CHAPEL HILL - Michael Brown dabbed another dollop of paint on one of the figures near the top of his new mural and then carefully descended the long ladder leaning against the wall. Once he was safely on the ground, he took a few steps back and craned his neck to look up at the work-in-progress.
“I gave them long hair and headbands,” he said. “Now how do I turn them into hippies?”
He pondered for a moment, gazing up at the wall.
“Maybe yin-yang symbols or something on a couple of their shirts,” he said.
Then, mind made up, he picked up a gallon of paint and, balancing it carefully, started back up, one rung at a time.
Brown, the artists behind the nearly two dozen murals that are among the distinguishing features of downtown Chapel Hill, has been at work for more than a week on his newest one.
Situated on the east-facing wall of what used to be Ham’s Restaurant and will soon be a Mellow Mushroom pizza place, it’s a large painting that features a multicolored school bus adorned with stylized flowers and peace signs, with nearly a dozen fairly shaggy people riding on top, and at the left, large images of singers Tina Turner and James Taylor, along with an iconic Chapel Hill landmark or two such as UNC’s Bell Tower. With swirling Peter Max-style lines and pop art colors and imagery, it evokes an unmistakably 1960s peace-and-love aesthetic.
“She said, ‘Give me 1968,’ so OK, it’s 1968,” Brown said. “It’s a Mellow Mushroom. They like this look,”
“She” is Amy Senn, whose Atlanta-based Senn City Studio (motto: “Funky art for funky people) is an art studio that does interior and exterior designs and artworks in private homes and businesses, including a number of Mellow Mushrooms, throughout the Southeast.
She did the artwork in the first Chapel Hill Mellow Mushroom near the corner of East Franklin Street and Estes Drive, which closed in 2005. Two of the owners of that location, Casey Fox and Kent Hodges, are among the team opening the new one, and they hired Senn to do the interior and exterior design again.
“Mellow Mushroom is a company that really takes a keen interest in artwork,” Senn said. “They’re great to work with. And at this new location, I was so excited to see that giant wall, because in the past few years I’ve been interested in public art, and this was a great opportunity to put some public art in Chapel Hill.”
She originally intended to commission one of the artists she has worked with on projects in Asheville or Atlanta.
“Then I thought, ‘Wait a minute. Why not try to find a Chapel Hill artist?’ So I did some research, and Michael Brown’s name kept coming up. I met with the Public Arts Commission, and his name came up again. I thought, “I have to meet this guy.’”
They did, and came to an agreement. Senn created the original design, and Brown fine-tuned it.
She looked through UNC yearbooks from 1965 to 1972 and drew on several photos she found there for the main images, including Turner and Taylor and the psychedelic bus with young people riding on top.
At 40-by-80 feet, the mural is a big, labor-intensive project, and Brown spent last week working on it for 10 to 12 hours every day. The routine is unvarying: Haul a bucket of paint up the ladder, paint everything within reach that requires that color, then take it back down and bring up the next color. When one section is done, he scoots the ladder over a few feet and starts in on next one.
“I have a lot of work coming up, so I’m working all day every day to get this one done,” Brown said.
He began painting murals 23 years ago, first doing the blue-hued nighttime scene facing the East Rosemary Street public parking lot, and his scenes – the sea turtles facing North Columbia Street, the huge pencil on Henderson Street, the young musicians on West Franklin Street – have become as iconic as the local landmarks he sometimes incorporates into them. He has since done murals throughout the state and up and down the Atlantic seaboard.
With good weather last week, he was able to work on the Mellow Mushroom project every day from early morning until near dark.
As often happens when he’s doing a mural, passersby paused frequently to take pictures of him at work, perched high atop his ladder, facing his painting surface with brush in hand.
“You know what I just realized?” he called down. “I’ve probably had more photographs taken of my backside than anybody except a Playboy model.”