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'Low-cost, high-impact': Hillsborough honors jazz legend with first downtown mural

Hillsborough Mural.jpg

Vibrant blues, yellows and oranges joined the streetscape of Hillsborough this month as a local artist completed the town's first downtown mural.

The 11-by-35-feet mural, entitled “Take the ‘A’ Train," honors composer and jazz performer Billy Strayhorn, who spent formative time during his childhood in Hillsborough. The mural is painted on the northern side of the building at 226 S. Churton St., home to Volume, a record store and bar. 

Max Dowdle, a classically trained fine artist who lives in downtown Hillsborough, recently began working on murals. When he moved to Hillsborough, he noticed the town had no murals.

Shannan Campbell, economic development planner for Hillsborough, said Dowdle reached out to her in April and asked if the town allowed murals. She said while there are some regulations, murals are allowed in Hillsborough, but no one had ever shown interest in producing one. 

Campbell said that since the town values historic preservation, it prohibits painting on historic brick. But, she said, there are buildings with painted brick or stucco walls that would allow murals.

“They’re pretty low-cost, high-impact projects,” Campbell said. “Hillsborough prides itself on being an arts community, and it’s just a really good way to kind of highlight that.”

Campbell said something happened that rarely occurs with these kinds of projects: everyone was on board.

Campbell said she reached out to the Tourism Development Authority to see if tourism dollars could go toward the project because she hoped it would bring people to Hillsborough to celebrate the artistic side of the town, its history and the African-American history there.

Building owners Mary and David Knox supported the project. Volume's owner, Tony Lopez, brought the idea to them, asking for permission to use the wall for the mural. 

Mary said Lopez initiated the idea for the mural to pay tribute to Strayhorn. Mary said she thinks the mural ties the musical nature of the business to Hillsborough’s musical history.

“We couldn’t have been more pleased with the choice of the subject matter for that mural,” Mary said. 

A historical marker honoring Strayhorn sits just several hundred feet from the front door of Volume, Lopez said, sparking the idea for the mural's subject. 

“The wall on the side of this building was such a blank canvas, and it needed something there,” Lopez said. “Just thinking about him walking the streets of Hillsborough when he was a kid with all these songs probably swirling around in his head, it was really inspirational.” 

Lopez said Strayhorn spent parts of his childhood in Hillsborough, visiting his grandmother who lived on Margaret Lane, just around the corner from Volume. Dowdle said Strayhorn's grandmother taught him piano, so much of his musicality is rooted in Hillsborough.

"It just felt so fitting for Hillsborough and for our store to help tell that story again,” Lopez said.

Dowdle said the mural, approved by the Hillsborough Arts Council and Historic District Commission, was painted in two weeks. 

“People are very pleased to have a prominent piece of public art that is meaningful to the town,” Dowdle said.

Campbell said she hopes this mural will be the first of many, with one being added in the spring.

“There’s a lot of cool murals in Carrboro and Chapel Hill, so we really want to get there, too, and get a lot of murals around downtown that represent Hillsborough," Campbell said.


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