Murals of Chapel Hill

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Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the United States, has more than 30 distinctive murals, most by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill alumnus Michael Brown.

The murals have been funded by the town and county governments, as well as by local businesses. Some, like the mural Dogwoods, which adorns the exterior wall of the Orange County Visitor's Center, have been commissioned directly by the town of Chapel Hill,[1] and others have been painted on private property with the town's permission. Many of Brown's early murals, including his first, Blue Mural, were painted as part of an annual local arts event that ran continuously until 2001.[2] The event relied on the assistance of student volunteers who helped Brown paint the murals, turning them into collaborative community arts projects.

Brown's latest complete mural, Ramses, resides on the inside of UNC's Student Stores.[2] He is also currently working on an as yet untitled mural that will decorate the side of the new Mellow Mushroom restaurant that is set to open on Franklin street. Painting should continue through December 2012.[3]

Besides Brown, artists such as David Wilson, Scott Nurkin and Casey Robertson have contributed to the Chapel Hill area's outdoor art. Several collaborative murals have been painted exclusively by local volunteers, and other projects have used volunteer efforts to complete designs by professional artists. Although Brown is not the first or only artist to contribute to the public murals of downtown Chapel Hill, his prolific work has helped characterize the town's appearance and begun a trend of local community involvement with mural painting.

Early murals[edit]

Laying the Cornerstone of Old East[edit]

Laying the Cornerstone of Old East.

In 1941, commercial artist Dean Cornwell painted the earliest public mural still currently visible in Chapel Hill.[4] It depicts William Richardson Davie laying the cornerstone of Old East, the first building constructed on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It can be seen on an interior wall of the Chapel Hill Post Office.

Although Cornwell's artwork proves that murals existed in Chapel Hill before Michael Brown began painting, the beginning of the town's outdoor mural tradition is attributed to him. In 1993, Brown painted a companion mural on another interior wall of the building, titled The Auctioning of the Lots. It was completed for the town's bicentennial[5] and follows the style of Cornwell's piece.

Blue Mural[edit]

Michael's Brown's first mural in Chapel, the Blue Mural features a night-time cityscape of Chapel Hill and was completed in 1989. It can be viewed from a public parking lot on the corner of Rosemary Street and North Columbia Street and is based on Brown's memories of Franklin Street's appearance when he worked as a dishwasher at Ye Olde Waffle Shop.[2]

Brown had graduated from the art department at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1977 [6] and was looking for work as an artist when the opportunity emerged to complete a project for the Downtown Commission in Chapel Hill. Although Brown had some experience painting houses and had worked on mural projects in his youth, Blue Mural turned out to be the project that established his reputation in Chapel Hill and led to subsequent requests for murals in the area at a rate of about one per year.[2]

Since the Downtown Commission and the Chapel Hill-Carborro School System co-sponsored the mural, Brown was required to work with young student volunteers on the project.[7] Brown has stated that he chose a pointillist style for the mural because he thought the technique might help unify the contributions of volunteers who had little experience painting.[8] Brown also typically starts his murals by painting the background color and a grid, then filling in the grid from a planned drawing,[9] a method that can make it easier to communicate his design to volunteers and to supervise the project. The annual collaboration quickly became a spring tradition in Chapel Hill, with the last mural, Paint by Numbers completed in 2003.[10]


Brown's second mural, Hands, was completed in 1990 with help from 20 local students, 50 passers-by and one UNC basketball player.[11] It features several large handprint shapes that have been filled in with the participants' actual handprints and adorns an exterior wall of the Chapel Hill Cleaner's building on Franklin Street. Since the mural was once again co-sponsored by the Downtown Commission and Chapel Hill-Carborro School System and involved local volunteers,[7] the handprinting technique became a clever solution for the problem of uniting their contributions into a single artwork.

