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World-renowned artist (and SC native) Shepard Fairey to craft Rock Hill's newest work on the 'Mural Mile' this weekend

Don't let the black-and-white fool you, Shepard Fairey's work likes to embrace lots of colors (and yes, that's a metaphor).
Image provided by Shepard Fairey
Don't let the black-and-white fool you, Shepard Fairey's work likes to embrace lots of colors (and yes, that's a metaphor).

‘Latitude for interpretation is part of the beauty of public art ….”

So begins a perspective on what art can say in an age when monolog, not dialog, seems so very much in charge.

For Shepard Fairey, the guy who saying this to me over Zoom, art is the beginning of a conversation.

“When people speak to each other face-to-face and they hash things out,” Fairey says, "they find they have more in common.”

The conversation we’re having centers on Fairey’s upcoming mural in Rock Hill – a (as of the publication of this story) to-be-revealed image looking to draw the eye and open the ears in a city that is changing as it grows; a “bit of an attempt to focus on what unifies us,” he says, as Rock Hill navigates its present and future while recognizing some of the inequities of its past.

The city’s Mural Mile project is an ongoing public art venture focusing on the concepts of equity, unity, and inclusion. The murals leap from the walls, the streets, the basketball courts downtown. They blend unambiguous statements like “No Room for Racism” and “Rock Hill for All” with the kind of pop/hip-hop color pallets that really do make one take notice and consider what’s being said.

For Fairey, the mural he’ll be doing at 153 East White Street this coming weekend is a minor homecoming. Although he was born and raised in Charleston, Fairey spent a considerable amount of time in Rock Hill. The city was home to both his parents, as well as his grandfathers, who were, respectively, a prominent surgeon and a president of Winthrop University.

At 51, Fairey says he’s known Rock Hill for half a century. In the city, he sees a lot to like – it’s easy charm, its unpretentious friendliness; the very things he says his parents always liked about the place.

But he also says, “My eyes are open at this point in my life,” a reference to the fact that while Rock Hill is working to project its image as one steered by opportunity and inclusivity for all, the city still has some distance to cover.

“The last few times I’ve been [to Rock Hill], I’ve seen some of the attempts to make it a little more hip and culturally forward-leaning,” he says, “but at the same time, I’ve known the place … since I was a baby, and there’s a lot about it that hasn’t changed that much.”

The city has been trying to move the proverbial needle. Beyond commissioning public art, Rock Hill has several active commissions and initiatives, including the Community Relations Council, the Race and Equity Committee, and the Community Healing Initiative. The city also last year launched its Citizens Review Board, a collaborative effort between Rock Hill’s government, police, and NAACP chapter.

But Fairey still sees the work to be done, and as Rock Hill gets larger, more cosmopolitan, and more diverse, he says he’d like to know that the city finds a way to hold onto those things that work without too much of the past weighing its momentum down.

“I hope,” he says, “that Rock Hill maintains the things about it that are really charming and yet doesn’t waste the opportunity to embrace good things about how it can move into the future.”

Shepard Fairey will work on his mural project from Friday, Oct. 15 through Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 153 East White Street. Sixty art pieces will be on display Wednesdays to Sundays from Oct. 17 to 31, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the same location.

The mural project is a public/private partnership among Rock Hill Economic Development Corporation (using the Barre Mitchell Community Initiatives Fund), Catalyst Capital Partners/URS Capital Partners and the Women’s Art Initiative.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.