Arts & Culture

A massive pink Nina Simone mural now hangs in downtown Raleigh. Here’s the story behind it.

Nina Simone appears in a yarn mural by the artist Olek on the exterior wall of the Raleigh Convention Center. It’s part a project called “Love Across the USA,” which Olek was inspired to create following January’s Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Simone, a North Carolina native born in Tryon, is the third mural in the series.
Nina Simone appears in a yarn mural by the artist Olek on the exterior wall of the Raleigh Convention Center. It’s part a project called “Love Across the USA,” which Olek was inspired to create following January’s Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Simone, a North Carolina native born in Tryon, is the third mural in the series. dmenconi@newsobserver.com

A huge, bright splash of color now adorns the brick exterior of the Raleigh Convention Center in the form of a crocheted mural of singer Nina Simone.

The pink and orange mural of Simone – with the accompanying lyric “Here Comes the Sun” – was installed this weekend on the side facing South Salisbury Street by a Polish-born crochet artist named Olek.

It measures 40 feet wide and is about 20 feet high. More than 100 Triangle residents chipped in to crochet 2-foot-by-2-foot sections of it in August, including needlepoint artist Caitlin Cary. Olek assembled them this weekend.

Olek, who became a U.S. citizen in 2009, is best known for edgy “yarn bomb” installations – like covering New York City’s Wall Street Bull sculpture with pink yarn seven years ago during the economic crash.

It’s part of a project called “Love Across the USA,” which Olek was inspired to create following January’s Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Simone, a North Carolina native born in Tryon, is the third mural in the series.

Her first two “Love” murals depicted suffragist Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist Harriet Tubman. It was during the Tubman mural installation in Rochester, N.Y., that Olek was moved to pick Simone as her next subject.

 

#HarrietTubman, born into slavery in 1822 on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, possessed an uncommon courage and religious faith that allowed her to take her own freedom at the age of 27 and risk her life 13 more times to bring about 70 family members and friends North. She purchased her home in Auburn, NY from William H. Seward in 1859. Tubman worked as a nurse, cook, laundress, teacher, scout and spy during the Civil War and became the first woman in American military history to conduct an armed raid that rescued some 750 slaves from plantations along the Combahee River in the Hilton Head area of S. Carolina. Returning to Auburn she farmed and took in needy persons in addition to traveling to speak in support of Women’s Suffrage. Her life was one of caring for others culminating in the establishment of the John Brown Infirmary and her Home for the Aged. She lived in Auburn for the last 50 years of her life, longer than she lived anywhere else, making the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park preserving her residence, Home for the Aged, the Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church, which she attended, and her grave site a long overdue, but most appropriate decision. First #crocheted mural from the new series!!! Thank you to the wonderful people who participated in this project. Sending love to @redheartyarns for a very generous donation of our favorite #yarn!!! #redheartyarns #schweinfurthartcenter #fiberarts #publicart #publicproject #communityart #communityproject #szydełko #recznarobota #olek #teamolek #oleknyc #woman4woman #womensrights #womenwhochangedtheworld #loveacrosstheusa #auburn #crochet #crochetmural

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“It was horrible weather, rain and cold, and I was playing Nina Simone’s ‘Here Comes the Sun’ on repeat,” Olek said. “And after playing that for an entire morning, the sun finally came out.”

Olek, a longtime fan of Simone’s activism as well as her music, has been listening to her since before she could even understand English. A cassette of Simone songs, given to her while she still lived in Poland, proved to be formative.

“I didn’t understand a word or know anything about her,” Olek said. “But her voice was so amazing. It really gets to your soul.”

North Carolina, as Simone’s birthplace, made sense for the mural’s location. Olek chose Raleigh because she’s worked here before, covering downtown Raleigh’s Flanders Gallery in yarn in 2012.

ArtsNow's Mike Williams chatted with New-York based and international artist, Olek, ahead of her crochet workshops in Raleigh, where members of the community will be working on the 40 feet wide, 20 feet high artwork.

The Simone piece had a total budget of $29,000, with about $18,000 going to Olek, and used material donated by Red Heart Yarn, said Sarah Powers, executive director of the Office of Raleigh Arts.

Powers estimates it will be on display for three to six months, depending on how well the brightly colored pink and orange yarn holds up. To make it somewhat weather-proof, Olek’s team used less-absorbent acrylic yarn.

The mural happens to be on display during fan voting for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which runs through Dec. 5. Simone and her fellow North Carolina native Link Wray are both on the ballot this year.

A sign with the link to Hall of Fame voting accompanies the description of the project.

“I’m asking people to vote for her,” Olek said. “She’s one of the few artists I have on my phone, a song I sometimes play to get myself out of bed. ‘Ooh Child,’ that one.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

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