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Not a muralist: Just Michael Brown

A house painting job and a hitchhiking trip to Mexico influenced Michael Brown's first works as a muralist. Over the past 31 years, his abstract sea turtles and starry town landscapes decorate Chapel Hill's walls, quietly shaping the town's aesthetic. 

Scattered across weather-worn walls in Chapel Hill are the murals of Michael Brown. From massive abstract sea turtles to starry town landscapes, Brown has painted a variety of subjects in his 31-year career — garnering a reputation as an artist.

However, Brown said he didn’t set out to become a mural painter for a living nor intend to please the public — things just fell into place. 

“It wasn’t really a conscious decision,” Brown said. 

In the late ’70s, as a studio art undergrad, Brown painted houses with a fellow student for about a year. Brown said the mixture of his artistic abilities with the tasks of climbing ladders and carrying ten-gallon paint cans aided in forming the skills he would need to paint murals a decade later.

While Brown's undergraduate degree and house painting side job developed his skills, he said a hitchhiking trip to Mexico in his 20’s nurtured his interest in mural painting and solidified some of the conceptual desires he carries in his work today.

“It's the nature of the work,” he said. “It was not difficult. It spoke directly to the conditions and the attitudes of the people and the artist.”

Brown said the murals in Mexico were socially concerned and very direct in their political meanings and concepts — free of the elitism he had grown to dislike about postmodernist work. 

He said the communal accessibility of the murals resonated with him.

“My work is generally not near so political and meant to be more generous and fun,” Brown said. “Easy enough that people can say, oh, I get it. That's cool. That's fun. I try to keep them open and loose.”

Brown received the opportunity to paint his first mural in 1989, “The Blue Mural,” on 109 East Franklin Street. At the time, Brown was working as a plumber's assistant, so he said the opportunity seemed viable.

“Once I did one, the phone just rang and has been ringing for 31 years,” Brown said. “I haven’t even had to struggle that much. I work hard and I call people back and I try to bid jobs correctly and fairly, not gouge people and take too much money.”

Brown said his ideas for mural paintings flow in direct conjunction with the community hiring him. In regards to Chapel Hill, Susan Brown, the executive director of community arts and culture, said more often than not the town plays the role of a facilitator. 

“We might connect an interested property owner to a certain artist or we might do a courtesy review of the proposed mural,she said.

Brown has collaborated with schools, hospitals, restaurants and libraries — producing work that he said allowed him to explore the bounds of his creativity. For example, he worked with architect Louis Cherry to combine architecture and mural painting within the walls of the Chatham Community Library in Pittsboro. 

“Michael really got into it and did a masterful job of taking an idea and running with it,” Cherry said.

Brown said not all painting jobs are made equal — some are more fun or dependable than others, some are done for free. He said a job, no matter how good or bad, helps him gain a positive reputation, advantageous for acquiring work and paying the bills.

With his career, Brown said he has managed to pay off his mortgage, attain savings and send his kid to college. As Brown approaches retirement, he said he is traversing into a new stage of his life: A stage that will be driven by the guises of his creativity — with no limitations put in place by a committee or the strictures of commission done work.  

Brown said he has completed numerous abstract paintings, which he keeps in his attic — hidden away from public view. 

“I’m nearing a time when I am looking at all those paintings in the attic and saying, wow, those are really good ideas. And they were all my own,” Brown said. “And maybe I'll do these things that I think are the most special and intelligent and sensitive things I've ever done. And make them big.” 

But, now Brown said his goal is to try to put his work back into more gallery spaces.

“I'm hoping that I can find some really high-end, smart galleries to sell the things,Brown said. 

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The concept of going back out into the art community at an older age is a little scary for Brown. He said he has gotten so many opportunities and big breaks in his life that it feels somewhat foolish to run around trying to reach new heights.

“I got married, ran around, had 10 different jobs, bought a house, survived — I've read books, did art, worry about money — don't worry about money much anymore," Brown said. "Have disappointments, have happy times."