In Chapel Hill, a Call to Dress Up Old Storm Drains With New Art

January 21, 2022

BY BROOKE DOUGHERTY FOR INDY WEEK

Feeling drained? Coming this April, new Chapel Hill murals may help brighten your day, all while helping to promote clean waterways. 

The Chapel Hill Community Arts and Culture Department is teaming up with Chapel Hill Stormwater to commission artists to paint murals around local storm drains in an effort to bring awareness to Chapel Hill’s water system and encourage environmentally-friendly habits.

Artists within a 40-mile radius of Chapel Hill must apply by January 24th. The town hopes to commission three artists to paint a total of three murals by Earth Day on April 22, and the project comes with a $1,300 stipend.

Steve Wright, Public Art Coordinator for the Town of Chapel Hill, says that the vision of the project is to help educate people about our local stormwater drains by fixing the misconception that all drains are the same.

“There are stormwater drains and then there is the regular sewer system,” Wright says. “Many people don’t know those two things are separate,” Wright says. “People might see a stormwater drain and think whatever goes in there is just going into the sewer system so I’ll throw trash in there…stuff that we wouldn’t want in our clean water supply.”

The stormwater drains in Chapel Hill go into Jordan Lake alongside anything else that happens to make its way into the water system, including sediment from erosion, trash from littering, and household hazardous waste like improperly disposed paint or soap from washing your car.

Sammy Bauer, Community Education Coordinator for Stormwater, says that this project has been on her wish list since she started her job and that it is an excellent way to engage local artists in order to draw attention to storm drains that usually go unnoticed and in turn promote people to be more conscious about how their actions affect the water system.

“Solving these problems requires really slight behavior changes that a whole bunch of people can do. It doesn’t have to be really expensive,” Bauer says. “The program is an invitation to whoever is walking around to consider where the water goes, our place in it, and how every single person can really truly make a big difference to our local waterways.”

Steve Wright says that this project is a bit of an experiment and that he hopes for future projects.

“This is the first time we’ve done painting on sidewalks around storm drain murals. Lots of cities do this already, but it is the first, that I’m aware of, for Chapel Hill,” Wright says. “This project helps educate folks to treat our water systems well and also public art in Chapel Hill brings delight to people’s daily lives… Our intention is to see how these three projects go and if successful then maybe it’s something we can do more in the future.”