According to Brown, the large Carolina blue handprints were inspired by a student tradition for celebrating basketball victories at UNC. "I was struggling for an idea when an old childhood memory came to me," Brown said. "I used to enjoy walking past Sloan's Drug Store because you could still see some faded Carolina blue hand prints put there by students after Carolina's 1957 National Championship win."[11]

The 14 by 50 foot mural is in poor shape and is a candidate for the Painted Walls Project.[11]

Popular murals[edit]

Though Brown has been painting murals in Chapel Hill for more than 20 years, a few pieces of his work remain iconic. Many of Brown's most famous works are up for restoration as part of the Painted Walls Project.

Sea Turtles[edit]

Sea Turtles, originally painted in 1993 and restored in 2011, was painted at the intersection of North Columbia Street and East Rosemary Street. on the side of a parking deck. Brown originally wanted to feature dinosaurs but the Chapel Hill Design Review Board rejected the idea. Instead of dinosaurs, Brown adorned the 30 by 70 foot mural with another prehistoric animal.[12]

"First, in my youth, I used to keep pet turtles, sometimes dozens at a time," Brown said. "Another reason was that one of my elementary school teachers back in 1963 told me that during the age of the dinosaurs we here in Chapel Hill were under water. As a kid I enjoyed walking around uptown and imagining dinosaurs swimming past the planetarium. Maybe one still lived, I thought, in the UNC steam tunnels." [12]

In order to restore the mural, a local artist painted Pets in 2011 to raise money.[13]


Brown originally wanted to paint a 100 foot long chameleon, but when Chapel Hill's Appearance Commission rejected the idea as too scary and inappropriate, he settled on a 140-foot pencil.[14]

"They thought it might frighten children," Brown said. "They also felt it was an undignified image to have so close to a church."[15]

The mural, painted on a wall on the side of Henderson Street in pop art style, features the words "is mightier than the sword" upside down to prevent it from being considered a billboard by the Appearance Commission. The mural was originally painted in 1991 and restored in 2007. Brown said the idea came to him by accident.[15]

"Irritated with (the Appearance Commission), I went back to the drawing board, but nothing seemed to be working," Brown said. "I threw down my pencil in disgust. It rolled across the table and stopped on the plans."[15]

Paint by Numbers[edit]

Sometimes known as Pantana Bob's for the name of the restaurant on which this mural is located, Paint by Numbers is the last mural Brown painted as part of the annual Mural Project supported by the Downtown Commission. He envisioned the 2003 mural as an homage to those who had helped him over the course of his work.[10]

"These 'painted painters' are about halfway through their project, so the mural becomes a painting about making a painting," Brown said. "I think it is a nice tribute to all the school kids who have helped me each spring for 18 years." [10]

When the Downtown Commission reformed to become the Downtown Partnership, the yearly project stopped.[10]

"I must have somehow sensed that this might be the last mural," Brown said. "The painted painters will never finish their mural, and I didn't want my program to be finished either."[10]

Painted Walls Project[edit]

The Painted Walls Project is an ongoing effort to restore and preserve damaged murals in downtown Chapel Hill. The town government had expressed interest in repairing certain murals as early as 1995, allocating $2,065 to Michael Brown for the purpose of "Downtown Mural Preservation" in the summer of that year.[16] The Painted Walls Project, however, represents a more concentrated effort to bring together various groups with an interest in preserving the murals that have become characteristic of downtown Chapel Hill. In the summer of 2008, the Chapel Hill Historical Society, Preservation Society of Chapel Hill, and the Chapel Hill Museum began collaboration on the Painted Walls Project.[17] Since then, the project has successfully restored the murals Musical Youth, The Blue Mural, Porthole Alley, and Pencil.[18] Other murals titled Hands, Wall Walkers, Pantana Bob's, The Postcards, Earth as Atoms, Comic Book, the Cave Paintings, Walt's Grill, and Puzzle Pieces have also been featured on the Chapel Hill Preservation Society website as murals in need of restoration. All restored murals and murals considered in need of preservation so far are Michael Brown's work.

