Sunday, June 23, 2024

Muralists add culture and color to brighten N.C. towns

Murals’ growing popularity over the past few years  makes it nearly impossible to go anywhere in North Carolina without experiencing vibrant artwork from some of the state’s most creative individuals. Cities and businesses use public art to draw in visitors and customers.

Organizations such as ArtWalks CLT promote murals in Charlotte with guided and self-guided tours. Sanford, a town of 28,000 residents about 40 miles southwest of Raleigh, has a mural art trail, which includes audio tours and grid maps. 

Artists behind these large-scale projects say they place an emphasis on community engagement, by sharing unheard stories that highlight a place’s history. 

Some of North Carolina’s most distinctive murals were commissioned and completed by the following artists, who were suggested by local art leaders, state and city arts organizations, and Business North Carolina readers. These creatives can be credited with the North Carolina Musicians Mural project across the state, a mural at Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro and one at the Novant Health Neurosciences Institute in Wilmington, just to name a few.

Scott Nurkin
Chapel Hill 

Founder of Chapel Hill’s The Mural Shop, Scott Nurkin is the brains — and hands — behind hundreds of murals and illustrations. Nurkin’s strong North Carolina ties come from growing up in Charlotte and graduating from UNC Chapel Hill. He also has a love for art and music. After college, Nurkin had an apprenticeship with muralist Michael Brown at Brown Fine Art Studios in Carrboro, while also touring as a drummer with various bands. The birth of his daughter inspired him to become a muralist full time in 2010.

“Over time, about eight to 10 years, it became less about chasing down jobs and more about answering calls,” says Nurkin, 46. “People were finding me because my work was more prolific than ever and I had a lot to show for it.” 

Nurkin’s North Carolina Musicians Mural project combines the two passions and his work now can be experienced in more than a dozen North Carolina cities. The project had humble beginnings when the owner of Chapel Hill’s Pepper’s Pizza offered Nurkin “free pizza for life” if he would create portraits of renowned musicians on a blank wall inside the restaurant. The mural series has evolved into a bigger-than-life project. 

After Pepper’s closed in 2013, Nurkin expanded the project in partnership with Greg Lowenhagen, a former owner of The Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh. Nurkin began to collaborate with the towns these musicians called home.

The murals above feature John Coltrane in Hamlet (top left), Roberta Flack in Black Mountain, Howard Auman in Sanford,
James R. McConnell in Carthage (bottom left), Elizabeth Cotten in Chapel Hill and Earl Scruggs in Shelby.

“The first one that really kind of broke through is Hamlet, which is where (jazz saxophonist and bandleader) John Coltrane is from,” he says. “We said this is what we want to do. The manager in that town was really enthusiastic and he loved the idea.”

The town owns The Hamlet Opera House, a six-story building with a blank wall. “I said, ‘This is where he’s got to go,’” says Nurkin. “That was the first one.” 

One mural in 2007 has turned into 16 completed murals in the hometowns of some of the state’s musical giants. Nurkin expects to complete 12 more murals this year. 

Murals include the well-known, such as Black Mountain native Robert Flack, who topped the charts in 1973 with “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” and the late Earl Scruggs of Shelby, whose three-finger style of banjo playing on songs such as “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” revolutionized bluegrass music.

Nurkin completed a mural of American blues guitarist and singer Blind Boy Fuller, who died in 1941, in his hometown of Wadesboro. Many of the town’s 5,000 residents may be unaware of Fuller’s significance or ties to the town located about 50 miles southeast of Charlotte.

“It’s like my life’s work, I feel like it’s something I’m meant to do because of my experience as a musician and love for art,” he says.

Beyond the final product, the Musicians Mural project is about education. “People need to know that these people are from these towns, and they’re not from Charlotte and Raleigh, they’re from Kinston or Smithfield or Sylva.”

“My biggest hope is that people may take away from this that it’s inspiring my community to see that this person came from where I come from and went on to do wonderful things or just being a proud North Carolinian.” 

Seeking locations for the murals and attracting funding from the towns are two obstacles that Nurkin has had to overcome during the project. But, neither has discouraged him from moving forward. A recent collaboration with the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources means there’ll be a North Carolina Musicians Mural Trail, which will include placards, information about artists and QR codes that will lead to online videos.

