It is a nondescript pale yellow warehouse building on Dillard St., about a 15 minute walk off East Campus. There are a couple of cars parked outside, some stuffed animals stuck to an area of the wall, and a ramp leading up to the door. By the stuffed animals, there’s a small sign that says, “The Fruit.”
Now dedicated to the arts, the Fruit was previously home to the Durham Fruit and Produce Company. The remnants of the former establishment are still present in the space: cork and plaster marking where there once were 60-foot long cooler bays, an old fire door and the machines that pumped cold water through the building. According to the Fruit’s blog, renovation uncovered stickers that tell more. The building was occupied by a company called Mountain Warehouse, then the Antimall, which housed the Electric Blender Shop and 305 South music venue.
The door is kept locked, open only by appointment. Upon walking in, you will see a large swath of black fabric with a large triangle of blue sky and clouds. It is a photograph and part of an installation by Mona Kuhn, who has been primarily a fine art figure photographer. Tim Walter, Trinity ‘86 and owner of the Fruit, said Kuhn is at an inflection point in her career where she is experimenting with audience interaction in her work.
The viewer must push through the first photograph to see the next part of the work. A video of mylar flapping against a wooden frame is projected against the wall, and more mylar covers the other three walls of the room. The mylar represents skin, which contains you and makes the subject unique. The mylar is also reflected, though imperfectly — you see yourself, but in a distorted way.
The Fruit also has a black box theater space on the first floor, rooms upstairs, and what will be studios in the basement. The upstairs area was previously the sales office for Durham Fruit and Produce Co. It now includes the “blue room,” designed by Georges Rousse. The room is painted in several tones of blue, with the light blue resolving into a square in photos. The space also allows for changes in background color in post-production without affecting the colors in a person’s face.
Georges Rousse also created the anamorphic installation in the other upstairs room. When viewers stand in the corner of the room, the black paint resolves into the word “DREAM.” The installation took around 40 people a week to set up because they needed to prepare the roof before covering it in newspaper. That room now also has a tape installation on one of the walls, created by Heather Gordon.
Walter offers the space primarily to emerging artists for a fee, though at rates lower than many other spaces. Artists and groups can book the space online.
“That’s the primary mission, is to help emerging artists, folks who are pre-commercial and need an affordable space to work in and something that’s really flexible and isn’t a cookie-cutter, standard stage,” Walter said.
Walter originally bought the space in 2014 when he was looking for a photography studio. He then started talking to different artists in the area about what to do with the space and how to renovate it.
He already knew many of the visual artists in the area but had not realized the potential of the space for performing arts until after hosting a show called “Undone” by Nicola Bullock. Since then, the Fruit has hosted a variety of emerging and experimental shows, along with a few world-class ones like Duke Performances’ Monk@100 show last year.
“We didn’t have to worry about other people using the space, we didn’t have to share the space with anybody and we were able to create an immersive experience in there,” said Aaron Greenwald, director of Duke Performances. “It wouldn’t have been possible or so much more labor-intensive and costly had we done that at one of the on-campus venues.”
Greenwald said the feel of the space is less “institutional” than many of the venues on Duke’s campus. It also gives an opportunity to do something that would run over a few days or require more setup.
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“It gives people a chance to just pursue an artistic vision, and we don’t look like the Marriott or DPAC,” Walter said. “We’re not a fixed stage. You have to build in what you want. You kind of never know what you’re going to get.”
Greenwald also said the space is unique and “doesn’t exist anywhere else in Durham.”
“It’s nothing short of a miracle … If he had not bought that space when he bought it, the independent arts scene in Durham, especially the independent performing arts scene in Durham would be in a really rough spot,” Greenwald said. “It is the last and only sizable warehouse space in the vicinity of downtown Durham whose use is dedicated to the arts.”
Walter saw the Fruit as an opportunity to provide something that the Durham arts scene was missing. He likes the Pinhook, and is now majority owner of the building. He grew up in Durham, as his father was a physics professor and his mother was a secretary at Duke. Walter said he wishes the Pinhook had existed when he was younger. Before returning to Durham to take care of his parents, Walter spent a few years working in Florida with refugees and farmworkers, then went to business school, worked for a think tank and later some foundations in D.C. He had done some entrepreneurial work and was not afraid to do something of that nature. He has a business partner, Laura Ritchie, who is currently a graduate student at Duke. The Fruit has three full-time equivalent workers, along with workers hired for specific projects like flipping the black box space and volunteers who can also sign up on the website.
“It’s about creating something in the community that I want to see,” Walter said. “We want it to be sustainable, but it needs to pay for itself over time, or pay its light bills. It’s not been the case this year yet, but it gives us freedom to do cool things.”