In 2010, UNC-Chapel Hills campus newspaper The Daily Tar Heel reported on the project, at that point citing The Chapel Hill Preservation Society and the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership as the project's primary supporters. It also attested to the popularity of Michael Brown's murals as an integral piece of the atmosphere of downtown Chapel Hill, and therefore worthy of restoration.[19]

In order to raise funds for the project, Sadie Rapp, then 14 years old, painted the mural Pets in 2011. It served as her eighth grade project at the Duke School, and she stated: "Part of the project involves doing research, so I studied the effects of public art on communities," Rapp said. "And in doing that, I saw an article in The Daily Tar Heel about Michael Brown and the Painted Walls Project. So I thought, 'Why not use my mural to help that one?'"[20]

The mural contains 33 dogs and one cat. Residents could "adopt" the dogs for a $50 donation and Rapp auctioned off the cat for $110. It went on to raise $1,700. Michael Brown painted a small turtle on the Rapp's mural as a thank you.[21]

Donations can be made by visiting the Painted Walls Project Page.

Other artists[edit]

Other artists and organizations have made their marks on the Chapel Hill area's walls, though none so prolifically as Michael Brown.

Casey Robertson painted The Girl in 2010 at 104 West Main Street and Arrows at 709 West Rosemary Street in 2011. Both murals feature a street art style.[22]

Scott Nurkin, who studied under Michael Brown from 2000-2004, assisted on many of Brown's murals. In October 2013 he completed the mural "1941 Curt Teich Postcard" located on the backside of the outdoor bar He's Not Here, which commemorates various landmarks on the campus of UNC.[23] Additionally 8 more of his murals can be seen in the courtyard of that establishment. He completed "Carrboro Man" at 705 West Rosemary Street in June 2013. Many of his murals can also be seen in Chapel Hill establishments such as Syd's Hairshop, the Cave, Chapel HIll Underground, and Goodfella's Pub. The University of Chapel Hill recently purchased his NC Musicians Mural which formerly hung in the now defunct, Pepper's Pizza. The 18 paintings which comprised the mural now hang in the School of Music in Hill Hall on the University of North Carolina's campus.[24]

David Wilson created five murals for the Hargraves Community Center in 2004. Each 7 by 14 foot panel outlines a specific portion of African-American history and accomplishment in Chapel Hill. Each of the large outdoor panels are digital enlargements of smaller painting that hang inside the center.

Emily Eve Weinstein painted the Strowd Roses Community Mural that decorates an exterior wall of the Jade Palace Restaurant on Franklin Street in 2009, two years after her original mural was painted over by vandals posing as property owners. Like many of Michael Brown's projects, the mural relied heavily on local student volunteers who helped complete Weinstein's design. It is named for the Strowed Roses Foundation, a local nonprofit organization that provided the grant funding the project, and the artwork depicts wild climbing roses.[25]

Other muralists include David Sovero, Babatola Oguntoyinbo, Mary McCarthy, Scott Stewart, Jim Tuten, and Ryan Robidoux.

List of murals by artist and date[edit]

Title Artist Year Painted
Laying the Cornerstone of Old East Dean Cornwell 1941
The Blue Mural Michael Brown 1989
Hands Michael Brown 1990
Pencil Michael Brown 1991
Gates of Beauty Michael Brown 1992
The Cave Michael Brown 1992
Trees and Seasons Michael Brown 1992
Fishing Village Scott Stewart 1993
Sea Turtles Michael Brown 1993
Auctioning of the Lots Michael Brown 1994
Marathon Michael Brown 1994
Walking Up the Wall Michael Brown 1996
Quilt Pattern Michael Brown 1996
Parade of Humanity Michael Brown 1997
Super Heroes Michael Brown 1997
Carolina Car Wash Babatola Oguntoyinbo 1998
Amber Alley Michael Brown 1999
Democracy Express Jim Tuten 1999
Jigsaw Puzzle Michael Brown 1999
Arts Center Michael Brown 2000
Chapel Hill Postcards Michael Brown 2000
Franklin Street Scene Earl Kluttz Thomson and Raines Thompson 2001
Musical Youth Michael Brown 2001
Earth as Atoms Michael Brown 2002
Paint by Numbers Michael Brown 2003
Hargraves David Wilson 2004
Nation of Many Colors El Centro Latino Volunteers 2005
New York City Street Scene Mary McCarthy 2005
Club Nova Volunteers 2007
Dogwoods Michael Brown 2009-2011
Strowd Roses Community Mural Emily Eve Weinstein 2009
Pets Sadie Rapp 2010
The Girl Casey Robertson 2010
Wootini Gallery Ryan Robidoux 2010
Arrows Casey Robertson 2011
WCOM David Sovero 2011
Ramses Michael Brown 2012
Mellow Mushroom Michael Brown 2013
Carrboro Man Scott Nurkin 2013
1941 Curt Teich Postcard Scott Nurkin 2013


