Early evening. A crowd of fifty or so mills around two levels of galleries and assembly space: a modernist house filled with visitors, the living room lined with folding chairs, the kitchen island covered with wine bottles, pimento cheese dip, ham biscuits, and fruit. Framed photographs cover every wall, and people leaf through books and read gallery guides left in easy reach on shelves and windowsills. Out the windows to the north are acres and acres of peaceful green—Duke Forest is the neighbor—raked by magic-hour sunlight.

Then, music: accordion. Or rather an organetto—a sort of junior accordion, which provides a cheerful, repetitive, heaving folk melody as its player, a twenty-something man named Danico, squeezes it, accompanied on the drum tambourine by his partner, Eleonora. The two sit on a bench next to a wall dividing the library from the main gallery.

Danico and Eleonora are, as it happens, travelers, brought along by Kitty, a neighbor who earlier strode confidently into the gallery using two hiking poles for support. Kitty is over eighty and has been ferrying Danico and Eleonora around for days since she gathered them up for uncertain reasons after introducing herself at a Chapel Hill bus stop. None of the regulars know them, but they wear name tags like everyone else, and everyone seems to enjoy the music, especially Frank Konhaus ’80, standing to the side of Danico and Eleanora, delightedly taking pictures. The photographs and the books, and the neighbors and the name tags, and Danico and Eleanora, and the organetto and the very house itself all trace their origin to Konhaus and his wife, Ellen Cassilly, in whose home the evening event takes place.

Welcome to Cassilhaus, an almost indescribable combination of art and people and places and things. It is Konhaus and Cassilly’s home, a 2,400-square-foot modernist jewel at the end of a dead-end road in Orange County. It is an artist’s retreat—the house includes a separate 800-squarefoot loft residence, which welcomes artists for month-long residencies that Cassilhaus funds. It is the long gallery that connects the two, displaying shows of varying photographers. The current show is a selection of seventy-five pieces from the Cassilhaus collection of some 550 pieces of artwork, about 80 percent photography, almost all by living artists. The house includes four specifically programmed gallery spaces—five, actually, since Konhaus and Cassilly program even their bedroom when the house is open for viewing.

“I talk about Cassilhaus as a stool,” Konhaus says. The four legs are the house, the artist-in-residence program, the collection of artwork and images, and the exhibition program. Cassilhaus mounts four or so shows per year, and most months they have an event or two like the one that has filled the house tonight. “And the seat” of the stool, Konhaus says, “is the community.”

This evening’s event brings that community in for an artists’ talk with photographers Rachel Boillot M.F.A. ’14 and Lisa McCarty M.F.A. ’13, both of whose work is included in the gallery’s current exhibit, “New Blood: Recent Discoveries From the Cassilhaus Collection.” And as 7 p.m. approaches, as the people mill from room to room, up and down stairs, Konhaus taps a table knife against a wine glass, asking people to make their way to the living room, where fifty chairs—every chair they have in the house—are set up in front of a screen for the talk. “How many first timers?” he asks, and many hands go up. “We love first timers,” he says. “Make sure you sign up for the mailing list. The mailing list is the only place we announce these things.”

It’s true. Cassilhaus has no general hours. It does not advertise its events; you just have to know. But Konhaus and Cassilly hang the exhibitions, and several times a month, whether for openings or events, they open the doors and it’s come one, come all, though after fifty respondents you can’t sit down. “Newbies have figured out that after the invitation goes out, you have about twenty-four hours before every seat is taken,” Konhaus says, to chuckles from the people filling all the seats. For the newbies he explains that they have three or four shows a year, points to Cassilly: “Cassil is over there,” he says, “and I’m -haus.”

