BY ISABELLA BRADDISH
WRITTEN FOR THE DAILY TAR HEEL
Fans of American blues and folk musician Elizabeth Cotten will be able to see a new mural on the border of Chapel Hill and Carrboro portraying the Chapel Hill native.
The mural, meant to bring attention to the influential musician, is part of the North Carolina Musician Murals project. The project, which features large-scale murals in the hometowns of famous North Carolina musicians, was created by Chapel Hill based-artist Scott Nurkin.
The roots of the North Carolina Musician Murals project lie on a wall inside of a former Chapel Hill restaurant, Pepper’s Pizza. This is where Nurkin arranged portraits of renowned North Carolina musicians in an effort to bring attention to their talent. When Pepper’s Pizza closed, Nurkin took his talents elsewhere, creating large-scale murals in the hometowns of the musicians he originally honored at Pepper’s.
Nurkin said he wants the mural to bring attention to Cotten and her influential life.
“There are plenty of African American women singers out there, but not blues musicians who had their own fingerpicking style and had their own hit song at the age of 12,” Nurkin said.
Cotten was born in 1895 near Chapel Hill, in the area now known as Carrboro. She began to write and play music at a young age — having written one of her most well-known songs, “Freight Train,” at age 12.
Cotten innovated new styles of playing instruments, borrowing her brother’s guitars and banjos and reversing them in order to play them left-handed. This unique method of playing went on to influence subsequent generations of musicians, now coined as “Cotten picking.”
The towns of Chapel Hill and Carrboro and the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership collaborated with Nurkin in an effort to bring the Cotten mural to life.
Matt Gladdek, executive director of the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, said the partnership was ecstatic to help take on this project.
“We were happy to partner on giving some really great recognition to an artist like Elizabeth Cotten in her hometown,” Gladdek said.
Susan Brown, the executive director of Chapel Hill Community Arts & Culture, emphasized the importance of the mural in the downtown area.
“We shared interest with Carrboro and with the Downtown Partnership in bringing a more diverse mural to downtown,” Brown said. “Murals are recognized as having an impact on community pride and they enliven downtown areas.”
Nurkin said he hopes the mural helps bring recognition to Cotten, a folk and blues hero who didn’t gain notoriety until later in her life.
“Even if you love it or hate it, if you see it, chances are you’re going to ask who that is,” he said.
Image by SP Murray.