Britt Flood

Appalachian State University graduate Britt Flood scribbled on surfaces as a child. For the past decade, she’s been creating large-scale art as a muralist. Flood has completed notable murals, including “Piedmont Blues” in Sanford and “Eternal Sunset at North Hills,” an upscale area 5 miles north of Raleigh’s downtown.

Flood’s intention with each project is to evoke compassion, connection and wonder. The creative process starts with loud reggae or bluegrass music and a sketchbook. 

“I love working in ‘multiples,’ which means I create multiple studies of each painting or mural,” she says. “This allows me to feel free to experiment with the image, composition and colors without feeling the pressure of messing anything up.”

“Piedmont Blues” in Sanford and “Breathing New Life” in Morrisville.

This freedom translates into “whimsical ideas” that may contain just the right amount of magic to brighten someone’s day. “I love public art and large-scale painting because of its immersive nature and the immediate act of interaction it promotes,” she says. “Much of my work aims to visualize moments of awe, and I feel an urgency to bring moments of love and empathy to overlooked spaces.”

Abel Jackson

Abel Jackson has been an artist his entire life, but he didn’t decide to pursue art full time until 2002 when he was introduced to airbrushing. He had a humble start that began with using airbrush designs on clothes, shoes, helmets and food trucks, to name a few. 

“My motto became ‘paint anything on anything,’” he says. “I started with painting in Eastland Mall and eight years later, I moved into my first art studio in NoDa,” a north Charlotte neighborhood popular with artists.

While the Greenville, South Carolina, native started with airbrush, today he utilizes a variety of applications — colored pencils, markers and latex, acrylic and aerosol paints. The Winthrop University graduate’s creative process typically consists of creating anywhere between one to nine designs early in each project.   

“Self Love” and “Historic Brooklyn” murals in Charlotte.

He created a “Historic Brooklyn” mural to “document, visually record and illustrate the rich history of Charlotte.” Brooklyn was a predominantly Black center-city community filled with  businesses, schools and churches before its demolition because of urban renewal efforts.

Jackson hopes his work inspires others to engage in the arts. “Sometimes when others observe what I do, they realize that they can do it, too. Thus, they may start to create art, as well.” 

Murals depicting a community’s history make a cultural impact. Early in his career, Jackson endured challenges related to wanting to paint Black people in public places. “Of course, this has all changed and now I am free to express myself and perspective.”

“Many communities are changing drastically and some of these changes can erase the history and character of the city,” he says. “I try to connect people to their past so that they can better understand themselves and the community and city they live in.” 

Darlene McClinton

North Carolina A&T State University graduate Darlene McClinton has contributed to the Triad’s public art scene since 2012 with her first mural on Bennett College’s campus. The artist with a business mindset, or “artrepreneur,” has since created more than a dozen murals in Greensboro, Brown Summit, Burlington and Graham. 

The Greensboro projects include “Bridging the G.A.P.” on the city’s downtown greenway, “Representation Matters” at Hairston Middle School and “Blooming” and “Growing” at Piedmont Triad International Airport. A consistent aspect throughout is vibrancy. “My superpower as an artist is color,” she says. 

McClinton’s creative process starts with community engagement. “When you’re a public artist, it is really literally about the public and not necessarily about my vision as a creative.” After collaborating with the community, she creates her designs and either uses paint, spray paint and stencils to bring the art to life. The process can take two months or two weeks, depending on the project. 

“Bridging the G.A.P.” and some of the “Representation Matters”
murals in Hairston Middle School, Greensboro.

“I think it’s important to not only paint beautiful images, but to have a message and meaning behind your works because you can use it as an educational tool to uplift the community, to educate the community and inspire the community,” she says. “A lot of my public art and the work that I do kind of play off of those three elements. It’s beautifying the community and it brings people together.”

In addition to being an artist, McClinton is an arts educator at N.C. A&T who has worked at ArtsGreensboro and created her own arts center and agencies. She enjoys collaborating on her murals with emerging artists, other professionals, and her art students. 

“My goal as an artist is to always bring people with me, pay people their value as artists and teach artists along the way.”

Tiffany “Nugget” Machler

Tiffany “Nugget” Machler is an arts entrepreneur and an art dealer. She owns the 11oh9 Gallery, and serves as a Carolina Beach Mural Project board member. She has spent the past decade creating art with an authenticity that connects people to her work. “Art permeates everything I do,” she says. 

One of her recent murals was unveiled when Novant Health Neurosciences Institute ­- New Hanover opened last month. This project demonstrates the power of art in public spaces, Machler says. 

