Durham muralist dreams big for Bull City

By Kaylee Baker
UNC Latino Beat Writer
The Durham VOICE

Editor’s note: This story is a follow up to “‘Los Amo, One Love’ mural is all about unity,” written Sept. 22, 2011, by NCCU VOICE Staff Writer Naundi Armour.

Artie Barksdale opened the door to his Morrisville home in a paint-splotched sweatshirt. He nonchalantly walked past a rustic green, red and orange multilayered art piece as if he did not notice the obvious importance the abstract work radiated. It is apparent the abstract work was placed in the center of the otherwise blank wall by a satisfied artist. Or in this case, a muralist and graffiti lover who left his heart in Durham.

A piece that features Artie Barksdale’s original medium “Red Mass” hangs on an otherwise blank wall in Barksdale’s house. (Staff photo by Kaylee Baker)

“My Blood is in Durham. That’s my city. If I lived in San Diego, I would still come back to Durham to paint murals,” said Barksdale, who has been painting large-scaled murals since he was a student at North Carolina School of the Arts, where he studied theatrical design. “Most of my artwork, the hardcore stuff, is [in Durham], so I have a lot invested there.”

And his artwork has not gone unnoticed.

When 36-year-old Barksdale was just starting his career as an artist, he would scrounge around in garbage cans looking for sources, or items that would inspire his artwork. Some of his main sources were magazines.

“Any artist would tell you that sources are our thing. We have to have a nice stack of visual sources to use,” said Barksdale, who moved to Morrisville with his wife and daughter because it was closer to his wife’s job at Time Warner Cable.

The Los Primos Mural 

During one particular Durham dumpster dig, after tossing aside old rap articles and copies of Playboy, his eyes fell upon a yellow, orange and blue-covered magazine. The 2002 summer edition of Duke Magazine had made Barksdale a source in his own game. The cover beamed with the images and bright colors of Barksdale’s own mural that is featured on the side of the Los Primos building, which stands on the corner of Alston Avenue and East Main Street in Durham.

Barksdale gives the magazine, which he still has today, a half smirk. “I did not sign the Los Primos mural, so it does not make me mad looking at the magazine. It made me feel good to know that somebody liked my artwork enough to even snatch a picture of it.”

But young Barksdale’s immediate thoughts after seeing the magazine were different. “I said to myself, I should go over there and sign [the mural] just in case somebody else wants to use it.” After more thought, he changed his mind. “No, I won’t sign my name. I’ll give the mural to Durham and let anybody use it, instead.” Barksdale never bothered to contact Duke Magazine about the cover.

For now, Barksdale enjoys the anonymous fame. “If I want to be a famous artist, I will. I just have to wait until I make it happen one day. But until that day comes, I’m not signing any of my work until I’m really proud of it.” The Los Primos mural still stands unsigned to this day.

Dreams for Durham

Dreams of Durham as the nation’s art-hub fill Barksdale’s mind. But Barksdale is confident this dream will become a reality in the future.

Artie Barksdale, surrounded by pieces of his original art medium Red Mass, holds a copy of the 2002 summer edition of Duke Magazine, in which the cover featured his unsigned mural painted on the Los Primos building. (Staff photo by Kaylee Baker)

“This is going to happen. Think about it. New Orleans is known for its jazz, its gumbo and Mardi Gras. Durham is going to be in the same exact place, but strictly art. In New Orleans, you’ve got musicians on each and every corner, you’re going to have a city loaded with art, artists, performers, dancers, singers, actors, poets. It’s going to be the Mardi Gras for the arts. Artists will come to Durham from everywhere just to get their careers started.”

Evelyn Scott, manager at the Durham Teen Center, said Durham is headed in that direction. “Durham is being revitalized,” she said. “The city is focusing on redoing a lot of its buildings, making them more appealing. There are a lot of art studios that are opened up downtown that are giving citizens something to do, see and take part of.

The Durham Teen Center is home to one of Barksdale’s many murals. “His murals are positive, inspirational and appeal to all audiences,” said Scott, a Raleigh native who has lived in Durham for eight years, but has been working in Bull City for about 20 years.

“The Teen Center’s mural is perfect for what we are trying to do here. It helps promote teens being seen as vitally contributing to the community.” Scott said Barksdale involved the teenagers at the center by allowing them to determine the mural’s colors and the types of images Barksdale used.

To Barksdale, the purpose of community-based murals extends beyond creating an artistic appeal or an original work that would make him famous.

“Art has total power — total. I can paint a public mural and a 17-year-old kid who might have dropped out of school will come up to me and start a conversation,” Barksdale said. And he’ll watch me paint that mural for about five hours and we’ll just talk. And then he’ll come back the next day for five hours and the next day for another five. Before you know it, this kid has put in 20 hours just talking to me. That’s 20 hours that kid is off the street. Imagine what would happen if I gave him a paint brush.”

Barksdale said this is the type of community-building cities need. He said that murals allow community members to start conversations and respect each other. “People will open up and share their problems and life stories while all I’m doing is painting a pretty picture,” said Barksdale.

“I only want to be known as an individual that’s very inspiring. I’m not too concerned about activism, but I would paint for a cause and paint very fast for a cause that concerns kids,” Barksdale said.

Starting Young

Barksdale found his passion for art when he was a kid himself. He grew up in the urban areas of New Jersey before he moved to Durham for school. When he was about seven or eight years old, he witnessed graffiti for the first time on the streets of New York City. “It took my breath away. I didn’t understand it nor did I know what the guy was doing as he was painting it. But it had so much color and it made so much sense to my subconscious,” he said.

Barksdale said it was the culture of the time that continues to impact his art today. “The 80’s culture really inspired me — the break dancing, graffiti, the innocence behind the decade and the music. The sky was much more blue in the 80’s,” Barksdale said. His love for the decade and life in New Jersey is evident in the bright colors and content of his murals.

About 30 years later, Barksdale is still acting upon his childhood discovery. He has painted murals for many places throughout the community, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Durham Parks and Recreation Department, Curves Fitness Center and the Durham Teen Center. In addition to murals, he paints airbrushed portraits and his original medium he calls Red Mass.

“It’s Styrofoam. I can make Styrofoam look like anything from wood to metal. I created this and I have never seen anybody replicate it. It’s evolving out of its first stages.” Barksdale said.

The art form gets its name from the massive and heavy look it creates in contrast to Styrofoam’s light-weight material. “It’s red hot and heavy. I’m confident in it. I’ll tell people in a minute that it’s hot.” Barksdale said.

He also said he likes all of the red mass pieces he has produced, especially in comparison to his murals, which he may like one day and not the next. Red Mass is his way of elevating art off of the canvas. He plans on producing full-standing mannequins out of Red Mass in 2012.

“Making art is an out of body experience. A lot of times I can paint a mural and I don’t even know how I got from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ because I’m totally in another zone,” Barksdale said.

It’s these zones that allow Barksdale to give back to the city that has contributed so much to him.


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