This Summer, The ArtsCenter embarked on an exciting new chapter in our 45-year history: our new Public Art initiative! Working with a panel of local artists, educators, and community leaders, we reviewed over 20 applications from mural artists and teams, eventually selecting artist JP Jermaine Powell to create the final design. The community engagement process of this project combined a public survey with a socially distanced community photoshoot where Carrboro residents could have their picture taken for inclusion in the design.
JP has been working hard on this mural on the side of Gray Squirrel Coffee in downtown Carrboro’s East Main Square for the last few months, and now that the project is finished, we sat down to talk with him about his work, what motivates him to create, and his experience with the project.
What role can public art play in creating cohesion in a community?
JP: I think that the We Are Community mural is a great example of how there are individuals with so much history and so many stories to tell that share a common bond, a common location. The Carrboro community is like a tapestry or a living quilt full of beautiful experiences.
What did you observe or learn about Carrboro from the community outreach that you did this Fall?
JP: The people who live in Carrboro are very proud to live and work in Carrboro. There is a lot of love here also. There is a genuine respect and affection between people based on what I’ve seen doing the mural. That’s what changed around the halfway point in the mural. I really wanted to capture the love that people have for their friends and family.
Why do you think there is so much more public art in the area now during the COVID-19 pandemic?
JP: I’ve noticed that my eyes are windows to my soul. And what I see or don’t see can influence how you are and what you do both personally and professionally. Maybe you feel that way too? The pandemic has been been a time for growth and reflection for some. A woman told me that while I was painting the mural. She said, “The world seems slower now and I think people are returning to nature; the things that make the world so beautiful.” Public art is a way to communicate messages on a large scale. I think people now have just a little bit more time to see the world around them with less social distractions.
How do you contrast doing public art from the other types of art that make up your practice?
JP: Well, public art is about how the art, the artist and the public interact especially doing such a personal mural such as We Are Community. When I’m in the studio, I’m alone and thinking about how my audience will react to a painting or a sculpture. With public art projects, I get real-time feedback from the actual people who are directly affected by this new “thing” in their neighborhood. On a personal note, the many conversations, smiles and encouragement greatly added to the success of the the We Are Community mural. The Carrboro community gave me the will and energy to complete a 20 portrait, 21 figure wall.
What makes a piece of public art successful?
JP: I don’t know truly, to be honest. I mean, I have my personal goals as an artist to myself and my artist community. But also there are many stakeholders in the process and many opinions. Some artists talk about the horrible experiences of making a public project, but the results can be amazing. And in some projects, some public art sponsors might not be happy with the direction a project ended up, but the general public and artist are happy. I guess that’s why there are so many public art pieces popping up because each piece or project has a different story to be told. The process is just as important as the end result sometimes. I’ve made so many new friends and connections during this We Are Community mural project. This experience is priceless; I would never want to not remember all the people who helped make this mural what it is. Public art in ever changing communities is a never ending story with a variety of attempts. It’s just like an artist painting fifty canvases and maybe two are recognized as good or great. What about the other forty-eight?
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get into painting murals or creating public art?
JP: I get these questions a lot. My main advice is:
Get to know yourself. Public art can be difficult as far as dealing with criticism and fast paced changes. You need to learn when you get tired, how many hours you can work in a day, dealing with creating in front of audience.
Get to know and genuinely like other people. Dealing with the community is also a part of the project, meaning that you need to enjoy being alone but also enjoy people. I literally lived in Carrboro for a month, absorbing the culture, learning the faces of twenty individuals by painting them!
Be flexible. Project changes can come fast. My challenge from the mural survey feedback was to integrate all the great things about Carrboro into one amazing image that for the most part, people can enjoy. I had to make changes on the fly sometimes so being flexible can be an asset. Also advice from others can make projects even greater. Marketing Director of The ArtsCenter Patrick Phelps-McKeown’s observations really helped with making all of the elements work in the mural during the design phase.
Have a message. Remember the art is public. Even if the message isn’t as clear to public as it is clear to artist or stakeholder, having a message helps justify the reason for the public art. If any objections or feedback is made, the meaning and intent of the project can help smooth things over
Stay in shape. Simply put, stay healthy. On this mural I was up on ladders and scaffolds. It’s a physical process to make murals. I also worked on this project in the wind, rain and snow. I worked in the early morning and at night so make sure your body and mind stay relatively as healthy as they can be.
For more information on JP, and to purchase his work, visit: