he eventually decides may be his favorite toy of the moment. He quickly explains that there will be more colors available here soon. The four-inch contorted space traveler with a clear plastic shield either covering or serving as its head, depending on perspective, is part of a display labeled "Toys From This Year's SDCC."
SDCC, of course, is comic-and-toy-enthusiast parlance for the San Diego Comic-Con, a 35-year-old, four-day gathering of 90,000 collectors, artists, producers and merchants. One would expect Woodward to be miffed about missing this year's convention, but he doesn't seem to mind.
"Someone has to stay here and hold down the fort," he says, already on his way to what he thinks may be another favorite. Of the moment, at least.
It's an hour before the day of Wootini's new opening, an installation of a caterpillar and a "cow ass" by Jerstin Crosby and several dozen posters by artists including Raleigh's Dale Flattum and Austin's Jermaine Rogers. Glamour Cat, the new toy produced by Scott Musgrove for Wootini, will make its gallery debut. It premiered at SDCC in July, but tomorrow night, it will be for sale here. Crosby and Maria Albani, his bandmate in Tennis & The Mennonites, are hard at work hanging his pieces.
Heather Yurko, one of the gallery's founders, hasn't started hanging the posters yet, but she doesn't seem nervous at all. There have been times when she's had a few hundred posters to hang before an opening. She knows she will be here late, but the hours don't bother Yurko.
Yurko moved to Carrboro from Manhattan in 2002 to join co-founder Michael Maher, who moved from NYC in 1996. Wootini started as a Web site but quickly became an actual brick-and-mortar outlet, located several stores down the hall of Carr Mill Mall from its current location. The small space wasn't enough to capture their full vision, and in May--15 months after opening--they moved to a bigger space, allowing room for both an art gallery and a store.
As such, it's an alternative to galleries of framed stills and oils, a place where the imagination--eccentric and skewed--runs free. Wootini is the first establishment of its kind in the Triangle and one of only a few in America. It's not a comic book store, and it's not KB Toys. Artists, consequently, will often have shows open in New York, London, Los Angeles--and, lo and behold--Carrboro.
Customers come here to decorate their homes with characters called Onion Love Invader and Jermaine Rogers' (and Wootini's) first toy, DERO: The Jigris, a menacing bear with red eyes, extracted from Rogers' rock 'n' roll artwork. They come for the work of international artists like Tim Biskup, James Jarvis and Gary Baseman, as well as locals like Flattum, David Rose and Chris Nance. They come to seek art that's playful, imaginative and enthralling.
Given time, Yurko will pick up and explain nearly every item here. She knows the history of these captivatingly eccentric, charmingly quixotic creations and their creators.
"See, just pull him apart. He's got three sections, and each one is a kind of luck," Yurko says, smiling wide as she explains Mr. TTT, a buck-toothed, square-bodied worm in the Friends with You series. "You can give part of him away if a friend needs it."
She's intimate with the back stories of the toys, many of which derive from comic characters or recurring figures in an artist's work. She'll break out the books, too, marveling and laughing at the ingenuity of the artist.
Yurko adores Will Sweeney's Tales from Greenfuzz, a hero tale set in Rastapopolis. Helmut the Hot Dog Man--12 inches tall and made of vinyl--leads his notorious Nutwood Gang through the streets of Rastapopolis, holding a despairing sandwich's (yes, sandwich's) girlfriend hostage. Yurko discusses all of this like it's the evening news.
Four massive vinyl toys of the animated band Gorillaz stand on a shelf. There were only 2,000 made, designed by Jamie Hewlett, the artist who originally conceived the Gorillaz concept. This is the black edition. The red edition sold out almost immediately. Yurko not only calls the characters by name, but also points out the differences between editions--different clothes, varied expressions, switched accessories.
A.D. Puchalski, a New York woman who makes each piece by hand, fascinates her, too. Yurko pokes at Super Deformed Bear, an adorably warped stuffed gizmo with a triangular head and wide, sad eyes. She pushes back the hair on Puchalski's Ghostly Girl, revealing a thumbprint in the casting. For Yurko, it's a sign of devotion to this art.
Yurko, after all, seems devoted enough to it and its producers. Her vision for the gallery isn't simply a place to make money. She's invested in promoting the artists and the fulfillment of their visions--from hosting gallery exhibitions and stressing over the details until dawn with Maher, seeking out artists who will allow Wootini to turn their two-dimensionals into tangible, standing toys.
"I feel like I'm the luckiest person, to be surrounded by all of this art that I love and to work with these artists that I love on a personal level," she gushes sometime after midnight, sitting with her legs crossed on a bench in the Carr Mill hallway. "I'm a huge fan of these people as artists, but they're some of the best people I have ever met, too."
Wootini is located in Carrboro's Carr Mill Mall, 200 N. Greensboro St. The store and gallery are open from 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. on Saturday and noon-5 p.m. on Sunday. Visit www.wootini.com for more info.