Caitlin Kelly, director of the Power Plant Gallery

Caitlin Margaret Kelly M.F.A. ’14 studies a photo of a back-to-the-lander teaching a younger woman how to aim a rifle, then slides it along the floor toward the center of a wall. Placed there, though, the gun appears to threaten the boy in the photo next to it, standing in his patch of poison ivy. She moves it again, but here it targets a decaying church, its steeple slumping into its sanctuary. The photos are part of the exhibit Southbound, each composed and cropped by the artists, selected by a curator, and now hers to arrange in the industrial space of Duke’s Power Plant Gallery. The violence in the gun changes depending on what’s to its right, which presents a problem.

Kelly slides it again, standing and staring, her feet in striped socks on the cold concrete floor. She’ll put on shoes when she works with power tools, but for now she is mostly thinking, trying to create an experience. It will be different for each visitor who walks through the exhibit, depending on who they are and how they’ve lived, whether they first turn right or left, look only at what’s in front of them or what’s across the way on the opposite wall. She can shape it, but she can’t control it. The artists who composed the images can’t control it, either. All Kelly can do is place the photographs consciously, leading the eye from the red flames of a prairie fire to the red barrette dangling from a little girl’s hair, or from the artificiality of an amusement park Matterhorn to that of a group of Civil War reenactors.

She walks away. Returns. Moves the art again. She’s thinking about the conversations within each photo, but also the ones between them. That’s why the plain-dressed women are a problem. Where to aim the gun?

Kelly is the director of the Power Plant Gallery, the brainchild of Tom Rankin, director of Duke’s Master of Fine Arts program in Experimental and Documentary Arts (and former director of the Center for Documentary Studies), who craved a space where students could move from the theoretical to the practical. “We make documentary art for a broad audience, not just a campus audience,” he says. “So how could we have a space that is an experiment for students, where instead of their art just going into a folder and being evaluated for a grade, it also goes up on the wall and is seen by other people?”

James Robinson ’20 was chosen to present a solo show as a sophomore. His photos of people dealing with climate change along the Mekong Delta had begun as a book, in which he could control the viewer’s experience. In the gallery it was different.

“Your work is suddenly spatial, so they’re not just looking at the art but walking through it, and sometimes not experiencing it the way you think they would,” he says. “It’s a really vulnerable experience, but really powerful.”

The gallery opened in 2013 in a blank space next to the Full Frame Theater in Durham’s American Tobacco Campus. On one side is the Lucky Strike water tower, on the other side, the power plant’s soaring smokestack. The floors are slick concrete, the walls are brick, the windows are tall. It’s a place where visiting artists hold community talks but also sit down one-on-one with art students, poring over their work; where graduate gallery assistants learn the business side of art; where M.F.A. students and select undergrads figure out how to manifest the feelings and images and experiences in their minds into art that they can share with the world.

“Instead of writing up what would you do if you had a gallery; here, you have a gallery,” Rankin says. “You’ve got lights, you’ve got walls, go do it. It moves things from the theoretical to the actual, and that is something we need to do more of in teaching.”

The gallery also hosts the MFAEDA Lab, where artists can test ideas, so a student whose vision is to install a multi-projector project can see how it will look when it’s fully up and running, Kelly says. Or if they want to learn how to map a projector to a specific size or how to use motion detectors in a three-dimensional environment, or to experiment with sizing and sequencing of photographs, they can use the space, usually under Kelly’s guidance, tapping into her technical expertise as they bring what’s in their head into being.

“In many ways, this mimics a lab as many at Duke might relate to one,” Kelly says. “A student has an idea of how something will work, comes in to test it, and adjusts based on real feedback.”

There’s no audience, no need to sell anything. It’s just an opportunity to create, free from expectations. “Failure is encouraged,” she says. “No one goes from idea to Picasso without the work in between, and the lab offers that space and support we often forget artists need.”

Kelly works with professionals, too. Last year she curated a show honoring Allan Gurganus, a lifelong artist and New York Times-best-selling author whose archives reside at Duke. With him she waded through a trove of paintings, drawings, and sketches, winnowing and arranging in an attempt to honor seventy years of work on her walls.

Gurganus had made piles of drawings—of women here, animals there, images from Japan over there—thinking to order by theme.

“Caitlin came in and, with great good will and a lot of energy and cheer, began to put animals beside people and next to Japan,” he says, “mixing things up in a way that I was unable to see because I was too close to the material.”

