Pizza parlor portraits

North Carolina-born musicians add character to a wall at Pepper's

Staff writerJune 28, 2009 

— You can get a slice of pepperoni with mushrooms and olives at any pizza joint. But Pepper's Pizza in Chapel Hill offers a bonus: a North Carolina music-history lesson.

Just inside the restaurant's front door, a painted outline of the state with portraits of native North Carolina musicians takes up a large expanse of wall. Seventeen notable natives are there -- from Carrboro roots-rock madman Dexter Romweber to Tryon R&B singer Nina Simone, Kannapolis funk giant George Clinton to Newland jazz drummer Max Roach.

Scott Nurkin, who paints murals when he isn't playing drums for the band Birds of Avalon, has been working on the art piece since before Pepper's opened in its current Franklin Street location in 2007.

It remains a work in progress, with at least a dozen portraits to come. Nurkin has partly finished portraits of Dunn guitarist Link Wray and Chapel Hill blues woman Elizabeth Cotten in his studio. Ryan Adams, Kay Kyser, Charlie Poole and Shirley Caesar are also on the way.

"I believe at least two people on that wall have actually been in here," Nurkin says over a lunchtime slice of Pepper's Bermuda Triangle pizza (pineapple, feta and jalapeno peppers). "I heard Randy Travis came in once and did not acknowledge his picture, although the guy he was with did. And Ben Folds has been in here. You'll, um, notice that Ben's is the smallest picture up there. I used to joke that their size is proportional to how much of a musical titan they are."

Nurkin says his initial payment was "free pizza and beer in here for life," but he's trying to get arts grants to finish funding the project. The portraits are based on photographs, and most took a couple of days to paint. The spray-painted portrait of Henderson rhythm-and-blues singer Ben E. King took longer.

"I started out trying to locate each one in accordance with where they were from," Nurkin says, "but that was not working, compositionally. I tried to capture people in their prime, with images that wouldn't be too much of a copyright infringement.

"And I didn't want just well-known musicians, but innovators like [Thelonious] Monk and [John] Coltrane, who really changed things in jazz. Max Roach totally changed modern jazz drumming. Same for Earl Scruggs in bluegrass and George Clinton in funk."

Robbinsville-born country singer Ronnie Milsap is the latest addition to the piece. And Nurkin acknowledges a mistake, the presence of James Taylor -- who grew up in Chapel Hill but was actually born in Massachusetts.

"Several people have told me that he needs to be taken down, I think mostly out of their hatred for James Taylor," Nurkin says, laughing.

Except for the duo of Deep Gap's Doc and Merle Watson, Nurkin has stuck with individuals so far. At some point, bands with multiple members might be a part of the piece.

There is, however, one thing you're guaranteed not to see, as promised by the map code on the back of the Pepper's menu: "American Idols are not worthy.", or 919-829-4759

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