  1. ^ Orange County Board of Commissioners (May 5, 2009). "Orange County agenda: Mural painting by Michael Brown for Visitor Bureau breezeway entrance". Town of Chapel Hill.
  2. ^ a b c d Maguire, Marti (August 22, 2012). "His murals amplify the character of Chapel Hill". The Raleigh News and Observer.
  3. ^ "New mural on Franklin street". Town of Chapel Hill news release. Town of Chapel Hill.
  4. ^ "Public art at Carolina". The Carolina Story: A virtual museum of university history. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  5. ^ Case, Matt (1993, October 2013). "Post office gets bicentennial mural". The Raleigh News and Observer. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  6. ^ Walker, Minot (November 3, 2011). "Q&A with local artist Michael Brown". The Daily Tar Heel. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  7. ^ a b Fox, Linda (March 28, 1991). "Artist uses walls as his canvas - Murals take shape on sides of stores". The Raleigh News and Observer.
  8. ^ Save the murals: The blue mural, 1989. (2007, November 14). The Chapel Hill news.
  9. ^ Easterly, Greg (June 2, 1993). "Splashes of color add zing to parking deck". The News & Observer.
  10. ^ a b c d e "Pantana Bob's". The Chapel Hill Preservation Society.
  11. ^ a b c "Hands". The Chapel Hill Preservation Society.
  12. ^ a b Brown, Michael. "The Turtles". The Preservation Society of Chapel Hill. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  13. ^ Largent, Nancy. "Sea Turtles". The Chapel Hill Recorder.
  14. ^ Largent, Nancy. "Pencil". The Chapel Hill Recorder. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  15. ^ a b c "Pencil". The Preservation Society of Chapel Hill. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  16. ^ Chapel Hill Town Council. "Minutes of a regular meeting of the mayor and council of the town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Monday, June 27, 1994 at 7:30pm". Town of Chapel Hill.
  17. ^ Norman, Laurie (June 2008). "President's message". Preservation Notes: Preservation Society of Chapel Hill 31.2 Found at the North Carolina Collection at UNC Chapel Hill Archived 2008-02-26 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ "Painted Walls Project". The Preservation Society of Chapel Hill.
  19. ^ Proctor, Katherine (October 29, 2010). "Painted Walls Project raises funds to restore beloved murals". The Daily Tar Heel.
  20. ^ Hart, Dave. "Adopt a (painted) pet: One mural sparks another". The Chapel Hill News. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
  21. ^ Largent, Nancy. "Pets". The Chapel Hill Recorder.
  22. ^ Largent, Nancy (March 23, 2012). "Mural walking tour". The Chapel Hill Recorder.
  23. ^ Schultz, Mark (August 30, 2013). "Muralist keeps tradition going". Chapel Hill News.
  24. ^ Mitchell, Courtney (September 25, 2013). "Pepper's Pizza paintings to hang at Hill Hall" (PDF). The University Gazette.
  25. ^ Hart, Dave (April 26, 2009). "Artist adds life to wall for all to see". The Raleigh News and Observer.