Arts & Culture

North Carolina’s Musical Legends Get the Mural Treatment 

Artist Scott Nurkin immortalizes Tar Heel jazz, rock, country, and punk greats in their hometowns

A mural of Nina Simone

Photo: Jared Caldwell

A mural of Nina Simone in Tryon, North Carolina.

When the artist Scott Nurkin began painting portraits of North Carolina–born musicians to hang on the walls of his favorite pizza joint, the fee for services rendered was clear: free slices and beer “for life.” And it was a payment plan Pepper’s Pizza was more than making good on before the Chapel Hill establishment shuttered in 2013.

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photo: Jared Caldwell
Scott Nurkin.

“Unfortunately, the life expectancy of [Pepper’s] was far shorter than mine,” says Nurkin, who is now forty-eight. But his collaboration with restaurant—an idea sparked, perhaps, during one of his many drives across the James Taylor Bridge in Chapel Hill—inspired Nurkin to found the North Carolina Musician Murals project, with the mission to paint as many murals of famous Tar Heel musicians in their hometowns as possible. 

That’s a tall order, sure, but already he’s covered a lot of ground, completing twenty-three murals since June 2020, with three more slated before midsummer. Thelonious Monk, for instance, in Rocky Mount. Earl Scruggs and Don Gibson in Shelby. Roberta Flack in Black Mountain. Betty Davis in Durham. He recently wrapped Maceo Parker in Kinston and Art Wooten in Sparta. And as long as there are musicians to honor and building exteriors available, he’ll continue.

Nurkin grew up in Charlotte but moved to Chapel Hill in 1997 to attend the University of North Carolina and never left. Gifted at painting from a young age, he didn’t try his hand at a mural until after college, when he interned with the local artist Michael Brown and realized how much the process appealed to his love of the outdoors and of meeting new people. Plus, the spaciousness and physicality of the canvas itself offered a more hands-on experience than “anything I ever learned in art school,” he says.

photo: Jared Caldwell
Doc and Merle Watson in Boone, North Carolina.

At the same time, Nurkin was touring as a drummer for two bands—the Birds of Avalon, a prog/psychedelic rock outfit, and the Dynamite Brothers, whose music has been featured on the soundtracks for UNC School of the Arts alum Danny McBride’s television projects The Righteous Gemstones and Eastbound & Down

Nurkin gigged for about a decade—always on the edge of hitting it big. Birds of Avalon toured Europe a couple of times and opened for some bigger-name bands, including the Raconteurs, one of Jack White’s projects. For a while, that vagabond life worked fine. “It was the swinging 2000s,” he says. “My obligations were pretty minimal, and just keeping myself fed was pretty much the only requisite.”

Those priorities changed when he became father to daughter Finch, who is now twelve. He began to lean into the stability offered by the commissions coming into his 2000-founded company, the Mural Shop. The idea for the musician murals didn’t take off, though, until 2019, when Nurkin enlisted the help of his college pal Greg Lowenhagen, an entrepreneur who founded Raleigh’s popular Hopscotch Music Festival, “an ideas guy” with sales chops who came on board to “make things happen.”

They hit the road to meet with representatives of the first five towns on their list, pitching them the idea of civic pride by way of accessible art. Most towns they approached loved the idea, but hurdles in some locations included limited budgets and space. Then they’d get creative, as they did in Black Mountain—the mural of native Roberta Flack went up on the side of a brewing company that agreed to help fund the project.

photo: Jared Caldwell
Roberta Flack in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

Nurkin painted his first mural in Hamlet, population 6,000, just east of Rockingham. It was in this small Piedmont community that one of the most influential figures in jazz was born, in 1926: the saxophonist John Coltrane. The innovative composer and performer is one of Nurkin’s all-time musical heroes—“the apex, the top of the top,” as he puts it.

He met with Hamlet’s town manager, who drove them around to point out buildings that might work. They wound up picking the old opera house—a beautiful, historic structure that stretched up six stories. “I was immediately like, ‘It’s got to be this, because he’s larger than life,’” Nurkin recalls.

Nurkin put in long hours late into the evenings of that June of 2020, and as the portrait began to come together—with Coltrane’s tall frame offset by a pensive, almost piercing gaze, saxophone clutched firmly in hand—a steady stream of curious onlookers and drivers honking their horns passed by. “No one knew what was going on, because so few people even knew he was from here.”

That included a man who one day approached Nurkin, looking puzzled, and asked about the figure in the mural. Nurkin explained that this was one of the most famous saxophone players in history, a genius who happened to have entered the world just right down the street. Nurkin recounts that the man, who was Black, began to cry, and explained that during segregation, Black people were not allowed inside the opera house; now a Black man was the building’s most striking feature—a dramatic, sixty-foot-tall, distinguished presence. 

The entire interaction “gave me chills,” Nurkin says. It also illustrated the long, complicated history between many of the artists who crop up in Nurkin’s murals and their hometowns—particularly when it comes to Black musicians, who often had to leave bigoted environments to find success. Take Nurkin’s mural of the legendary singer, composer, writer, and activist Nina Simone, in the heart of Tryon. In that painting, Simone’s eyes lift to the horizon, as if secure in the knowledge she’s destined for greatness. But only recently has this quaint village at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains begun to recognize and celebrate the legend.

Nurkin considers educating people about undervalued or underrecognized facets of North Carolina’s past as one of the project’s chief missions. He says his childhood history classes never mentioned that some of his favorite musicians—among them, Simone, Coltrane, Flack, and George Clinton—hailed from his home state. “We learned about James K. Polk, but we didn’t learn about Coltrane,” he says, “which seems kind of backward to me.” Future murals will include Parliament-Funkadelic founder Clinton (from Kannapolis) and niche figures such as drummer Reed Mullin, of the 1980s Raleigh hardcore punk band Corrosion of Conformity.

While Nurkin has experienced plenty of lovely interactions while painting, ugly ones have occurred, too. Once, a white woman drove up to him as he was working and yelled, “We don’t need any more of that [expletive] Black Lives Matter [expletive] on the wall.” Nurkin sees this as part of creating these very public pieces of art, which each usually take about three to four days. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, in some sublime moments, passersby have shared that they knew the musicians in real life. 

A mural, Nurkin says, has a lifespan of about ten years, before it gets damaged, torn down, or painted over. “They’re not cut in marble, so they have shelf lives,” he says, “and there’s a beauty to that, that you don’t have to be married to it or fall in love with it forever and ever and ever.” Or, as singer Randy Travis might say—looking out from Nurkin’s stately mural of him in his hometown of Marshville, down a lonely stretch of highway between Charlotte and Wilmington—“forever and ever, amen.”