AIR LOOM exhibit celebrates 15 years of artists-in-residence at Cassilhaus

Artist Olivia Parker created the photo, Nattering Things, to represent her husband’s declining peripheral vision. The image is featured in the current AIR LOOM show at Cassilhaus. Photo courtesy of the artist.


By Diana Newton

CHAPEL HILLCurators of art exhibits often seek out a coherent and compelling theme around which to organize the featured artwork. But Frank Konhaus, co-curator of AIR LOOM  (the current show at Cassilhaus) declares that it was “a nightmare to have a show with 53 artists that share nothing in common, but that they were here together.” By “here” Konhaus is referring to the longstanding artist-in-residency program that he and his wife, Ellen Cassilly, established at Cassilhaus–their dream home/art gallery/artist studio and residency in the woods between Durham and Chapel Hill. While pulling together this complicated show was initially daunting, Cassilly and Konhaus discovered that the “disparate voices slowly became a chorus” during the commemorative process and a joyful one at that.

An International Roster of Artists-in-Residence

AIR LOOM showcases 118 pieces, celebrating the work of most of the 61 artists who have participated in the residency program since its inception 15 years ago. These artists have been a truly international cadre, coming from the United States, Australia, Hungary, Israel, Canada, Japan, South Africa, Switzerland, and Wales. Cassilly and Konhaus note that they have tried to showcase work that was either made at Cassilhaus during artists’ residencies or inspired by the time they spent there.

The artworks featured in AIR LOOM are joyful, poignant, unsettling, and intriguing. The exhibit showcases a diverse collection of photography, painting, works on paper, video, poetry, dance, sculpture, book arts, choreography, music, animation, collage, drawing, writing, film, and textile arts. Many of them are being shown for the first time, and 20 video pieces are organized at four viewing stations, which is also a first for a Cassilhaus show.

A living hand cradles an inanimate hand, as depicted in Welsh artist Helen Sear’s photographic experience of people discovering eclectic objects at Durham’s Scrap Exchange. Photo credit: Courtesy of the artist.

Welsh artist Helen Sear found inspiration during her 2018 residency spending time exploring Durham’s Scrap Exchange, an eclectic reuse arts center and thrift store. Her project, called The Era of Solitude, comprises  Phototek impressions of the floor at the Scrap Exchange–portraits of people that she met and objects found there.

Multimedia artist Sonya Clark created a digital font, with designer Bo Peng, based on her hair’s curl pattern. She then transliterated the work of seven femme poets from the Roman alphabet to her new Twist font, as so-named by poet Rita Dove, in order to confront cultural erasures. AIR LOOM also includes one of Clark’s Hairbows, in which she has replaced the traditional bow used on a stringed instrument with one made of her own hair. Clark regards the DNA of her hair as a repository for all the DNA of her family lineage, people whose voices she may never have heard, noting that “when this bow is played, we hear the sounds of our ancestors.”

In 2016, acclaimed South African Zanele Muholi created one of their stunning photographs that is included in the show–Basizeni XI–right in the driveway of Cassilhaus. Muholi is a self-described visual activist intent on social change: “Most of the work I have done over the years focuses exclusively on Black LGBTQIA and gender-nonconforming individuals, making sure we exist in the visual archive.” Muholi’s photographs are also currently featured in major exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through August 2024 and the Tate Modern through January 2025.

The severity of an abandoned room at a base formerly used by Soviet troops stationed in Hungary contrasts with the persistent beauty of nature in this image by artist Tamas Dezsö. Photo credit: Courtesy of the artist.

Hungarian artist Tamas Dezsö exhibited large-scale photographs at his 2014 and 2023 Cassilhaus residency, some of which now appear in the AIR LOOM show. At that time he and his writing collaborator Eszter Szablyár also shared with gallery visitors their visually arresting book, Notes for an Epilogue. Within its pages the decaying infrastructure sloughed off by an autocratic regime and its impacts on the margins of Romanian and Hungarian societies is poignantly revealed.

Sitting With–and On–Art Books

Books like these posed another exhibition conundrum for Konhaus and Cassilly. How could they share the more than 50 monographs and books from the artists represented? Their solution was to design a custom canted trapezoidal book bench as a permanent addition to the gallery in order to display them. Fabricated by Durham’s Will Cowart of WKC Woodworks, the bench is a stylish stacking of Baltic birch and cherry that creates horizontal space for easily sliding the books in and out and a center well for holding others.

Frank Konhaus (center back, with camera) photographs visitors enjoying the newly created book bench at the Cassilhaus gallery’s current exhibit, AIR LOOM. Photo credit: Diana Newton

The talents, interest, and love-filled partnership of Ellen Cassilly, an architect, and Frank Konhaus, a serial entrepreneur, are evident in their home, the custom-designed artist-in-residence “pod” connected to their living space, and the exhibition gallery that bridges the two. They describe the intention of the Cassilhaus residency as simply “to provide a creative, comfortable, tranquil, and visually stimulating environment for artists to get inspired and recharged to make new work.”    

The AIR LOOM exhibit will be on display through October 12, 2024. While Cassilhaus does not have public hours, those who join its newsletter mailing list are invited to its announced exhibits, all of which are free.  Private appointments for individuals, schools, or other groups may be available upon request.

Diana Newton is a coach, facilitator, filmmaker, writer, artist, yoga teacher and general Renaissance woman. Her documentary film, The Ties That Bind, is available for streaming on UNC-TV. She lives in Carrboro and is a UNC alum. This reporter can be reached at

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