Shepard Fairey paints mural in old town, gets student help

Shepard Fairey standing in front of his mural (photo: Abbey Kirkland, Charlotte area resident)

Shepard Fairey, contemporary street artist best known for his Obama “Hope” poster and the OBEY GIANT art project, was in Rock Hill last week to install a mural. Fairey has multiple connections to the area, including his grandfather, Charles Shepard Davis, who served as Winthrop University’s president from 1959 to 1973.

The mural, which is located on the future location of The Mercantile at the corner of East White Street and South Oakland Avenue, was installed with help from Winthrop students from Oct. 16 to Oct. 18. The mural is split into several sections, including a portrait taken by photographer Jim Marshall.

“Jim Marshall was documenting the peace movement from the beginning of the 1960s to the end of the Vietnam War, and in the original image, you can actually see like a handmade peace sign that she’s cut out and has pinned to her jacket,” Fairey said. “Her face was going to be too small in relation to the mural, so I just excluded that but included her looking in the same direction as the peace dove flying forward.”

A portrait of a peace advocate, based on a photo by Jim Marshall, comprises a large portion of the mural (photo: Emma Crouch, The Johnsonian).

Other sections include specific imagery from Rock Hill’s past, but morphed into what Fairey said he wants for the future of Rock Hill.

“I like the idea of looking at these elements from history and then saying, ‘How do you push forward with it all?’’’ Fairey said. “So the train, I’ve got the Freedom Rides into the future, which is both an idea of looking back to the Freedom Riders and the history of civil rights, and then how civil rights is [an] ongoing battle for improvement, but you keep pushing into the future.”

The cost of the mural was $35,000, but was paid entirely by private money, meaning no tax dollars were put towards its funding. According to Brittany Kelly, owner of the Mercantile, Catalysts Capital Partners paid about $22,500, the Women’s Art Initiative paid about $7,500 and the Barre Mitchell Community Initiatives Fund, set up by the Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation, paid about $5,000.

On Oct. 16, a reception and art exhibit took place at the future location of the Mercantile to welcome Fairey to the city, as well as to open the temporary art exhibit of Fairey’s work in the space. The exhibit will run Oct. 17 to Oct. 31, Wednesday to Sunday, 4 p.m. to 8 pm. 

Shepard Fairey (center, back) in front of his collage in the upcoming Mercantile location, speaking to members of the Women’s Art Initiative at the reception and art exhibit on Oct. 16 (photo: Abbey Kirkland, Charlotte area resident)

The event was attended by representatives from the sponsors of the mural, John Gettys, mayor of Rock Hill, many of the muralists who have done work in Rock Hill and many others from the area.  

It took Fairey and his team only three days to fully install the mural, but Fairey said he only expected to take that long.

“I’ve done enough murals to know generally how long it will take me to do a mural based on the size and the detail in the mural. And I estimated that this mural would take two and a half to three days,” Fairey said.

His speed can be attributed to his style, which is to design the mural beforehand, print it out on large sheets of paper, and cut away pieces to act as a stencil.

The mural on Saturday, Oct. 16 (photo: Abbey Kirkland, Charlotte area resident)

“[T]he main thing that it takes is just a lot of elbow grease. It’s a lot of just blue collar hard work because we’re using a one use giant stencil, basically, where the image has been printed out in grayscale on thin sheets of paper 36 inches wide by about four feet tall,” Fairey said. “And then those are put up a few at a time, and we cut and then spray and then remove the negative space.”

Fairey is a native of South Carolina and has more than one strong connection to Winthrop. In addition to his grandfather being president in the 60s and early 70s, many of Fairey’s family and close friends, including his lead art assistant Nick Bowers, graduated from Winthrop. He even got a little bit of a Winthrop education himself.

“Edmund Lewandowski, who was the head of the art department, great painter, precisionist painter, he used to give me some critiques on my portfolio back when I was in middle school and high school,” said Fairey. 

Winthrop students were able to help in the creation of the mural. Elizabeth Dulemba, associate professor of illustration, introduced several of her students, Adam Seats, Erin Springs-McCottry, James Poston and Griffin Douglas, to Fairey at the reception and art exhibit. 

“While I’ll take credit for introducing them all, it was Adam who stepped up and asked Shepard if he needed any help. To which Shepard immediately replied, ‘Yes, show up at noon tomorrow!’” Dulemba said in an email. “I could have helped, but was content to watch my students experience this amazing opportunity.”

Seats, a sophomore illustration major, said working with Fairey has opened his eyes to how easy it can be to talk to professional artists, even those who are well known.

“[T]here’s some impression that anybody that has any kind of fame to them is just going to be like, ‘No, please don’t speak to me’ or ‘I’ve heard this question a million times’ or whatever, because you’re not going to ask anything super unique,” Seats said. “But yeah, he was just super nice, which was really refreshing . . . I think after that, it got me to speak a lot more to the other artists around.”

Shepard Fairey signing a baby’s helmet (photo: Abbey Kirkland, Charlotte area resident).

Springs-McCottry, a junior illustration major, said the experience of working with Fairey has already opened doors for her.

“I had a lecture class today and our artist that came in was a muralist. So . . . immediately I was like, okay, I have to get in here somehow. Especially because I’m not exactly sure what I want to do,” Springs-McCottry said. “I definitely, obviously want to do art, but like, murals are cool. Public art is really interesting. So I was like, I can get in here. So just by having a little bit of experience and being able to kind of name drop a little bit got me some sort of contact with her. So [I’m] looking forward to possibly working with her next year.”

Kelly said her building was chosen because Fairey liked the size and shape of the wall, as well as the location. She said the mural will bring tourists, and with it, money, into town, something she has seen firsthand.

“[J]ust this past week we met people that drove from Dallas, from Chattanooga, Tennessee [and] from Asheville. We had a call yesterday from somebody in Florida that was going to drive up,” she said. “You know, the last Shepard Fairey mural I saw was in Paris. So you know, it’s just a humbling experience to have it here. And I think people will take advantage of making that great drive, and then the economic impact that’s gonna have on us too is going to be awesome.”

In addition to the mural outside her store, Fairey gifted Kelly a collage on an inner wall of her new building, where his exhibit is currently taking place. 

“That was a nice surprise that Shepard gave to me,” Kelly said. “Trust me, if and when we ever leave that building, I’ll be cutting that wall out.”

Fairey’s mural joins several others in the RHEDC Mural Mile, which “is an initiative that engages the Rock Hill community and local artists in the design and installation of 8-10 murals on various buildings throughout Rock Hill’s downtown and textile corridor within a one-mile radius,” according to the Only In Old Town website. 

This story was written for and published in The Johnsonian on Oct. 27.

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Christian Smith

My name is Christian Smith, and I am a student at Winthrop University pursuing a major in mass communication and minor in political science. I am passionate and knowledgeable about local news; accountable and transparent government; diversity, equity, and inclusion; public document gathering and in-depth research.

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