Restaurant mural and Novant Health Neurosciences mural, Wilmington.

“With art that is that scale, there’s such an awesome potential for it to transform the energy of the space where it’s created,” she says. “When people go to hospitals, sometimes with birth there’s a lot of excitement, but for the most part, there’s a lot of anxiety and questioning to do with what’s going on. This helps to offset that.”

Machler hopes her journey of being a woman who uses spray paint in a male-dominated field inspires others. “I like to be an example of how you can take negative things and use them as positive motivators to light a fire in you to get what you want.”

Jenny Pickens

Asheville native Jenny Pickens works in various media such as drawing, hand-built pottery, jewelry, fiber arts and painting. Since kindergarten, art has been a saving grace for the self-taught artist. “It was a true gift to be able to have a vision of something and watch it manifest. Throughout the years of experimenting, I enjoyed challenging myself to do something out of my comfort zone.”

Pickens’ first significant mural was a train container in Asheville’s River Arts District in 2017. The goal was to illustrate the world and community. Thus, “Zolas Embrace” was born and depicts an unsatisfied mother earth who is repairing the world by stitching love back into it. 

In 2021, the Asheville Area Arts Council chose Pickens as one of three lead artists to contribute to the Black Lives Matter mural in the city’s downtown. Five other artists helped bring her portion of the project to life. Her most recent mural for United Way of Asheville represents an inclusive community that supports and grows together. 

“Zola’s Embrace” and “Black Lives Matter” murals in Asheville.

Murals create opportunities for connection, says Pickens, who prefers to paint murals by hand after sketching. “The artist has a vision and the visitors interpret the stories,” she says. “I love how the murals spark conversations. Murals can bring so much beauty and love to communities and they work as visual communication and storytelling.” 

While the end result has the ability to inject life into a space, there’s an instrumental amount of work that goes into a design before it’s complete. Having creative freedom, finding affordable work space, pricing and storage are all challenges that she’s had to overcome. “Because I love what I do and the joy it brings to others, I continue
to work through the obstacles.”

Taylor White

While based in Raleigh, Taylor White’s career has taken her to Norway, Australia, Atlanta and eventually back to Raleigh, where she was raised. Returning to her hometown has paved the way for an influx of projects in the city’s downtown. 

As one of the city’s first commissioned muralists, White created the augmented-reality mural “Abstracted Motion” in partnership with Google Fiber. It’s one of the world’s largest of its kind at 40 feet by 60 feet. Viewers can use an app to experience the mural as it transforms its contents — five dancers are connected through linked arms and legs — into 3D and provide a 360-degree perspective. In 2021, she created the city’s second augmented-reality mural, “8-Bit to 5G,” which depicts esports and gaming’s future in Raleigh.

“Sweat Life” and “Abstracted Motion” murals in Raleigh.

Serious injuries related to a car wreck while visiting Iceland in late 2021 kept White from painting murals for a year. After recovering, the Savannah College of Art and Design graduate completed a mural at The Willard Raleigh, a rooftop lounge. She’ll soon work on a mural at a new development, Durham’s West Village Apartments. 

Jack Williams

At a young age, Jack Williams learned the basics about art from his father. He restored his first mural at age 16, which set him on a career path. What started as encouragement from his father led to a degree in studio art from UNC Wilmington and interest in sculpting, printmaking and painting. 

Connecting the past to the present is key for Williams. “I feel that my work is important because it tells a story about the history of the town,” he says. “I love seeing a mural that looks just like it did in the past. Most ‘murals’ are vintage ads, so it’s often rewarding to see the older generation light up seeing something they saw when they were young.”

Williams restored a Pepsi sign in his hometown of Albemarle and sourced vintage pictures to recreate it. A few years later and during  the COVID-19 pandemic, he completed a mural at the abandoned Sinclair Gas Station in downtown Albemarle, located 35 miles northeast of Charlotte. He spent weeks painting the four sides of the building using four different media. Last year, he completed a Rivers Feed and Seed “ghost” sign restoration in Wadesboro. 

Rivers Feed & Seed restoration and Anson County murals in Wadesboro.

Recreating ghost signs, or old wall ads, is Williams’ sweet spot, which means much of his time is spent completing research, locating vintage images, connecting with community members and having  conversations with residents.  

“I think the cultural impact of my work is showing the small towns of North Carolina and beautifying these towns can come in different ways than abstract murals.”

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