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.

Rock Hill’s ‘Mural Mile’ brings art to Old Town

“Dreamer,” Darion Fleming’s contribution to the Mural Mile, is located at Overhead Station at 212 E. Main St. in Rock Hill. According to his Instagram, Fleming wanted “this piece to act as a reminder that children should always be encouraged to create. A child’s dreams are fabricated through an imagination that feeds off creativity and it can all start with a crayon” (photo: Christian Smith).

The Mural Mile initiative looks to provide funds and opportunities for local artists to create public murals around downtown Rock Hill, which organizers say they hope will improve the quality of life in the city.

The project, part of the Knowledge Park Action Plan by the Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation, has completed nine murals, with five more awaiting completion.

Artists both locally and internationally known have come to work on the project. Osiris Rain, who was classically trained in Italy and Norway and is the founder of Osiris Rain Studios and the North Carolina Academy of Art, was the first to complete a mural for the project.

Audio Wrap: Rock Hill’s ‘Mural Mile’ brings art to Old Town

Before painting murals, he was a scenic painter for the film industry, but after his film company moved, he decided he wanted to do something a little different.

“When I was a scenic (painter), that was the first time I had painted murals and the visceral experience of being able to paint, but also be outdoors, also interact with the public, is just far more gratifying than sitting in a dark room in front of an easel. So it was an easy choice for me,” Rain said.

While some artists have had to apply to be a part of the project, Rain was contacted by the Economic Development Corporation because of his previous work.

“Originally, Shepard Fairey was going to be doing the first one. He had to cancel…so I got to swoop in and steal his thunder. Only because I was a local and I didn’t have to travel from (Los Angeles),” Rain said. “They saw a piece I did up here in Charlotte, in the NoDa Arts District, and they really liked the general vibe of that. So I designed one specifically for Rock Hill.”

Rain’s mural, “Warehouses on White,” was completed in April 2020 and is located at the Dust Off Brewing Co.

Other community members also had a hand in the creation of murals, like Brittney Kelly, owner of The Mercantile, who lead the change on the “No Room for Racism” road mural outside her store. The mural depicts the Friendship Nine, civil rights pioneers who were jailed in Rock Hill.

The spider lilly, a rare flower that grows along the Catawba River, is featured at the center of Osiris Rain’s contribution to the Rock Hill Mural Mile. The mural is located on the side of the Dust Off Brewing Co. at 130 W. White St. in Rock Hill (photo: Christian Smith).

“You know, after sitting down and speaking with a neighbor who is a dentist here in town, but she happens to be an incredible artist…the Friendship Nine came into our head.” Kelly said. “And it was more, for us…about the education component. That I just truly think there are so many people who live in this town that know nothing about the sit in at the counter or that John Lewis came through here and was beaten at our bus stop here.”

Kelly said, despite approval for the mural from the city, they still encountered a lot of bureaucratic issues.

“We were the first to do a road mural in the city of Rock Hill. So, it just kind of threw everybody for a tailspin as far as the ordinances and the planning and zoning,” Kelly said. “At first, they were completely okay with us crossing the lines. And then they day we are painting, we got kind of like a cease and desist not to cross the yellow line. But it was already approved and kind of on the paperwork, so we just continued forward with it.”

The next mural going up will be by Shepard Fairey, who will be in Rock Hill Oct. 15-19. A reception is planned to take place on Oct. 16.

Knowledge Park, the plan under which the Mural Mile falls, is “a walkable, multi-faceted district of Rock Hill that will build a modern economy, and reinvent the original heart of Rock Hill,” according to the Knowledge Park website.

Cathy Murphy, downtown development manager at the Economic Development Corporation, said the Mural Mile was a part of Knowledge Park’s plan to “placemake.”

“A plan came together to bring residents and interested parties to put together a strategy for downtown development in Rock Hill, and that’s where the Knowledge Park Action Plan came from,” Murphy said. “There were nine strategic areas that came out of that…one of them was jobs and employment, one of them was development and one of them was placemaking.”

Placemaking, as defined by the Public Square, a journal by the Congress for the New Urbanism, in an article titled “Four Types of Placemaking,” is “ the process of creating quality places that people want to live, work, play and learn in.”

Other similar efforts include the Power of Art Mural Project, which aims to “spruce up” power and utility boxes with murals, and the Walk of Art Mural Project, which looks to “help create a lively pedestrian experience” with murals painted on downtown crosswalks, according to the “Mural Mile” how-to guide.

This story was written for and posted to the Palmetto Report on Sept. 29, 2021.