Michael Brown is a self-proclaimed “North Carolina boy.” A 1977 graduate of UNC, Brown is the creator of many of the town’s beloved murals, including the sea turtles on Columbia Street and the marching parade in Porthole Alley.
Brown is now being featured at the Eno Gallery in Hillsborough. Daily Tar Heel staff writer Walker Minot talked with Brown about painting and his career.
Daily Tar Heel: How do you approach mural painting?
Michael Brown: Occasionally I will get an idea from a building and approach someone, but most of the time somebody — a building owner, citizens groups or a business — will approach me, that’s the first step.
Then, politically, you figure out what the funder and building owner would like to see, something that doesn’t violate any town regulations. Once all that’s figured out, I try to make it at least moderately artistic and interesting and entertaining.
You’d think that would come first, and I hope it does on one level, but there’s a fairly big process of getting different people to come on board. Then I photograph and measure the building, draw up drawings that fit. Then I grid off the building, usually using mortar joints and brick sizes as a basis for my grid.
I do a few background colors first, filling in the drawing’s grid. Then I draw it. A half an inch on the drawing becomes a half a foot on the building. That’s really it, you do your drawing and fill in the colors. It sounds a lot like paint by numbers, and in a way it is, but if you didn’t have any artistic training at all, you probably couldn’t make it look very good.
DTH: Do you feel constrained as an artist about what you can do with a mural?
MB: I feel constrained as an artist about what I can do in the art galleries and everywhere else. I’ve been lucky to have more freedom and somewhat more imagination about what would be cool and fun than a lot of mural artists. I don’t mind that because I like art, and I like sharing art with the public, and I’m sort of a populist, it’s an important part of my politics and personality. I like for the average person who may not go into the museum that often to still get a charge out of seeing something be a painting and of it being art. If I were one of those people who had been born with a trust fund or other privileges, I know my work in many ways would be a lot different, way different.
DTH: What started you in art and when did you decide to pursue it as a career?
MB: As a little, little child I always enjoyed the activity. I got older and the economy was doing a very similar thing like it is now, and I pretty much thought, there are no jobs out there, so I might as well give it a shot. If I strike out, it’s certainly not too late to try something else. Why not give it a shot when you’re young? The next thing I knew the phone was ringing off the hook and people wanted me all over the place and I got some grants and whatnot. I kept figuring for year after year, this is great, I’m making some money but it can’t last — when it finally washes out I’ll have to turn to something else. And here I am 30 years later. It’s worked out.
DTH: What does it mean to you that other people want to display your art and people want to see it?
MB: People don’t believe me when I tell them that in my heart of hearts and in my undergraduate days, I was what was known as an abstract expressionist. But people like the skill level that drawing requires and the conservative work I’m showing now in the galleries. I’m very flattered by that but also hoping to return to the work I did as an undergraduate when I get a little nearer to retirement. People who love the representation stuff in murals say I shouldn’t do that. It’s nice when my work is shown, but I know that I’ve made compromises so sometimes it’s a little bittersweet.
DTH: What is a day like for you?
MB: Every day is very different. I go around and take pictures of landscapes, I talk on the phone to architects, I draw up plans, I go to the studio and make paintings for the gallery, I try to do mural work in the good weather. I rent equipment — buckets, scaffolding — I do estimates. It’s sort of a one-person business. Sometimes I’ve got to put on my tie and go sell. I’ve got to hire services — talk to an accountant. Even though I don’t make a lot of money, I still have to pay taxes.
Contact the Arts Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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