Eastern Wake News

Tobacco worm mural will pay tribute to Wendell’s roots

Chapel Hill muralist Michael Brown will paint this picture on the side of Ritch’s Gym on Cypress Street in Wendell.
Chapel Hill muralist Michael Brown will paint this picture on the side of Ritch’s Gym on Cypress Street in Wendell.

As the tobacco life becomes more a part of Wendell’s past, the town’s appearance committee is hoping to preserve that history through a mural that depicts one of the crop’s more agonizing aspects.

Chapel Hill muralist Mike Brown’s proposal for a 70-foot long mural depicting a tobacco worm won approval of the Wendell Board of Commissioners on Monday night, and work is expected to begin on the project so it will be complete before the start of the Wendell Harvest Festival on Oct. 7.

Brown’s mural will be much more than just a mural, though. Town officials will nominate the artwork to the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest tobacco worm. And Brown will embed a QR code in the work that visitors can scan with their mobile devices to give them access to a website where they can record their own personal experiences working in tobacco.

“Everyone I talk to about this project says they love it, and they start telling me their stories about working in tobacco,” Brown told commissioners Monday. “It evokes your storytelling mode, and I think the QR code can really help with that.”

Commissioners approved the project unanimously, but not without a little bit of hesitation because the picture Brown wants to paint doesn’t portray the more idealized version of the region’s tobacco-based history.

Brown acknowledged that.

“When you think about tobacco, you think about the warehouses and the markets and the farmers and harvesting and planting. The budget isn’t going to cover all that,” Brown said. “I really wanted to do something fun.”

The mural, which will cover the wall of Ritch’s Gym on the Cypress Street side of the building, will depict the bright green insect sitting on top of a tobacco leaf.

It will cost $3,300 to create. Brown solicited about $800 from an acquaintance to go with the $2,500 budget the town has for the project. The town’s money comes from fundraisers sponsored by the appearance committee to raise money for downtown art.

This will be the fourth mural in downtown Wendell. The others are on the side of Farley’s Tax and Accounting Service on Cypress Street, Klip Chicks Salon on Wendell Boulevard and Third Street Screen Printing on Third Street.

Commissioner David Myrick said he understands why the tobacco worm isn’t popular with farmers and those who worked in the industry.

“I don’t raise tobacco, but I can attest that they like grapevines, too,” Myrick said. “We are always having to deal with those things at our vineyard.”

He pointed out that if commissioners approve the idea, the town would be stuck with the final product, whether it proves popular or not.

“I’ve heard a lot about creating a mascot for the town and, whether you want it to or not, I think this would create a mascot for the town,” Myrick said.

Despite the hesitation over the subject matter, Brown’s promotional pitch for the mural won commissioners over.

“The appearance committee members loved it, except for one lady who had a worm put down the back of her shirt when she was a teenager, but that’s understandable,” said Brown, drawing laughs from commissioners and the audience.

Brown, who designed the bull in the outfield at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, has also designed murals in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Elkin and Durham.

“This is quite ‘out there’ isn’t it?” Brown said. “No one else has one, and that’s a good thing. It’s unique. It gets attention, and it gets people talking.”

Brown had proposed naming the worm Toby, but on Monday, commissioners seemed more inclined to follow the appearance committee’s idea of working with local school children to have a contest to name the bug in the mural. Brown liked that idea because he said he sees his role not only as a muralist but as an educator.

“We could go into the schools and develop lessons for the children about this area’s history with tobacco,” he said.

Johnny Whitfield: 919-829-4823, @_JWhitfield