By CASEY FABRIS
Carolyn Rogers perches on a crate, using a charcoal stick to sketch “Welcome to Rocky Mount” onto a retaining wall, her canvas on this sweltering Tuesday morning.
Though it’s not yet 10 a.m., temperatures are in the 80s and still climbing. But Rogers, whose face is shielded by a wide-brimmed hat, said she isn’t bothered by the heat. Years of glass blowing prepared her for it.
Rogers is one of four artists who have spent weeks turning a parking lot retaining wall into a visual history of Franklin County, the entry to the Crooked Road heritage and music tourism trail.
The mural is located in a shopping center parking lot off South Main Street in Rocky Mount, across the street from the hospital and historical society.
The mural pays tribute to the locality’s moonshine, music and agricultural heritage along with perhaps lesser known historical sites like a Rocky Mount hotel lost to a fire and iron furnace still standing on private property. The property owner gave the artists some direction, and they also drew inspiration from photographs — most of them black and white, some of them fuzzy — from the county’s historical society, said artist Carol Yopp.
“The rest of it is actually just by the seat of my pants,” she said.
Randy Jones, who owns the shopping plaza with his sister Cheryl Pigg, first had the idea for the mural. Jones saw them in other towns and thought it would be a nice complement to the Harvester Performance Center and other efforts to breathe new life into Rocky Mount. He approached a town council member, asking if a mural would be allowed.
It happened that Jones’ vision coincided with a desire by town officials to bring more public art to Rocky Mount, said planner Jessica Heckman. The town agreed to sponsor the project. The amount of the town’s financial commitment was unavailable Wednesday.
“It just brings a buzz to downtown, gives people something to visit and look forward to,” Heckman said, noting the town hopes to put the artists to work on another mural this year.
Jones said he can’t believe how it all came together. He had the idea, but credits the artists for making it happen and the town for its support.
“I’m tickled to death,” Jones said. “It’s like a dream come true.”
The artists said they’re glad for the opportunity and would like to see more murals in town.
“A lot of small towns are getting on that bandwagon,” Rogers said. “It’s about time Rocky Mount does too.”
Though there’s obvious pride for Franklin County’s music heritage, Rogers said she feels the thriving local arts scene receives less attention. She believes they could help to make the area more of a destination with public art like this mural. Rogers said she hopes the mural will show people that Rocky Mount is an “arts-friendly town.”
Rogers and her mother Joan, who is also working on the mural, are the former owners of The Grainery. They painted the mural on the side of that building as well.
As the group worked on Tuesday, a truck rolled through the parking lot and its driver flashed a thumbs up to the artists. Artist Karl Schad said you can usually feel when someone is watching. He once turned around to find a group of six people standing behind him.
The group works quietly, with the sounds of birds chirping and brushes splashing in water as their soundtrack. Their work requires focus. No detail is too small, like the toothpick dangling from a musician’s mouth.
The artists will put in even more detail as the mural nears completion.
“If we haven’t melted by then,” Joan Rogers joked.
The group tries to be historically accurate as well. They know local history lovers will have words for them otherwise. Schad used a 1940 Ford, a car that was popular for hauling liquor, as his inspiration for the mural’s moonshine scene.
Though each artists has different specialties, they agree the mural is cohesive. They haven’t divvied the scenes up, but rather built on each other’s work.
“No prima donnas, no fights, no fusses,” Yopp said.
Completion of the mural is still probably a few weeks out, the group said. The artists typically lug their paint, brushes and sun protection to the parking lot three days a week. There’s a lot of wall to work with, though Yopp said she never measured exactly how much.
But filling it hasn’t been a problem; Franklin County has plenty of history to draw from.