Rotary Minute – Ellen Cassilly

Ellen Rotary Minute webEllen is a relatively new Rotarian and an accomplished and well known architect around town.  Her invocation was particularly moving especially for so many of us who helped serve meals at Urban Ministries or the Rescue Mission during the Centennial Year. So here it is with the Minute in here own words.


In honor of all of the mothers who have fed us all of our lives and Father Daniel Joseph Berrigan, the Jesuit priest and activist, who passed away a few weeks ago, I will let his words be our invocation.

Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starving man,

and the look on his face when the bread finally arrives.

Hope that you might have baked this bread or bought it

or even kneaded it yourself.

For that look on his face,

for your meeting his eyes across that piece of bread,

you might be willing to lose a lot,

or suffer a bit,

or die a little.

Ellen’s Rotary Minute

Many of you know that I am an architect and have had my office, Ellen Cassilly Architect, at the corner of Foster and Corporation for the last 18 years designing a mix of commercial and residential projects, some in the downtown core including the pavilion in Durham Central Park and Full Steam Brewery.

For my Rotary minute I’d like to tell you about a different but related aspect of my life.

About 10 years ago my husband Frank Konhaus and I started the process of designing and building a new home for ourselves. The project’s working title was Cassilhaus, a contraction of our two last names. The program was a bit unusual and included an apartment to house a visiting artist residency and a gallery space for an exhibition program.

The inspiration for these ideas came from us inviting a French artist named Georges Rousse to Durham for 3 weeks in 2006 to create 11 works of public art working with community volunteers. The impact of bringing a single artist into our community was beyond our wildest imagination. The experience was so powerful and transformative for us, for Georges, and for the community that we decided to continue this practice at Cassilhaus.

To that end, we invite artists in all media and disciplines – visual artists, writers, musicians, choreographers, poets, filmmakers, and curators- both from the US and internationally, to live with us for 3 to 7 weeks and take on ambitious projects and connect in interesting ways with our community.

To date we have hosted 30 artists ranging in age from 28 to 80, 23 from the US and 7 from overseas including Japan, Hungary, Switzerland, Britain, and Canada and equal numbers of men and women. It is the richest thing we have done in our lives and has created an amazing web of lifelong artist friends around the world and an exciting and highly regarded community art space here at home.

When we invite arts we encourage them to be audacious in the projects they take on when here and we pledge to connect them with resources, human and otherwise, in our community to help them be successful.

Our shining star example of this was with California based photographer Chris McCaw in 2013. Chris’ work surrounds using vintage bellows cameras with huge lenses and expired photographic paper to render landscapes with the arc of the sun literally burned into the paper. It is a very labor intensive process especially when he works near north pole which often involves staying up for 24 hours to swap out paper in the camera at regular intervals.

He contacted us and said “I have this 1920s era panoramic Cirkuit camera and I would like to modify it to be able to track the sun automatically for 24 hours from any point on the earth using only the GPS coordinates of his location.  Oh and I know nothing about optics, motors, or electronics”.

We thought maybe we could find someone to help Chris at least get started on this task. After exhaustive searching Frank connected with the head of the physics and astronomy department at UNC, Dr. Chris Clemmons, who upon our request responded, “ what Chris McCaw is proposing is likely impossible. When do we get started?”

To our astonishment Dr. Clemmons, a complete stranger, had within two months set up a for credit class for his PHD and Masters Students to design and build Chris’ camera.  By the time Chris got to the residency he had a working prototype!

But the very best part was that 8 young scientists worked closely with Chris after his arrival to refine the camera and had the experience of a lifetime. And a few weeks later they had front row seats at his lecture at the Nasher museum of art and saw a connection between art and science that they could have never imagined.

I’m thankful that we live in an extraordinarily generous and open community.

Editor’s Note: More about Cassilhaus can be found at its website

Speak Your Mind