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Scott Nurkin stands, arms crossed, in front of the Elizabeth Cotten mural.

Scott Nurkin at a Carrboro mural he painted honoring folk and blues musician Elizabeth Cotten. (photo by Donn Young)

Scott Nurkin celebrates North Carolina’s contributions to the American songbook by painting murals of legendary musicians in their hometowns.

The idea started small, born out of love for great pizza and great music.

In 2006, when Pepper’s Pizza moved to a larger location on Franklin Street, owner David “Pepper” Harvey reached out to his friend Scott Nurkin and asked him to create art for the new location.

The artistic inspiration hit Nurkin, a 2000 UNC art graduate and longtime musician, when he was driving across the James Taylor Bridge on U.S. 15-501.

Nurkin painted about 20 small portraits of North Carolina-born musicians like Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Randy Travis and hung them in thrift store frames on a state map he drew on the eatery’s walls.

Mural of Thelonious Monk
Composer Thelonious Monk, recognized as one of the most inventive pianists of any genre, is featured in this Rocky Mount mural. (photo by Jared Caldwell)

The pizza had a loyal following, but so did the paintings, and when Pepper’s closed its doors for good in 2013, fans wondered — what will happen to the portraits?

Enter Mark Katz, a professor and then-chair of the department of music. After heading to Pepper’s for a final slice on the restaurant’s last day, Katz called Nurkin and offered to buy the paintings for permanent display in the music department’s Hill Hall.

Schooled in art

Nurkin, a Charlotte native, remembers the UNC art history class that cemented his decision to make painting his life.

Mural of Betty Davis
This Durham mural honors Betty Davis, a pioneering American funk, soul and rock singer-songwriter. (photo by Jared Caldwell)

“They read the announcements at the beginning of class, and then the professor asked, ‘Who wants to be a professional artist?’” Nurkin said. “I was the only one who raised my hand.

“Then I was like, ‘Oh, that isn’t good!’ But I really couldn’t imagine any other alternative.”

When Nurkin found out that Chapel Hill muralist and alumnus Michael Brown ’77 was looking for interns, he jumped at the chance.

“Being outdoors, climbing a ladder — it was so different from sitting in a studio, which is fun, too,” Nurkin said. “Michael was a delight to work for and taught me everything I needed to know.”

After the internship was over, Nurkin talked Brown into keeping him on as an apprentice.

“Scott was eager to learn. One of our first projects was painting the antique signs at Southpoint Mall,” Brown said. “He learned skills like ‘how to drive a bucket lift 101.’ The quality of his work is excellent. And as techniques have changed, Scott has been quick to pick up on technological innovations.”

Mural of Randy Travis
Country music legend Randy Travis grew up in Marshville. (photo by Jared Caldwell)

Nurkin said he became enamored with the size and scale of mural painting.

“Over time, I became better at figuring out some of the tricks, like how do you solve a project on whatever wall you’re given? How do you work around windows and air conditioning units and pipes? How do you make it fit? That was interesting to me.”

A larger-than-life idea

As he concluded the apprenticeship, Nurkin started to grow his own business, The Mural Shop, and continued to pursue his second passion — playing drums with his band, the Dynamite Brothers.

He was also dreaming up a new vision of how to bring the Pepper’s Pizza paintings to a larger audience.

“I kept thinking, ‘How cool would it be if I could go to towns across the state and paint outdoor murals of these North Carolina musicians in their hometowns?’” he said. “These are people — like blues guitarist and singer ‘Blind Boy Fuller’ from Wadesboro — that we never heard about in fourth grade history class, yet these people have had an impact on my life.”

“When I found out that trailblazers like Roberta Flack, Randy Travis, Nina Simone and Earl Scruggs are all from the same state, I had to tell everybody I knew.”

Mural of John Coltrane
Nurkin painted his first mural — of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane — in Hamlet. Coltrane received two Grammy Awards. (photo by Jared Caldwell)

When COVID-19 hit and towns were canceling music festivals, that freed up some arts funding. An idea that Nurkin and fellow Tar Heel Greg Lowenhagen (American studies ’99) had pitched to the city of Hamlet to paint a mural of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane finally came to fruition. (Coltrane was born in Hamlet but grew up in High Point.) With the completion of that first mural in June 2020, the N.C. Musician Murals Project was born.

