Mauricio Ramirez got his first taste of good ol’ North Carolina humidity on Thursday. It was just about the hottest September day I can remember — 97 degrees with humidity registering at about the same number. It was the very definition of “sweltering.”
For Ramirez, the Chicago-born and based artist selected to create the first mural commissioned by the Burlington Downtown Corporation, it was a tough day in the sun. Yet there he stood working on the image on the back of Bella’s House as Webb Avenue traffic rolled past. I stopped and took a photo of the start of the mural. If the weather cooperates (rain would be the biggest problem), he should finish the job by around Wednesday, Sept. 18.
This is only his second visit to North Carolina, and the first in a long time. He recalls coming to Raleigh for a youth soccer tournament as a child. But that hardly prepared him for Thursday’s brutal heat. Even North Carolinians had trouble dealing with it. When I asked if the humidity had an impact on the project, he admitted that it was more of a problem for the painter and not the painting itself. “It was tough getting adjusted to the humidity,” says Ramirez, 30. “I had to go in and out a few times.”
The mural is the first of three generated by a grant from the Community Innovation Fund. The fund was developed through a partnership of The Co/Operative and Impact Alamance to act as a catalyst for creative projects or community building efforts. No public money is being used to pay for the murals, which are to be completed by the close of 2019.
Landing an artist like Ramirez from among the dozens of applicants was a coup for Burlington. He is a well-known muralist nationally whose work is spread throughout the nation. He has painted large-scale works for Microsoft, Warner Music Group, Vitamin Water, Red Bull, Stella Artois, and the city of Milwaukee. After he finishes in Burlington he will tackle a 150-foot tall mural space in Chicago, a five-story mural in Milwaukee and a mural in Oxnard, California — all by the end of the year.
“This project kicked off the fall schedule,” he says.
I met Ramirez on Friday the 13th for lunch at Danny’s Cafe on Front Street, just a couple of blocks from where he’s working on the mural. I told him I had just returned from a vacation trip to Denver, Colorado. While there we saw too many muralists to count in action at the Crush Walls urban art festival, now in its 10th year. So murals and what they mean to a community have been on my mind lately.
Ramirez first developed an interest in art at age 15 by watching his cousins express themselves through graffiti. “I wanted to emulate the cool of my cousins,” he says. “I began painting when I convinced my dad to buy me some spray paint.”
He understood that the graffiti he created was illegal, “the kind of things you see on trains and walls,” he says. But he soon had larger images in mind. More importantly, he wanted his art to build a community, not tear it down.
“Graffiti is the act of painting without permission using stylized letters,” he says. “The mural I’m doing now has more weight in terms of what it means to the community. It has a place in the community, where graffiti is a form of anarchy.”
After graduating from the University of Illinois at Springfield with a degree in English, Ramirez decided to go into art. His first job was with an aircraft company painting the exterior of airplanes with large spraying equipment. Later he worked with renowned artist Hebru Brantley in Chicago. Over the last eight years he has created 30 to 40 murals around the nation — from the Midwest to the South. The only area of the country where he has no presence at the moment is the Pacific Northwest.
Burlington will be the smallest city with one of his murals to date. That’s part of what attracted him to the project. “Everyone thinks you have to go to a big city to see a mural but art is art. I wanted to bring something like that to downtown Burlington. I don’t think murals should be limited to urban areas, but it should be rooted in the community, he says.”
Community is a word that comes up a lot in conversation with Ramirez. In the statement to the BDC about his planned artwork he headed it with the words “justice and equality.”
“The piece I want to build in Burlington is a butterfly. It represents metamorphosis, rebirth and transformation. It speaks to the transformation in downtown Burlington,” he says.
The butterfly will contain a swirl of images. On Friday I could clearly see one of two hearts that balance the piece on either end. I tell him that one image to me looks like the helmet worn by “Star Wars” villain Darth Vader. He doesn’t see it, but acknowledges that it’s likely that I do. This is the wondrous thing about art and individual perceptions. “The really interesting thing about this mural is that there is a lot going on. We showed the layout to 10 different people and they each saw different things,” Ramirez says. “People can get lost in the artwork and it gives them fresh air mentally.”
The two hearts contained in the piece are part of what attracted the selection committee. Ramirez says the hearts are important symbols expressing equality, justice and love.
“The hearts on each side are measured equally on each side. It’s a metaphor for how we treat each other. The piece is about love and how we love each other. It’s really an uplifting piece,” he says.
Ramirez is impressed so far with the Burlington community. He’s staying at the home of Alamance Arts Director Cary Worthy. Casey Lewis of Beechwood Metal Works has supplied a ton of logistical support and storage space. He likes the fact that it’s a smaller community where people know each other. As we walked from Danny’s Cafe to the mural site, we bumped into Burlington City Manager Hardin Watkins, who greeted me by name. He was impressed that I was on a first-name basis with the city manager.
A reveal party for the mural is being planned for an as yet undetermined date in October. It will first and foremost engage the community in the work but also act as a fund-raiser for future public art projects. Jessica Pasion, executive director of the BDC says that two remaining murals will be completed hopefully by the end of the year. The artists and sites have not been selected. Pasion says four sites have expressed an interest in having a mural.
More public art in Burlington is something Ramirez would like to see. He wants to be a catalyst for the transformation underway in downtown.
“I hope this mural will inspire future projects in Burlington. I want it to be a case study to include more public art in Burlington,” he says.