They took the selections to the gallery, and she began her process of moving them around, over and over, deciding there was too much black-and-white here, which led them to dig through his work for a watercolor of a geisha. Then she painted the walls the colors from the drawings.

“It lit up the space in such an amazing way,” he says. “It began to look like it was something other than just a show of capable drawings on a wall in frames.”

Kelly has always been an artist herself. In junior high in her hometown of Nashau, New Hampshire, she stalked the halls, taller than the other kids, Pentax K1000 in hand, shooting black-and-white photos for the school yearbook.

“It wasn’t so much that I was falling in love with art but that it was a means to move around,” she says. “You can’t take a picture sitting still, you have to move, and that was something I was pretty interested in, moving around and exploring. It gave me a reason to be curious about things. Having a camera in my hands gave me permission to explore.”

She went on to Boston University, where she graduated with a degree in journalism and an emphasis in photojournalism. From there she moved to California State University at Fullerton, trading the bluntness of New England for California’s more circuitous conversational style. She got married; worked freelance and then, as a staff photographer for The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, California; began running in earnest; got divorced.

She grew tired of living in a southern California shoebox, so she stashed her stuff in her sister’s basement and took off for Argentina, planning to stay for a year. Slowly, after listening and practicing and listening and practicing, she became proficient in the language. She freelanced, couch-surfing and backpacking her way around South America for five years before returning to the States and coming to Duke for her master of fine arts in experimental and documentary arts, all the time running, eventually in marathons. In all, she has competed in five.

Kelly was the first graduate assistant under the original director, Teka Selman. When Selman left, Kelly pitched the idea that as a photojournalist she could do a lot with very little.

“I told them that I would drive around with stuff like foil and duct tape in my car,” she says, “because you’d end up photographing a portrait in someone’s house and the lighting’s bad, so you’d tape tinfoil to people’s walls to bounce the light and make it interesting. It’s this idea of having a full box of stuff you can pull from, and nobody has to know it’s tinfoil and duct tape.”

At the gallery, she pulls from both a mental toolbox and a dirty orange one.

“Three-quarters of my job is trouble-shooting things into existence,” she says.

Last summer she invited in Renzo Ortega, a Peruvian immigrant and studio artist. But instead of giving over her blank white walls to his bold, colorful paintings, she pushed him to create, and for four weeks he worked within the space, dragging in lengths of fencing, splashing the walls with red paint, bending wire mesh into a human form that he wrapped in trash bags and suspended off the ground, a reminder of the burial rituals of immigrants working their way through Central America but also of the disposability of people killed during what he calls the terrorist time in Peru.

He built topography on the floor to represent the Darien forest, the no-man’s land immigrants must cross between Colombia and Peru. “I didn’t cross the border, but I feel empathy because I am an immigrant and I have family members and friends who have been through that,” he says. “I do this in solidarity.”

He built a cage and performed from inside it, making noise, reading, pretending to swim, doing his best to make people uncomfortable, to make them think. One woman cried. In the midst of it all he hosted a potluck, with guests contributing a dish from a history of immigration and displacement. A family from Argentina brought empanadas. A woman from Israel brought Middle Eastern food. Ortega made a causa, a Peruvian dish for traveling soldiers.

“It’s not that you’re going to see, oh, the artist, oh, the art!” he says. “No, we are sitting at the same table, and you bring food, and I bring food, and we talk.”

The potluck was one of the many ways Kelly uses the gallery as a forum for important conversations. She’s worked with Margaret Lou Brown, director of programs at Duke’s Forum for Scholars and Publics, on conversations about leaving war zones, about climate justice and anti-nuclear war activism, incarceration and the future of Black freedom. Together they’ve brought in students from the Durham School of the Arts, or sent artists out to talk to them. They’ve held panels that include community activists, not with the art as a background but rather with the art as a catalyst.

Kelly’s mind moves on what her musician husband calls eight tracks. She begins a sentence in one and switches to another, looping effortlessly back. She is thinking about the arrangement of the art but also how to pull in classes from Duke and speakers from UNC and activists from the community. She is thinking about the weight ratings on a spool of wire and a clamp and a crimp so that the artist who wants to hang a bed and a chair and re-create a childhood memory won’t hurt a patron. She’s doing math constantly, on her solar-powered calculator and again on her phone and again in pencil on top of a work bench speckled with splashes of coffee and smudged with a touch of orange, of turquoise, of pink. The numbers are added and multiplied and long-form divided, old-school style.

