Mural Durham to give defunct Arts Annex satellite dishes a makeover

The now-defunct satellites outside of the Arts Annex will be painted by North Carolina artists next Saturday, April 14.
The now-defunct satellites outside of the Arts Annex will be painted by North Carolina artists next Saturday, April 14.

Tucked around the side of the Arts Annex, eight satellite dishes loom over the landscape. These dishes have been there since 1991, when Duke Tel Com installed them to receive and broadcast educational programming.

With the rise of the Internet in the late 1990s, the satellite dishes became defunct and now sit there, untouched. Sam Miglarese, director of the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, said they had no purpose, becoming “anachronistic” and an “eyesore.” But on Saturday, April 14 from 1 to 4 p.m., the dishes will receive a makeover. The space will become a park, where groups can host events and people can gather or use as a quiet place to work.

The satellite dish painting is part of the second annual Mural Durham event. Mural Durham is a project of Artstigators and Duke Arts that aims to “connect Durham through creativity, one mural at a time,” according to its website.

The designs to be painted on the dishes were announced March 30 and will all come from artists based in North Carolina. Amy Unell, director of arts engagement and partnerships at Duke, said Mural Durham received submissions from people with a variety of different backgrounds, from a student at Durham School of the Arts to local professional artists.

Senior Kelsey Graywill, president of duARTS, said the event looked for designs that would work with the shape of the satellite dish. Another consideration was the artist’s previous portfolio of work to ensure that they could deliver on the large-scale mural project.

Holly Phelan Johnson, who owns HappymessART Studios, Classes and Supplies in Durham, will be painting one of the satellite dishes along with other staff artists. The design, though, comes from George Mitchell, an artist who was shot in 2003 and is now paralyzed from the waist down. He had started a series of large paintings, typically 6 feet square, of black Olympic athletes inspired by the 1996 games, and his dream is to finish the series and exhibit his work at the N.C. Central University Art Museum. Phelan Johnson created a GoFundme page to help Mitchell achieve this dream. She also plans to donate her time to paint the satellite and use the honorarium to support Mitchell.

Phelan Johnson met Mitchell through Arts Access, a Raleigh-based organization that works to make the arts accessible to people with disabilities. She said the experience has been “life-changing.” She has also sent other artists to Mitchell’s house to meet him and help him with his work, and his experience as a professor has enabled him to teach something to anyone who meets him.

The event itself is a huge undertaking — last year’s event had over 600 people in attendance. There is input from a variety of organizations on campus, including duARTS, VisArts and UCAE, as well as local businesses such as Locopops, Happy + Hale and HappymessART. Students will have the opportunity to watch artists paint the satellite murals, as well as create their own art and watch dance groups perform. The City of Durham will also table at the event to discuss current and upcoming public arts projects.

Student groups are invited to “adopt” a satellite, sponsoring the mural on it. Groups that adopt a satellite will then have priority in reserving the space for events when the park is ready. They can also select what sort of theme they want the dish to have and will then be matched with an artist.

One difficulty Mural Durham has had in planning this year’s event is funding. Last year, the event featured live painting of the sides of the Arts Annex and cost about $20,000 total, with $15,000 funded by SOFC. This year, though, SOFC will only be funding $4,000. These costs come from a variety of items, including logistical costs like lifts — so the artists can reach the tops of the satellites — materials for the murals, honorariums for the artists, entertainment and food.

Graywill was hopeful that an appeal will change the decision. In the meantime, Mural Durham is looking for other organizations, both on campus and in the local community, that would be able to support the event with donations.

Mural Durham hopes to create connections between students and the surrounding community and provide a tangible way for students to invest in Durham. Graywill said the Arts Annex is a great space to do that because it is part of Duke’s campus but is right next to the Burch Avenue neighborhood. She also acknowledged that the relationship between the school and the city has not always been the best, making events like Mural Durham — which also created a living archive of all the murals in Durham —  even more important.

“In a lot of ways, Duke has brought gentrification to this city and has brought in a lot of students that live on this campus but have no interest necessarily in the life of the community,” Graywill said. “So, for that alone, I think it’s so valuable to have something like that where students have the opportunity to do something that’s relaxing and enjoyable to them but actually meet the people that live here.”


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