When Pepper’s Pizza moved to the former Miami Subs Grill space on Franklin Street, owner David “Pepper” Harvey told Scott Nurkin he could paint a mural in the restaurant of whatever he wanted. So Nurkin, husband, but then boyfriend, of Pepper’s’ manager, chose to paint North Carolina musicians in portrait form.
“(Harvey) was like, ‘That’s awesome,’” Nurkin said.
The two had a deal. Nurkin would paint 19 portraits for the restaurant, and, in return, he would receive free pizza and beer for life.
“I definitely drank and ate my share,” he said.
But that deal ended sooner than he expected. He got a call from Harvey in March saying to come get his paintings because the restaurant was closing that Sunday.
Professor Mark Katz, the chairman of UNC’s music department, purchased the paintings, which are now on display in the rotunda of Hill Hall.
Katz was in the middle of a meeting when someone mentioned that Pepper’s was closing. He said the second the meeting ended, he ran out of the room to get one last slice.
But it was not until he entered the packed restaurant that he thought about the paintings of the musicians that hung on the wall. Katz said he called Nurkin and asked what his plans were for the portraits.
Nurkin, who graduated from UNC in 2000, had not thought about the future of the paintings at all when he learned that Pepper’s would be closing. But, like many others, he went to Pepper’s that last night.
“People were offering me crazy money, like cash on the spot,” he said.
After receiving the call from Katz, he considered his options. He had thought about auctioning them and giving that money to Harvey to help pay off some of his debt.
But ultimately, he sold the paintings to Katz. Nurkin said it was not the best offer monetarily, but he did not want the paintings to be split up.
Katz used his research budget to buy the paintings but declined to name the price. To Katz, they serve three purposes: they will continue the legacy of Pepper’s Pizza, display the work of a local artist and UNC alumnus and serve as an educational endeavor.
“I think it fits in with UNC’s mission as a public institution to support the state by showing what happens in the state, showing the richness of North Carolina culture,” Katz said.
He said in their new location, the paintings will be accompanied by an essay explaining the importance of each of the musicians — something that was not there when they were at Pepper’s.
“People can come and look at the paintings but then read about how Thelonious Monk revolutionized jazz, or what George Clinton did for funk, or what "Libba Cotten":http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2013/09/historicalmarker-0927, who was a Carrboro native, did for the blues,” Katz said.
Jocelyn Neal, director of the Center for the Study of the American South, temporarily displayed the paintings in the Love House and Hutchins Forum and commissioned musicology graduate students and her fellow colleagues in the music department to write the essays.
Nurkin also visited Hill Hall Friday to paint a silhouette of North Carolina across from the paintings in the upper level of the rotunda. The silhouette will serve as a map of where all of the artists in the portraits are from, similar to how they were displayed in Pepper’s.
While the paintings are currently on display, there will be an official unveiling this month.
“They warm up the space and encourage the sense of local history,” said Will Robin, a musicology graduate student under Katz’s advisement.
Katz and Nurkin said they could not be more pleased.
“I love it. I’m happy about it,” Nurkin said about the paintings’ new location. “I can’t think of a better place.”
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