44-year-old muralist paints to inspire the next generation of artists

By Korie Dean

Artie Barksdale puts his can of royal blue spray paint in the pocket of his khaki work pants and climbs down from his ladder.

He walks five paces away from the building, turning around to give him a broad view of his handiwork.

Six days ago, the side of Muffin’s Ice Cream Shoppe on Fourth Street in Mebane was a plain red brick wall. Now, it’s an almost-finished mural of a serene pasture with amber-colored prairie grass under a bright blue sky that nearly blends into the real sky above it.

Under the blanket of last night’s stars, Barksdale used sidewalk chalk and an overhead projector propped up on the hood of his custom woodgrain-painted Ford F-150 to trace the ice cream store’s logo onto the pastoral mural.

Twelve hours later, with the spotlight of the early October sun beating down on him, he’s filling in the logo as if it’s the biggest paint-by-numbers kit a little kid could dream of.

“I think the ‘M’ needs to be a little rounder, don’t you?” he asks his wife, Nicole, who’s sitting at a weathered picnic table to his right.

He doesn’t just think the letter needs to be a little rounder. He knows it.

And before his wife can even answer, he’s walking five paces back to his ladder, climbing up and getting back to work.

Perfecting those little details is an itch that Barksdale, 44, can’t help but scratch. They nag at him, begging for his attention before he can move on to the next brushstroke.

That’s especially the case with this mural.

He’s waited years to paint in Mebane. In some ways, it’s a homecoming, but in others, it’s an introduction.

Most teenagers swear they’ll never be like their parents when they grow up.

Not Barksdale—he was going to be an artist, like his mom.

Where the Artistic Itch Came From

As soon as he could hold a pencil, he was at his mom’s side, copying every line she drew. He couldn’t imagine life without the blank canvases and paintbrushes that filled their small home in Newark, New Jersey. And, more than anything, he dreamed of being a graffiti artist, like the ones he saw when his mom took him across the Hudson River to New York City.

It’s easy to find inspiration with the bustle of city life providing ceaseless muses.

When his mom grounded him one weekend, he locked himself in his room and sketched his own reality. His blank sketchpad turned into a lively cityscape, inspired by the skyscrapers he saw in the city, and he fell asleep wishing he was old enough to take the train across the Hudson on his own.

His Newark neighborhood soon turned into a warzone because of crack cocaine. And when a job opened up for Barksdale’s stepdad in Mebane, the family packed up their lives and headed south in 1988.

Barksdale was 12 years old and Mebane was little more than a dying furniture town. There were no towering buildings like the ones that Barksdale had drawn on his sketchpad. But, there were trees.

As he sat in the woods behind his house on Shambley Road, Barksdale found his new muse: nature.

Over the years, it became a common thread to his portfolio. All around him, he found possibility—in the sap from a tree, in the slow movement of the clouds above, in the orange clay soil below.

He honed his skills at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, studying theatrical set design until he ran out of money for tuition in 1999.

Then, he just kept painting.

His Jesus Mural in Durham

Old, beat-up trucks turned into a mobile art show of velvety smooth camouflage scenes. Weathered buildings around the state turned into vibrant murals. The trees that towered over Barksdale when he was a kid turned into characters with lively faces.

He saw Mebane’s downtown as a blank canvas and pitched dozens of murals to city leaders.

They declined, so he went to Durham.

One night in 2007, he painted a mural of Jesus under a bridge on Alston Avenue. No one had commissioned the work, and working under the midnight sky until 5 a.m., no one saw him paint it. Barksdale disappeared into the early morning, leaving the mural unsigned.

When Durham awoke that morning, the city exploded with chatter and excitement over the mysterious mural.

For 10 years, it remained untouched.

But, in 2017, Barksdale heard that the bridge was set to be demolished. The area was being gentrified and the mural was the latest casualty.

Heartbroken for the fate of his mural and the city he had come to love so deeply, he revealed on social media that the mural was his creation. The post was shared by more than 1,000 people and Barksdale’s inbox flooded with messages of support and personal anecdotes about how the mural had impacted their lives.

Two days before the demolition date, Barksdale went to the mural to touch it up one last time. Unlike when he first painted it, he went in the light of day and invited the community to watch him work, giving them all a chance to mourn the art that had been a gift to so many.

No one joined him that day.

Maybe they felt powerless. Maybe they didn’t know how to help. Maybe they didn’t really care. As he painted in solitude, Barksdale felt his heart leave Durham.

He still continued his passion for painting and creating.

Coming Full Circle with Vibrant Colors

Barksdale and his wife moved to Prospect Hill, just down the road from Mebane. In 2019, he painted one of his most popular works to date: a mural of rapper Nipsey Hussle on North Church Street in Burlington.

Word of Barksdale’s homegrown talent quickly spread to Mebane—and this September, he got the call he’d dreamed of for so long, asking him to paint a mural downtown.

The town that fed his soul as a young boy was beckoning him home.

And now he’s up on his ladder at Muffin’s, filling the Mebane community with vibrant colors and electric energy.

As he’s finishing up the ‘M’ in the Muffin’s logo, a woman in a red Jeep Wrangler drives down Fourth Street.

“It’s gonna be gorgeous!” she yells as she drives by with the windows down.

Seconds later, a father and son walk down the sidewalk.

“Hey brother, looks great!” the father shouts.

Every few minutes, there’s a new audience giving Barksdale praise as he works.

He was gone for close to 20 years, but now he’s back where his heart always wanted to be.

Mebane is his personal blank canvas. He wants to fill every wall with art that energizes the town. And maybe one day, a kid will stop in awe, mesmerized by his work, and he’ll inspire the next generation of artists—like the New York graffiti artists that once inspired him.

Yes, Artie Barksdale has big dreams. He always has.

But for now, he paints.

Edited by Jackie Sizing