Of all the changes seen by the town of Chapel Hill in the last few years, perhaps the most have come at University Place. Owned and operated by the DC-based Madison Marquette Real Estate Services, the mall has experienced a name change and a number of retail changes, most notably the disappearance of Dillard’s and the establishment of Silverspot Cinema. University Place has also attracted several stores from the since-demolished University Square downtown in addition to the former site’s catty-corner neighbor the Aveda Institute and other anchors like Kidzu Children’s Museum and Planet Fitness.
Despite all retail shuffles, “we needed to find a way to further engage our current customers and capture the attention of new shoppers by re-inventing the space,” says University Place Marketing Manager Beverly Carr. Inspired by these efforts, the mall has also increased its number of special community and shopping-oriented events including the Semi-Annual Sidewalk Sale, this holiday’s Sounds of the Season concert series and a job fair. Local art hasn’t been excluded; the space’s roomy interior has hosted the town’s Scrapel Hill Recycled Art exhibit for several years.
During November and December of 2015, Carr and her associates commissioned two N.C. artists to add some personality to the north- and south-facing exterior walls of the building. Michael Brown and Robert Langford, both seasoned painters in their respective communities, were selected to provide two massive, abstract murals; neither artist, however, had ever been asked to create something of that magnitude on such a rough, brick surface. To make things more interesting, the artistic criteria was fairly vague: Make it edgy, eye-catching and somehow reflective of the city’s forward-thinking ideals.
“With its prominent university and medical center, Chapel Hill is recognized as a unique community which treasures the arts, nurtures intellectual discovery and values a diversity of viewpoints,” explains Carr. “These murals are a direct reflection of town values which include teamwork, collaboration and communication.”
Brown was born and raised in Chapel Hill; he attended UNC for art, and kicked off his career here in town before being invited to work at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. Ten years later he returned to his hometown, a place he says he’s always admired for the enthusiasm of its business owners and the richness of its arts scene. He built a reputation for himself here and beyond; locals will recognize him for the pair of sea turtles drifting above a South Columbia Street parking lot, the “Parade of Humanity” in an alleyway leading to UNC campus and countless other murals.
“You’ve got to construct a community,” Brown says. “A community doesn’t happen by accident. … It’s kind of important to demonstrate that it’s a unified effort from all the institutions – the university, the town, private individuals – that makes this such a vibrant community.”
His contribution at University Place faces south, overlooking a new plaza that will see even more developments in the near future. When you approach the mall from North Estes Drive, Brown’s masterpiece stares back at you – literally. It consists of two pairs of eyes, constructed from bright green and purple dot matrices; in other words, you can only tell what it is from far away. Up close, it is a lighthearted and decorative backdrop to the rounded concrete seating area where moviegoers and shoppers might mingle.
His decision to paint eyes stemmed largely from the work’s proximity to the theater; it comments on the idea of spectatorship, and the choice to compose using dots plays off of the ephemeral, flickering nature of the movie screen. To its viewer, it might represent the wide-eyed curiosity necessary to embrace and explore a brighter, more shopper-savvy future. The mural itself is in fact ephemeral; before too long, that wall will be converted into a series of storefronts and restaurants to complete the classy, European-style plaza feel.
On the opposite side of the mall facing Harris Teeter is Langford’s work, entitled “Momentum.” Sprawling outward from its focal point, it’s an experiment in shape and warm sunset tones. It’s reminiscent both of woven Aztec patterns and of some majestic bird who has just spread his wings.
The Charlotte-based artist was originally a real estate developer by trade, having attended school for business. Though he’s entirely self-taught, he made a leap of faith one day and opened his studio in a vacant strip mall storefront where he soon set up showings with other artists. He has a permanent work space and some public works on display in the Queen City now, and regularly travels and paints for venues across the country.
“I love Chapel Hill. It’s such a creative melting pot,” says Langford, who admits he wishes he’d spent more time in the area. “There’s always such a fresh sense of awareness of what’s going on … [and an] energy to know more, to learn, to develop.”
The contributions of both Brown and Langford on the walls of University Place play into a much greater sense of artistic, thoughtful identity that Chapel Hill is so well-known for. A lack of public art and other accessible cultural relics would make it harder to immediately see what’s so special.
Brown likens the phenomenon to attending a dinner party: “If…you walked in and there was no music playing on the stereo, and there were no pictures hanging on the wall, and no books on their shelves – just plain furniture – that would be an unusual and to me, quite off-putting, experience. I’d wonder who they were and what made them tick.”