ORANGE COUNTY — Michael Brown is quite enamored of the 12-foot-tall, hot-pink pig that lies on her side, in three pieces, in the studio outside his home near Carrboro – one hoof waving, cheerleader-like, toward the floor.
A painter best known for his Chapel Hill murals, Brown has done pieces that are larger, more intricate, and far more beautiful. But the perky swine, a pro-bono prop for a friend’s barbecue to raise funds for breast cancer, is his latest. And he can’t seem to stop talking about her.
“She’s charming as hell,” he tells his friend over the phone. “I’m in love with her.”
Over the past 23 years, Brown has blanketed the town where he grew up with 20 or so larger-than-life images that are stunning in their variety – from a 140-foot-long pencil along a Henderson Street retaining wall, to a group of sea turtles swimming down Columbia Street, to a scene from the town’s early history on the inside of the post office.
Many of these murals were completed with local schoolchildren in an annual town event that launched Brown into a specialty as a muralist in the late 1980s. That program ended in 2001, but Brown has continued to make his mark in Chapel Hill and beyond.
His work adorns walls across the Triangle and state, and from upstate New York to Miami.
This month, he unveiled his latest mural, a modern take on the UNC-Chapel Hill mascot, Ramses, at the university’s student store.
In recent years, he’s undertaken a project to restore some of his earlier murals with help of the local preservation society. And one of his upcoming projects will be on the walls of beloved landmark The Rathskeller restaurant, currently under renovation.
Brown “has given Chapel Hill a central part of its character,” says Ernest Dollar, former director of the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill, who recently took over the Raleigh City Museum. “The town would not have been the same without his artistic vision.”
Brown, 57, maintains a boyish excitement over each project that belies his years of experience, and the hard work of painting huge pieces in mostly outdoor locales. Whether it’s a six-figure project that takes months to complete or low-brow pig project, he relishes new possibilities.
He recalls in his youth being impressed with Victor Borge, the piano virtuoso and humorist who could move seamlessly between diverse genres to create a comic effect.
“He could switch from classical to jazz to ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ and you wouldn’t even know he’d done it,” he says. “I always admired that kind of stylistic versatility.”
Art and soccer
Brown came to Chapel Hill when he was 6 and says he enjoyed a free-roaming youth there, where he could wander from his family’s downtown home to Franklin Street, the Ackland Museum on campus, and other sites around town. Sometimes, he would gather used soda bottles and return them for the 2-cent deposit, treating himself to movies at The Varsity with his bounty.
Brown had four siblings, and he was an excitable kid, he says. His mother found that art classes seemed to calm him down.
“I got sent to art classes a lot,” he says, “and I loved them.”
By age 4, Brown planned to be an artist, and he says he persisted with that plan as he continued to earn recognition for his work, hardly ever considering another career.
His other passion as a youth was soccer. His father’s job, as an engineer specializing in water purification, took the family to Peru for a year, where Brown learned to play the game, which then was rarely played in North Carolina.
Upon his return, Brown found a few other players for a regular Saturday morning game that lasted for years. He went on to help form Chapel Hill High School’s first team, with help from some college players from UNC. His senior year, the team won the state championship, and Brown earned All-American status as a goalie. He went on to coach youth soccer for nearly 20 years.
He went to college at UNC-Chapel Hill, along with many of his friends from Chapel Hill High, where he studied art. He was also part of a leadership program that helped him find work in his field each summer, including a stint at the N.C. Museum of Art.
After graduation, he got a grant to work on his art in Provincetown, Mass., for two years, during which he says he hardly left the studio. Afterward, he was helping friends design stage sets for what he calls “off-off-off-Broadway” plays in New York City when he landed a job through the Guggenheim Museum doing art programs with students in some of the city’s more troubled schools.
Murals in Chapel Hill
By the time he returned to Chapel Hill, he was the perfect candidate to lead a planned project to have schoolchildren paint a downtown mural. It was 1988, and he was working as a plumber’s helper and looking for work as an artist.
As a youth, he had a few chances to help paint murals at construction sites. In college, he had painted houses to make money, and had bought much of the equipment needed to paint on a large scale.
“I had the equipment, I had the ability with big spaces and walls, I had the training as an artist, and I had the skills to work with volunteers and kids,” he says.
He planned a mural in several shades of blue in the pointillist style, figuring the continuity of the color and size of paint strokes would mask the irregularities in the children’s painting. He chose a nighttime scene he recalled from riding his bike down Franklin Street to a dishwashing shift at Ye Old Waffle Shoppe – the moon rising over a church steeple along the deserted street.
From then on, Brown painted a community mural every year for more than a decade, each year choosing an entirely different subject and style.
“My first thought was not to do it the same way because that would be boring for me, and worse, to the town,” says Brown. “It was a way to show off being versatile.”
The murals made a deep connection with the town’s residents, as evidenced in the letters received by the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill as it raised money for the ongoing restoration effort.
“These murals are the best examples in Chapel Hill of the innovation, creativity, community attachment and intellect of the local people,” resident Catherine Aguirre wrote in 2007. “Each one is clever. Together, they are ingenious.”
That first mural also launched Brown’s career as an independent artist.
“I painted that thing and was still wondering what would happen next when the phone started ringing,” he says. “And the phone kept ringing for 23 years.”
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