In introducing the presenters, he waxes lyrical. Cassilhaus has grown since it opened in 2009, and as it has expanded it has begun hosting an intern each year, either from the Duke M.F.A. in Experimental and Documentary Arts through the Center for Documentary Studies or from UNC, and these two photographers were the first two interns. “Of all the relationships we have” with artists, Konhaus says—“mentor, gallerist, editor, collector—the relationship I most cherish is that of friendship.” Rachel Boillot is first to present, and she agrees. “Every time I think I know what Cassilhaus is doing or all about,” she says, “they do something new and challenge that.”

SO YOU HAVE QUESTIONS. An art gallery without hours? An artist residency in someone’s house? A community resource that invites in the community when it feels like it—and is celebrated for that? And we haven’t even discussed trapezoids yet.

Like everything at Cassilhaus, it’s a long story. Konhaus fills in the background one sunny afternoon as one of the two cats prowls among the art books in the airy library, a sunlit space off the main gallery: one wall of books, three large framed photographs on the walls. He starts at the bottom.

“I am one of the few people who can identify the absolute low point in my life,” says Konhaus, “almost to the day.” That would be the day he found himself returned from a disastrous adventure abroad and making his living by sweeping Duke Chapel for $6.25 an hour in preparation for a music performance. He had graduated with a chemistry major, the residue of a forgotten interest in becoming a doctor that resulted from a natural facility in science and a father who was a physician. But in his time at Duke, he had actually demonstrated aptitude in something else. Working as a student in the Duke recording studio, at that time in Biddle, he developed expertise in audio-visual equipment.

“Classrooms in the 1980s had chalkboards and overhead projectors,” he says. As classroom technology advanced, “I was the logical guy on campus to ask, ‘What TV should we get? What VCR? ’” He laughs. “I learned about TV brackets.” And he liked doing the work, so instead of going to medical school he continued at Duke, running the recording studio and helping with AV issues. As technology advanced, the work sped up though, and so did Konhaus. “I have two speeds: 120 percent, and off,” he says. In 1986, he needed some off time and took a leave from Duke. He calls the next months a sabbatical, consisting of a four-month trip to the South Pacific, where he fell love with a young doctor and followed her to Switzerland.

“Well, that was a no-go,” he says, laughing. He soon found himself back in Durham, “despondent and unemployed,” and he signed back on at Duke, and there he was sweeping before that show. “I almost said out loud, ‘Frank, it doesn’t get much lower than this.’

“The next week, I designed the logo for my business.”

That’s Kontek, the Durham-based audio-visual system design-and-integration company that celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in September, creating things like display and communications systems for universities like Duke, Carolina, and N.C. Central, and corporations like Capstrat, Epic Games, and McKinney. For Duke, Kontek has designed everything from teleconferencing facilities to operating-room systems, including the systems for the new Karsh Alumni and Visitors Center. Which has kept him busy and happy, but, as it turned out, not quite fulfilled.

That changed in 1999. Visiting New York with someone he was dating, the two decided to visit AIPAD—the Association of International Photography Art Dealers, an annual fair of photographers and dealers. “That was a complete fluke,” he says. “We saw it in a magazine and said, ‘This looks interesting, let’s go.’ ”

He didn’t grow up in a family that was big into art or museums, but he was instantly hooked. Instead of the hour or so he had expected, he and his date spent the whole weekend at the show. Photographers and dealers “would individually go through these portfolio boxes with photographs and talk about their work,” Konhaus recalls. “It felt like we discovered this secret mystery where you could go and have all this fun for free and you were the focus of everybody’s attention.” He didn’t know it yet, but his life had fundamentally turned. “I didn’t get the girl, again,” he says of the date. “But I got photography.”

He bought a photograph there—his first art purchase—and he’s been to AIPAD every year since. “I didn’t come back and say, ‘I’m a photography collector now,’” but he quickly noticed that he paid close attention to when his next issue of Black & White, a magazine for collectors of fine photography, was going to arrive. At first, as someone who had never been into sports or, say, woodworking, “it just felt like a victory to have a hobby.” But the deeper he dove, the more he recognized that in photography he got not just art but that personal connection. “These people were sharing,” he says of the AIPAD community. “They weren’t selling widgets. They were sharing their love and excitement.”

