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Mural Man — The Latest Public Art of Will Puckett

by Joshua Peters

July 13, 2015

Photos: The latest wall mural of Will Puckett (pictured below) is the facade of the Neighborhood Theatre in North Davidson.

The work of muralist Will Puckett has become so common amid the array of public art in Charlotte that it’s easy to take for granted. The wall at Jack Beagles, the Matheson Bridge, murals at Snug Harbor, The Blind Pig, Chop Shop, the Ms. Pacman at Abari, the floor at Amelie’s — in fact, Puckett by his own calculations has covered somewhere around 30,000 total square feet of public space with his artwork. So it should come as no surprise that when Neighborhood Theater decided it was time for a face lift, they turned to Puckett.

“We had talked about it a few years ago and we were waiting for the right time,” Puckett says.

If you turn toward 36th and North Davidson streets now, you’ll see a bright splash of orange, crimson, magenta, yellow and teal on the horizon. A tribal, cave-painting aesthetic marks the crown of the theater with owls, vultures, crocodiles, snakes, scarabs, fish and a cat, among a host of contorted geometric waves, and fields of depth and bright color.

“I probably did 20 or 30 drawing, mock-up type things,” Puckett says of the process. “Some more similar to what I’m doing now, others much different. The first cliché sort of easy one was this stage theme…I liked it for what it was, but the project organizer wasn’t feeling it, neither of us were particularly happy with it. Several other ideas were thrown around from a cowboy motif to a Buck Rogers space 60s theme — which I was actually really excited about.”

The facade of the Neighborhood Theater is already instantly recognizable as a part of the Charlotte visual lexicon and, even unfinished as of mid-July, the mural’s visual impact is great advertising now for Puckett and the Theater alike.

Tall, slim, with a straw hat and gruff beard, Ray-Bans, Schlitz beer t-shirt and paint-stained shorts, Puckett looks like your typical NoDa denizen. He just finished his degree in Art History at UNC Charlotte, so it’s easy to assume he’s a younger man in his mid-20s — but it turns out the 37-year-old Puckett has been playing the Charlotte public art market for the past 10 years, supporting a wife and two kids. His success in this regard has been in the service of the arts and community arm of none other than the Pabst Brewing Company. “They've got a really great mural program where they keep guys like me, and a couple others, in business,” says Puckett. “There’s not a lot of funding for the arts often times and they’ve done a great job in that regard”.

The makers of the ubiquitous cheap brew Pabst Blue Ribbon have been keeping muralists fed with an extremely active public art program for several years now. They’re the reason you’ll see Puckett’s work on the walls at any of the most popular bars in Charlotte, allowing artists creative reign to paint what they and the establishements want — as long as the PBR logo is prominently featured.

While Puckett has freedom to create the mural as his imagination dictates, he’s conscious of the owner’s desires and his own story-telling penchant. At Snug Harbor, he plays nicely off the music club’s pirate theme, and likewise the eccentric characters doing battle on the walls of Cabo Fish Taco. Even when he’s not advertising, Puckett’s compositions serve greater creative purpose. For instance, his floor murals at Amelie's utilize surrealist depictions of the spirit of the North Davidson neighborhood — music, art and brick buildings being prominent subjects, driving home feelings of community and togetherness

 It’s a great, paying gig to land if you can get it. More recently, Pabst has started a semi-permanent pop-up gallery on the 900 block of 35th Street in NoDa called ArtHole, where they are currently showing a dozen artists’ takes on their logo. They do have planned a few shows in the future there, too, one of which will prominently feature Puckett’s work, which opens on the weekend of July 25.

That said, Puckett’s work is most at home outside the walls of a gallery. In fact he has never really been a fan of galleries. “I’m a country kid and, you know, they always seem a little uppity. I mean they’re good places, important places, but I knew a lot of people felt the way I do about galleries also, and one of the neat things about these murals — especially some of the early stuff I’ve done — is 99 percent of the people that walk past at any given point would never go into a gallery or museum and now they’re addressing art.”

That’s where Puckett gets a lot of his creative energy — the changing of a public space. In turn he creates an opportunity to expose those who may not have otherwise considered fine art to art history, artistic process, and the idea of artistic concept. For inspiration for the Jack Beagles wall, he turned to maybe the most famous muralist — Diego Rivera, husband of Frida Kahlo, and pioneer of the Mexican Mural Movement, especially in Mexico City and in the U.S. Though lacking Rivera's revolutionary stances, Puckett often takes the opportunity to incorporate important bits of art history, like what is essentially his own take on Rivera’s Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park. “I wanted to do something like that for NoDa and capture what was happening now,” says Puckett, in an effort to get the community addressing art history just walking down North Davidson Street.

Incorporating artistic precedent in his work is extremely important to Puckett. The idea that as an arts culture we’ve been repeating ourselves in some effort to maintain a visual continuity and stem the tide of change works as a pretty accurate summation of Puckett’s UNC Charlotte undergrad honors thesis. Now he’s putting that into practice beyond the academic world. Looking at his work on Charlotte walls, it’s easy to understand why his work will, for many decades to come, represent the visual continuity of Charlotte’s art culture. No matter how much the neighborhood changes, on brick somewhere near you there is probably a painting by Will Puckett.

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Tags: mural, Diego Rivera, public art, North Davidson, Will Puckett, Amelie's, Snug Harbor, Cabo Fish Taco

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