“There’s a lot of math involved, much to my dismay sometimes, but it’s more about thinking through the details,” she says. “You can’t go from idea in your head to finished product without a myriad of steps along the way, which involves thinking about the minutiae of how something happens or how something could possibly fail.”

Kelly walks through the gallery in her socks, her hair purple, a tattoo of a maple tree splashing up her back, its leaves trailing down her arm. She speaks in paragraphs and then says she has a hard time being articulate. She runs marathons, because they’re hard and because running is a moving meditation.

“One of the reasons I can’t sit still is that thinking on all my different tracks creates a certain amount of vibration, so I need to move around,” she says. “Running is one way I get to think while physically pounding pavement.

“If you’re running 26.2 miles, you break down the mechanics of your body to the most essential thing that you can do. The simplest movement. Inhale, exhale. Left, right, repeat. That’s the entirety of a race. It doesn’t have to be a winning vision, it’s just left, right, repeat.”

She employs the same mindset when an artist comes in with an idea for something complex. In 2018, artist Erin Johnson created the installation The Way Things Could Happen, which would once again get people to consider what it would be like to survive a nuclear attack. Johnson had seen the 1983 made-for-TV movie The Day After, set in the town of Lawrence, Kansas. The film was so affecting that it is credited with influencing President Ronald Reagan in his interactions with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

For The Way Things Could Happen, Johnson returned to Lawrence and interviewed some of the 5,000 locals who had served as extras in the film, asking them to continue to act as if they had survived the blast.

“We’d go back to a field or a grocery store or wherever their scene had been shot, and then I would ask them to simply describe in as much detail as possible what they remember,” Johnson says. “What then transpires is a kind of harrowing account of this war scene that never happened, but a lot of young people who have seen my film are asking, what war are they talking about?”

At Power Plant Gallery she was hoping to make the film multichannel, playing different scenes on different screens simultaneously. While other galleries have said it was beyond their capabilities, Kelly made it happen. She moved walls, lowered the lights, learned how to program three video tracks to run in synch.

“She made it shadowy and dark, so it felt like you were entering into a shadowy smaller space,” Johnson says, “Not necessarily a bunker, but it felt like there was a kind of confined, waiting, darkness-looking kind of space.”

Johnson, whose studio is in Brooklyn but who is also a visiting assistant professor of digital media at Bowdoin College in Maine, gave an artist’s talk at a reception. She met with art students and gave critiques, but the most memorable part to her was the public symposium with local activists and leaders.

“It was one of the best points of my art career so far, to see how the work could become a lens through which a lot of different people could use this work as a touchstone for these really urgent and timely conversations,” Johnson says. “It’s such a cool thing for students to see, the kinds of conversations their art can inspire.”

Kelly intends to create more of these conversations. Her image of PPG 2.0, as she calls it, is to spend the next five years looking at the gallery as an educational space, not just as an exhibition space. She says her preparation for fall around COVID precautions is going handin- hand with a review of the gallery’s programming to support equity and anti-racist movements in the documentary arts at Duke and in Durham. “I am prioritizing small-group interactions with artists, that can allow students and the public an opportunity to be more personal with their art experience.”

She’s also looking to create more publications, such as zines, that provide another angle from which to engage. “I am super excited to consider Instagram as a tool beyond social media promotion, but an actual exhibition space,” Kelly says. It’s also a way to get more students involved, she says. Kelly just took on a new role, that of Curator of the Archive of Documentary Arts at the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, so she's giving more opportunity to students by hiring one as senior gallery assistant/gallery manager.

“So as hard as this year has been, for any number of reasons, it has allowed me to step back from the gallery’s previous routine and ask a few simple, but important questions, such as ‘what if?, ‘why?’, and ‘how?’… and as always, ‘for whom?”

It is morning, and Kelly feeds her cats, and squeezes coffee through her French press. She needs those moments of silence to prepare her brain for the day. Already she is thinking. About the current exhibition and the next. About how other museums create movement and conversations. About art and its illumination of issues of the day. This is her dream job. It changes. It’s never boring. She can move, take off her shoes, Google something obscure, help a fellow artist get launched.

“When I got the job at the gallery, I was essentially handed the keys to the car and told not to wreck it,” she says. “It was like, ‘Go do something, and let’s see.’ I work really well in that kind of setting, where you give me something to do and then leave me alone to do it.”  

Latus lives in the Triangle, where she spends her non-writing time in the woods with her dog.

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