The article below was written by Fred McCormick of The Valley Echo on June 24, 2020.
The list of influential N.C. natives is a lengthy one that features U.S. presidents, Nobel Prize recipients, hall of fame athletes, religious leaders and world-renowned writers and entertainers. Among the Tar Heel State’s most notable cultural contributions is its diverse array of talented homegrown artists representing a wide variety of musical genres.
Scott Nurkin’s N.C. Musicians Mural Project will honor many of those trailblazing performers in their respective hometowns throughout the state, creating a trail that will lead directly into the heart of Black Mountain with a powerful image of Roberta Flack.
The inspiration for the project came to Nurkin, who owns and operates The Mural Shop in Chapel Hill, more than a decade ago. In 2007, he painted a series of portraits depicting 23 musicians from N.C. that were displayed in the now-defunct Pepper’s Pizza in his hometown.
“I started to think that it would be great to do these as murals in the small towns these artists came from,” he said. “I just haven’t had the time or wherewithal to get this project going until recently, but I’ve been dreaming about this every night for at least 10 years.”
The initiative gained momentum when Nurkin enlisted the help of his longtime friend, and founder of the annual Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh, Greg Lowenhagen, to help coordinate the project. As the duo began scouting locations throughout the state, their search brought them to the Swannanoa Valley.
Flack was born in Black Mountain in 1937. Her family moved to Arlington, Virginia when she was nine years old. A musical prodigy, she learned to play the piano at a young age, and attended Howard University in Washington D.C. on a music scholarship at the age of 15. Her debut album, “First Take,” reached number 1 on the Billboard charts and was certified platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. She again received critical acclaim in 1972 with the release of a duet album with Donny Hathaway. Flack earned a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1973 for her single “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and again in 1974 for “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” making her the first solo artist to receive the honor in consecutive years. She was recognized with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year and continues to support humanitarian efforts, such as the international anti-hunger initiative Feed the Children.
With a musical career spanning more than five decades, Flack, who now lives in New York, is an immensely influential artist, making her a key piece to Nurkin’s mural project.
“She is a musical goddess, and one of the greatest musicians of all-time,” he said. “I remember listening to her with my mom when I was a child, and I’ve always been a big fan. I really can’t say enough good things about her; she is an American treasure.”
Nurkin and Lowenhagen approached Black Mountain Town Manager Josh Harrold with the idea for a mural honoring Flack in her hometown earlier this year.
“He was very supportive of the idea, but he told us that the town was unable to provide funding for it at this time, which was totally understandable,” Nurkin said. “However, we still wanted to go see the town and see if we could identify any potential locations for the mural. As we were driving through town, we drove past Black Mountain Brewing and I was like, ‘look at that wall.’ It’s in the center of town, adjacent to a large parking lot and it’s already painted. It felt like the perfect spot.”
Nurkin reached out to John Richardson, owner of the brewery, Black Mountain Ale House and founder of the nonprofit organization PubCorps.
“We had actually been looking to put something meaningful on the side of the building, but we wanted it to be something special,” Richardson said. “One of the things I feel like we’re missing in Black Mountain is the celebration of diversity, and there is no question that Roberta Flack is the most accomplished artist born in this community.”
The need to recognize and uplift the contributions of African Americans is underscored by the national conversation about racial equality that has been amplified in the weeks since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, he added.
“We know that the number of people of color in Western North Carolina is declining, and we know gentrification is displacing so many of them,” Richardson said. “So this felt like an important opportunity for Black Mountain to celebrate a strong Black woman and embrace a piece of our history that, for some reason, we haven’t.”
Richardson launched an online crowdsourcing campaign to raise $15,000 to pay for the mural, and the response from the community was “overwhelming.”
“We raised the money in eight days, but the support for the mural didn’t surprise me because I’ve always believed in the goodness of this community,” he said. “It’s also important to point out that we received donations from all over the country. It was really exciting to see everyone come together to support this project.”
Work on the mural, which will be a reproduction of a black-and-white portrait composed by Jack Robinson in 1969, shortly after the release of Flack’s debut album, will begin in July. A photograph from the session was used as the cover art for Flack’s second album — “Chapter Two” — released in 1970.
“That photo is just so powerful,” Nurkin said. “I felt like it was not only the perfect image to represent Roberta Flack in this project, and it’s a perfect fit for the space.”
The painting will be the fourth installment of the N.C. Musicians Mural Project, following Nurkin’s recently completed John Coltrane mural in Hamlet and a pair of Shelby pieces recognizing Don Gibson and Earl Scruggs. Nurkin and his team are in the process of creating a website that will map out a trail of the murals featured in the project.
The first installment of the N.C. Musicians Mural Project, completed in mid-June, depicts pioneering jazz musician John Coltrane in his hometown of Hamlet. Courtesy Scott Nurkin
Once completed, the ambitious undertaking will allow communities throughout the state to celebrate some of their most famous natives while serving as an artistic reminder of the accomplishments of North Carolinians.
“The motivation behind this project has nothing to do with turning a profit,” said Nurkin, who is himself a traveling musician. “The whole purpose is to bring awareness to these artists and remind people that N.C. isn’t just the birthplace of some great musicians, but some of the greatest.”