“It’s a six-story mural on the back of the Hamlet Theatre, which has its own legendary history,” Nurkin said. “Black people were not allowed in that building for the better part of the 20th century, and now you have this 60-foot portrait of Hamlet’s most famous musician.”

Nurkin’s website for the project describes Coltrane as a “composer who helped define jazz as an American art form.”

A drummer’s dream

In January, Nurkin completed his 22nd mural in the N.C. Musician Murals Project in Elizabeth City.

Mural of Floyd Council
Chapel Hill-born Floyd Council and fellow blues musician Pink Anderson were the inspiration for rock band Pink Floyd’s name. (photo by Jared Caldwell)

This latest one was special.

Nurkin had idolized jazz drummer Max Roach for years. Roach is considered one of the most important drummers in history and among the most widely recorded modern percussionists — having worked with jazz legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. He was born in the township of Newland, near Elizabeth City.

“Since I was a boy, I’ve looked at Max Roach as a hero, a larger-than-life icon,” Nurkin wrote on Instagram. “I remember very distinctly an issue of Modern Drummer that had him on the cover with the caption, ‘The man who changed the way you play drums.’”

Roach, who died in 2007, would have been 100 this year. Not only did Elizabeth City commission a mural of Roach downtown on Water Street, city and cultural officials have planned multiple centennial celebrations this year in Roach’s honor.

Mural of Fulton Allen, known as "Blind Boy Fuller"
Fulton Allen, known as “Blind Boy Fuller,” was a pioneering Piedmont blues guitarist and singer; his mural is in Wadesboro. (photo by Jared Caldwell)

Deborah Malenfant, executive director of Elizabeth City Downtown Inc., said Nurkin’s murals “make you stop in your tracks to admire them from a distance, and then again close up to check out the details. They have a ‘wow’ factor.”

Malenfant calls each mural in the N.C. Musician Murals Project “a destination piece.” She believes the Roach mural will have a positive impact on tourism, and she said it has already received quite a bit of attention.

“I love the dialogue it has started,” she said. “Many people did not realize Max Roach was from here. It’s been a great opportunity to engage people in learning about our local cultural history. It not only connects people to Max Roach’s story, but our community stories.”

Nurkin has more murals in the works this year, including one of Kinston native Maceo Parker, a funk and soul jazz saxophonist who played with James Brown and Prince.

His creative inspiration

It is a blustery 35-degree day in mid-January when Nurkin agrees to meet in Carrboro for a photo session at one of his murals.

This brings to mind a question about what it is like to work as a muralist in extreme weather.

“I typically stop at 45 degrees if I can, but if it’s freezing cold or wet, I don’t do it because it can affect the work,” he said.

Scott Nurkin and daughter Finch stand in front of the Elizabeth Cotten mural in Carrboro.
Nurkin says his 12-year-old daughter, Finch, is his “creative inspiration.” (photo by Donn Young)

Behind Nurkin, painted on the side of an old barber shop at 111 N. Merritt Mill Road, is a mural honoring folk and blues musician Elizabeth Cotten, who wrote her most famous song, “Freight Train,” at age 11. She learned to play guitar upside down, an adaptation by a left-handed guitar player with a right-handed guitar. Cotten won a Grammy at the age of 91 in 1984 and was posthumously inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2022.

Katz walks by that mural in Carrboro regularly, and the music professor said it always brightens his day.

“I love to see Elizabeth Cotten recognized so boldly in her hometown,” Katz said. “These murals are a great recognition of and contribution to our state’s cultural heritage.”

When asked about his creative inspiration, Nurkin doesn’t hesitate: “My 12-year-old daughter, Finch.”

Finch, who is also an artist, is with her dad on this particular day, hanging out after school. The two enjoy painting together, and Finch said she loves bragging about her dad to her friends.

In the summer, she sometimes accompanies Nurkin as he heads to another North Carolina town for an assignment. The two enjoy seeing new places and chatting with locals.

“I love it when we’re doing a painting and someone will stop by and say, ‘I really love that you’re highlighting this particular person,’” Finch said. “‘And I love that you’re doing it here.’”

Learn more about Nurkin’s project and where to find the murals on Instagram, @ncmusicianmurals, or at musicanmuralsproject.com.

By Kim Weaver Spurr ’88


Published in the Spring 2024 issue | Features

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