Durham’s Community Art: A Historical Exploration

By Hannah Adams

Published Nov. 6

Durham comes to life through vibrant and diverse community murals. These pieces of art celebrate Durham’s rich history, culture and diversity, and have become an integral part of the city’s landscape.

“While some states attempt to remove the historical truths that shaped this country; Durham has decided to embrace the past and color it in such a way that people will not just remember but also acknowledge the journey of black freedom,” says Connie Conwell, an alumnus of North Carolina Central University and a long-time resident of Durham.

Starting in the early 1900s, murals have become an integral part of Durham’s history, serving as promotional tools for local businesses and sources of civic pride. In the 1970s, amidst the backdrop of the civil rights movement, murals in Durham evolved into powerful instruments for social transformation and cultural expression.

Today, Durham offers a thriving mural scene around the city that highlights the talents of local artists.

Wall of Hope  

Artist: Andria Linn 

Location: 136 E.Chapel Hill St.

The 2008 mural, created as a fundraiser for Threshold Clubhouse in Durham, features a connected network of individuals. 

“Each element of the mural orchestrates symbolism and a medley of hope,” said Linn. “It creates an example of what we all experience every day… It is conceptualized to communicate the unity that brings us all together with a harmonious blend and fusion of color and strength that joins us in similarity and against all odds.”

She strives to underscore how the mural portrays the shared experiences of the Durham community. Through various artistic elements, it symbolizes unity by bringing people together and demonstrating strength when confronted with adversity or tragedy. Ultimately, this piece of art serves as both a celebration of life and a testament to the community’s enduring resilience and tenacity.

She makes efforts to emphasize that the artwork captures the common experiences of the community. The artwork also aims to symbolize unification by bringing people together using elements that demonstrate strength and tenacity in the faced of adversity or tragedy. This piece of art not only serves as a celebration of life but also underscores the resilience and unity of the community.


Location: 210 W Pettigrew St. Durham (Side of Burt’s Bees building) 

Artist: Matthew Willey 

This vibrant mural is a part of the Good of the Hive Initiative, a project aimed at painting 50,000 honeybees across the U.S. to celebrate the role honeybees play in ecosystems and to raise awareness about the challenges they face. 

Willey explains, “The hive I am creating is a metaphor for us all…no matter your color, nationality, religion, gender, age or economic status. This piece of art is an idealized picture of health to focus on as we work toward solutions.” 

The “Swarm” mural, which depicts honey bees within a hive, serves as a powerful symbol of collective thinking and the connectivity of human and planetary health. Inspired by a personal encounter with a honey bee, the artist, Matt Willey, emphasizes how the COVID pandemic highlighted our profound connection. By highlighting our shared responsibility and unity, the global hive metaphor in the mural helps to strengthen ties between individuals and the community.

Pursuit of Happiness 

Location: Durham Convention Center Plaza at 301 West Morgan Street 

Artist: Charlie Brouwer 

Charlie Brouwer’s, “The Pursuit of Happiness,” was displayed at Durham’s first Bull City Sculpture Show, which was organized by Liberty Arts. 

Midland Ladder wrote that, “Brouwer, however, very much prefers the community aspect of his work, ‘one of the roles that art plays is to create an experience people can identify with that would allow me to go to anybody and everybody no matter what part of the world they’re part of and include them in this.”

Midland Ladder observed that Brouwer values the communal aspect of his work, aiming to create experiences that resonate universally. The sculpture embodies the significance of living in the moment, reflecting Durham’s commitment to the arts and free speech. Following the exhibition, a private resident generously donated the sculpture, which now graces Convention Center Plaza, enriching Durham’s cultural landscape. This artwork not only provides the community with access to thought-provoking art but also promotes mindfulness and contributes to the city’s overall cultural vibrancy.

Betty Davis  

Artist: Scott Nurkin 

Location: UHILL Walls 

Chapel Hill artist Scott Nurkin commemorated Durham-born music pioneer Betty Davis with a mural at UHILL Walls. Betty Davis was known for her groundbreaking contributions to American soul and funk music, but she faced censorship and discrimination due to her bold, sexually empowered, unapologetic stage presence. 

“I’ve always been impressed by the wealth of musical talent from our state, I want to teach people about all of these incredible musicians,” said Nurkin.

Durham celebrates creativity, breaking convention, and the unwavering pursuit of excellence by highlighting Betty Davis’s audacious and unapologetic artistic expression. The mural holds significance to Durham by honoring a hometown artist who opened doors for others by showcasing the city’s rich musical heritage and its commitment to celebrating the achievements of its exceptional residents. 

Pauli Murray and True Community

Location: 313 Foster St. Durham 

Artist: Brett Cook 

Pauli Murray,  a prominent figure in Durham, championed gender equality and played a significant role in the desegregation of schools. 

“The Community is based upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together,” said Murray. 

The city’s fundamental values; equality, mutuality, and reciprocity—are emphasized in Murray’s words as they are written on the mural. The mural highlights the value of community and relationships in Durham while acting as a daily reminder of Murray’s immeasurable contributions. Her life story reflects the city’s unwavering commitment to social progress and equality and is an essential part of its history. Durham honors Pauli Murray’s legacy and draws attention to its own dedication to justice and equity by painting this mural in her honor.

Durham is home to a vibrant collection of murals that serve as more than just historical artifacts. They’re dynamic representations of the community’s culture and values. By promoting a sense of unity and preserving the city’s rich history, these murals continue to shape Durham’s identity. They enrich the artistic landscape of the city and inspire future generations. In essence, the murals in Durham are not only a tribute to the past but also a symbol of the city’s dynamic, cultural future.

Edited by Ethan Horton, Kristen Snyder, and Holland Bodner