KONHAUS AND CASSILLY MET CUTE. Konhaus’ partner at Kontek, Wes Newman ’78, had just joined Kontek when Cassilly called as a potential client, needing speakers in her barn. Though Kontek doesn’t do residential work, Konhaus needed something for Wes to do and sent him out. Wes got the idea that Cassilly was a perfect match for Konhaus and schemed for Konhaus to be the one to go back to install her speakers. Fail; Cassilly thought Konhaus was basically the help and ignored him. Eight years later, by then something of a collector, Konhaus attended an art opening in Raleigh and saw Cassilly, each with different dates. Cassilly asked Konhaus to an outdoor movie, “and the rest,” Konhaus says, “is history.”

Cassilly is an architect with a focus on landscape design and urban vitality (she had worked on the North Carolina Museum of Art amphitheater, where the two had their first date). She designed, for example, the Pavilion in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden (and several other structures in Duke Gardens) and Fullsteam Brewery in Durham. As the two married and began collecting and making a life together, they became aware of French artist Georges Rousse, whose trompe l’oeil projects involve complex, room-sized constructed installations created by teams of volunteers in old buildings ready for demolition or renovation, then photographed by Rousse from specific angles from which the odd hues and shapes resolve into colorful geometric forms, like giant circles or multicolored squares.

“We couldn’t help but say, ‘Gosh, buildings about to be torn down or renovated, that’s what Durham is right now,’” Cassilly recalls. “American Tobacco was just getting renovated.” They reached out to Rousse’s agent and then Rousse himself. A little back-and-forth and soon they flew Rousse to Durham for a long weekend. “We did not want to start fundraising until we knew he wanted to do it,” she says. Once Rousse was in, “we had a small cocktail party and had a dozen people and raised like $5,000. We found an apartment for him, somebody donated a car, and you could just tell: Durham was so ripe for some activity.”

They eventually raised more than $40,000 for the effort, which led to a monthlong residency for Rousse yielding eleven separate installations, shared in 2006 as the “Warehouse Interventions.” Hundreds of volunteers, thousands of visitors, loving reviews. “It succeeded beyond our wildest expectations,” Konhaus says. They even produced a documentary film by local filmmakers Penelope Maunsell ’74 and Kenny Dalsheimer ’85. “After we recovered from that, we said, if we can make that from having an artist for a month, we probably should keep doing this.”

Cassilly recalls a specific interaction with a Durham artist “who shall remain nameless,” she says. “He said to us, ‘You spent all that money to bring this guy to Durham. Why don’t you give me some money, and I’ll go to France?’” Cassilly explained how this was more than a trip; this was an artist engaging, connecting with, energizing the community of Durham. At the end of Rousse’s residence, Cassilly says, “the same artist came up to us and said, ‘Yeah, I get it. I see the energy.’ That was so rewarding to hear him say that. So we said to ourselves, maybe the house that we’re about to design, we’ll make space for one artist to come. And part of their assignment, if you will, is they need to do one thing for the community.”

The house already was going to need display and storage space for the growing photography collection. With the added residence, the Cassilhaus concept was complete.

BUT NOT THE HOUSE. In a process Konhaus calls “neighbor shopping,” they had been trying to find a spot to build the home for the rest of their lives. The property had to have space, it had to be near water, it had to be private, it had to be quiet. “Ellen finally said what we wanted was not ever going to be for sale, so we started looking at tax maps,” Konhaus says. They chose properties, reached out to people and explained their goals, and finally found someone who had property they were willing to sell at the end of a road nestling next to the Korstian Division of Duke Forest. From the back porch, Konhaus points out, you can see—and hear—New Hope Creek.

