Public art can be fleeting. Check out these Chapel Hill murals while they last.

January 3, 2022

Chapel Hill’s downtown “Sea Turtles” mural was demolished in July almost without a word — nothing like the stir created in 2013 when another beloved artwork on West Franklin Street was painted black.

For 20 years, UNC football fans tailgated in the Turtle parking lot on North Columbia Street and real estate agents stopped by to show clients some of the town’s great art, said muralist Michael Brown. People used to say, “Meet me at Turtle lot.”

He was saddened when town officials told him the mural — and the parking deck he painted it on — would be demolished to make way for a larger, town-owned parking deck. But he’s seen it happen many times, Brown said, from “Musical Youth” and “Trees & Seasons,” to “Pencil,” “The Cave” and “Many Earths,” which could be the next to go.

“Things change,” Brown said. “They’re not museum pieces. They’re not Rembrandts. I think most muralists know what they‘re getting into when they put something on the side of a building.”

Murals make the landscape more interesting and can become a “point of pride,” displaying community values in a big way, said Susan Brown, director of the Chapel Hill Public Library and executive director of the town’s Community Arts and Culture division.

A local mural’s average lifespan is really just eight to 12 years, depending on the building and its owner, she and others said. “I know that personally when I go visit a new city or town, and I see murals or I’ve heard that it’s a town with great murals, I go looking for them, and that might take me to a street where I discover a great coffee shop or a neighborhood that I decide to come back to and linger more in,” Susan Brown said.

NEW ARTISTS, IDEAS ABOUT ART

The town’s revised mural program, based on best practices and consultations with Raleigh and Durham officials about their mural programs, is focused on diversity and inclusion, history, and a desire to help new artists shine.

Last year, the program got an infusion of money when the pandemic canceled festivals and other events. The town also expanded its definition of a mural to include artists working in spray paint as well as brushes, vinyl murals or building wraps, and art banners, like those added to Peace and Justice Plaza outside the U.S. Post Office downtown.

Murals also started showing up in unusual places — wrapped around utility boxes, lining vacant storefronts and bus shelters, and beautifying sewer access pipes along the town’s greenways.

Now, a new generation is making its mark. Among them is Brown’s former intern Scott Nurkin and Raleigh artist Kiara Sanders, who recently completed the “African American Trailblazers” mural at 111 S. Merritt Mill Road.

PRESERVING HISTORY

Trailblazers, commissioned by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Area Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. in partnership with Carrboro and Chapel Hill, depicts 12 Black men and women who shaped the community. It replaced Brown’s faded “Quilt Pattern” mural painted in 1996 on the north wall of Walt’s Grill.

Sanders had heard from friends who lived in Chapel Hill that they never felt like they belonged. However, in talking with older residents who passed by to offer a critique or a story, she learned about the historically African-American community that lived and thrived in town.

“Through the art, I was able to portray these trailblazers, these people that had these businesses, who actually served their community,” Sanders said. “I can’t speak for any person who might pass by it, but upon seeing the faces, my hope is that someone … can (know) more about the people in the area. I think knowing who is around you and keeping history alive can definitely make these connections happen more.”

Nurkin’s latest project is preserving a different type of history at 111 N. Merritt Mill Road. The larger-than-life portrait of Carrboro native and iconic blues musician Elizabeth Cotten is part of his North Carolina Musicians Mural Project.

Nurkin noted the life of a muralist is a complex orchestration of funding, proposals, people, research and photo licensing, travel, tools and paint. A typical painting can cost up to $15,000 or more, depending on the size, he said, and can take anywhere from a couple of days to several months. It’s not a glamorous life, but it lets you work outdoors, travel and meet interesting characters, while flexing your “art muscle,” he said. “I’ve run into some of the most unique, insanely funny and just off-the-wall people,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s homeless people or just people that have opinions that want to share with you very openly. I don’t know how many people in their lines of work get that stuff daily.”