Cassilly is an architect, so she had skills. Konhaus was, he says, “literally a babe in the woods,” and the woods are where they started. They hiked in the forest, made tree surveys, camped on the site. With vague ideas, Konhaus started with Play-Doh, making up the three main volumes of the house: a big piece for the main house, a separate small lump for the artist’s loft, a long gallery placed atop the two like a box girder.

Except not in the shape of a box. Look at every volume in the sleek, geometric modernist house, and apart from windows and doors, you’ll be hard pressed to find a rectangle. Walls diverge, angles widen, ceilings slope. “I had a really seminal architecture experience in which I stepped into a house that had a trapezoidal room,” Konhaus says. “It just felt much more alive than any architectural space I’d been in.” He had that idea long before he and Cassilly met. Cassilly literally embraced the idea; she spreads her arms in a wide angle to show how the shape of the main house emphasizes the treehouse- style view out the north windows from the living room. “I call it a megaphone of a view,” she says.

Though Cassilly is the architect, the house is in every way a collaboration. Konhaus wanted a two-story space, and the living/ dining room is that open area, large enough to hang enormous prints and fill with viewers without feeling overwhelmed. That hardly makes for cozy dining, though, so Cassilly designed a slatted screen that hangs above the dining room table, not only making the space more comfortable but providing a matrix for lighting—and also, she notes, focusing your view out those north windows, especially when you stand at the kitchen sink.

Eight years looking for property, three years of design, and eleven months of construction. They moved in in late 2008 and hosted their first resident in 2009. More than forty artists have had residencies. As a building, it’s celebrated on tours and has been written up in the architectural press.

To have in a 2,400-square-foot house not only eating and living space and the stairways and bathrooms, doors and windows that a life requires but also space for a library and five different galleries to display art isn’t easy; everything has to do a lot of jobs, but that was the point. “There are all sorts of interesting, interstitial spaces,” Cassilly says; says Konhaus, “We intentionally made the space with lots of angles and nooks and crannies.” When he puts a show together, he thinks about those spaces; and when people view the show, the spaces encourage interaction, congregation. Community.

“I was always struck by how intentionally designed it was,” said McCarty, who along with Boillot spoke at length about Cassilhaus before their gallery talks. Mc- Carty came to visit in early 2012, in the first academic year of the Duke M.F.A., when a professor suggested Konhaus as a possible mentor. “I always have loved how the gallery is the literal and symbolic bridge between” the house and the artist’s loft, she says. “It is a livable piece of art.”

McCarty’s first interview with Konhaus was portentous. “I was here for like five minutes, and he’s like, ‘Can you hold this?’ ” and that quickly she was helping frame, then helping mount shows, organically growing into the first Cassilhaus intern. “I did everything I could to assist with that vision.”

It took: She has spent the years since her graduation as curator of the archive of the documentary arts at Duke’s Rubenstein Library, though she’s left to become full-time faculty at Southern Methodist University, and she says Konhaus has been invaluable in her progress.

Boillot spoke as glowingly. She, too, learned from Konhaus. Above all, though, “to me it always felt like a refuge,” she says of Cassilhaus. “I could just come. Clear my mind. It’s a breath of fresh air every time you pull up.”

Cassilhaus isn’t a nonprofit, there’s no board, there are no rules. Konhaus and Cassilly choose artists they like and offer them spots. No application, no process. Konhaus took another sabbatical a couple years ago, driving all over the country to visit similar institutions to glean best practices. And though he learned a lot, his conclusion was that there really are no similar institutions. Everything similar either housed multiple artists or had a complex nonprofit board.

Photo artist Helen Sear, for example, ended up with a residency in 2018, when Konhaus and Cassilly, who already owned a piece of hers, met her at AIPAD. They mentioned the residency, she leaped at it, and she was on the schedule.

“Every one of our artists has a story like that,” Konhaus says. “We’ve given up on trying to be too intentional about it.” This fall’s opening of the Nasher Museum sculpture garden, in fact, showcased a performance by Naama Tsabar, whose work Konhaus and Cassilly encountered when they visited the New Orleans show Prospect.4, at the time curated by Nasher curator Trevor Schoonmaker (Konhaus sits on the Collection Committee of the Nasher). Tsabar mounted a performance of female-identifying musicians, playing and standing on their amplifiers, in a New Orleans park. “I’ve never been more mesmerized by a performance in my life,” Konhaus says. Overwhelmed, he and Cassilly immediately asked to meet Tsabar, and fifteen minutes later had offered her a residency and got to work with the Nasher. One thing led to another, and on September 28 Tsabar, residing at Cassilhaus, performed as part of the opening of the new Nasher Museum sculpture garden.

That’s Cassilhaus. “We’re not a community gallery, we’re not a hotel,” Konhaus says. “It’s just a lot simpler if money is kept out of the equation.” Even the gallery takes no fees. If art is sold during a show, the gallery sends every penny to the photographer. They fund the residency through renting the loft through online services. “We pay for the exhibition program out of our own pockets. There simply is no revenue stream.” When they have a connection to a charity or nonprofit they make Cassilhaus available for an event.

THE WHOLE STORY OF CASSILHAUS follows that “we just kind of do it” model. Even the collection itself. Sitting in the library, Konhaus describes the subconscious processes involved in buying and curating. “A rule I try to follow pretty religiously is a three-day rule,” he says, which grew out of that first purchase at his first AIPAD. He kept returning to an image at one gallery but, uncertain, withholding his decision to buy. He eventually bought and still loves the photograph, but by refusing to buy at first swoon he’s established a good practice. “If after the third time I go back I still get heart palpitations, I know it’s not infatuation but it’s true love.”

To explain what he loves about photographs—or which ones he buys—he harks back to a show he mounted only a few years after he began collecting. After a curator friend promised to help him choose images for the show but then had to withdraw, “she said, ‘Look back at the last ten pictures you purchased and find something in common.’ ” When he looked, nine of his past ten purchases had some photographic image within them. “A photograph taped to a wall in a bar, or a photograph pinned to a mirror in a bedroom,” something.

The show he hung was called “Picture in Picture,” and it functions almost as a metaphor for the relationship between curator and artist. Just as the artist captures and frames an image to communicate with viewers, the collector and curator choose a series of images and place them together, again to communicate, to connect. “I don’t know that Frank and Ellen claim to be artists in the way that we are,” McCarty says, but their collection, their curating, the residencies, the house itself, constitute a kind of artistry, a way of pointing, of framing.

“That’s what we do every day,” Konhaus says. “You gotta see this! You gotta meet these artists!”

AND PEOPLE COME TO DO JUST THAT. At another evening Cassilhaus event a similar crowd gathers, this time to see the work of documentary photographer Alex Harris, one of the founders of the Center for Documentary Studies, who has spent years photographing movie sets throughout the South. He’s workshopping a show that will go up soon in Atlanta, and he’s thrilled to workshop it at Cassilhaus. “There’s such a connection between a collector and a photographer,” says Harris. “What a collector does is to see, to choose, and to arrange. That’s what a photographer does. I think it really helped that [Konhaus and Cassilly] came along at a time when those lines between journalism and photography and documentary and art were being blurred in a wonderful way. Their palate is that broad palate of the arts that engage us with the world.”

As Harris begins showing his slides, Konhaus stands to the side, next to Cassilly, facing the slides as Harris works through them, the main room in the house he and Cassilly built packed with artists and artwork, collectors and community members. They stand in what is both their kitchen and their gallery—enormous photographs on the walls, snapshots of friends and family caught to the refrigerator with magnets. Home and community are joined, and Konhaus and Cassilly watch together.

ARTIST CREDIT: In the image shown with this profile, Konhaus and Cassilly are posed in front of CST #2 by Philip Augustin; the other images in the gallery are by Augustin and Elizabeth Stone.

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