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 

‘They still get the same feeling’: UNC-Chapel Hill’s A Moment of Magic captures pre-pandemic spark

By Jared McMasters

When walking into the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill last October, Heidi Kreis forced a smile across her face.

Kreis, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill at the time, slogged through one of those days. She had the stress of exams and schoolwork lingering in the back of her mind, and a 20-pound blond wig resting on her head that strained her neck.

The 45 minutes Kreis spent applying makeup and squeezing into her costume multiplied her impatience by the second. But, she still encouraged herself, saying it would just be for two hours and to do her best.

“Truthfully, I did go in with a bad attitude,” she said.

Kreis’ is typically the one brightening peoples’ moods through her work with UNC-CH’s chapter of A Moment of Magic. It is a nationwide nonprofit organization that sends volunteers to their local hospitals dressed as superheroes or fairytale princesses to visit children with serious illnesses.

But, in this instance, 4-year-old Mia Ivey was the one cheering up Kreis. About six months prior to Kreis’ visit, doctors diagnosed the little girl with Stage IV Neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer most commonly found in young children typically originating around the kidneys.

Being days after Mia’s fourth birthday, Kreis arrived to see a miniature replica of herself coming out to greet her near the front entrance at Ronald McDonald House. The 4-year-old donned a wig woven together with yellow yarn, a lavender-colored dress, and carrying a handful of Rapunzel dolls.

Kreis’s weary smile relaxed into a natural one.

The college student had intended to only visit for about two hours but ended up staying for five. The two princesses spent the time enjoying a game of hide and seek in the building’s massive courtyard before heading inside. Kreis showered Mia with gifts of coloring books, Play-Doh, and even more dolls.

“It took [Mia’s] mind off what she was going through,” Ivy Ivey, Mia’s mother, said. “To this day, she still talks about when they visited, and she’ll tell people she got to meet a princess.”

It’s all these countless experiences that make the UNC-CH senior’s time in A Moment of Magic worthwhile.

Before College: ‘The Magic of Camp’

Since middle school, Kreis has gone out of her way to be a pillar of support for others.

After spending her childhood summers attending camps with her older brother, Scott, she jumped at the opportunity to become a counselor in training at Camp Kanata, an overnight camp in Wake Forest. After two summers of training, Kreis earned a certification to supervise her own troop of campers a few years before she arrived at UNC.

For most teenagers, spending 10 weeks under the burden of on-call shifts at an overnight camp, sharing a log cabin with nearly a dozen screaming elementary schoolers, and preparing group activities for kids with fleeting attention spans sounds like a terrific way to ruin a summer.

Not for Kreis.

“That probably was one of the biggest parts of my life, especially growing up through high school,” she said. “Camp was something I looked forward to, and those are the friends I really love.”

During one of her final summers working at Camp Kanata, a social worker dropped off 10-year-old Grace. She had very few belongings, which was a rarity at a camp that costs parents a grand per week.

“Heidi was always really good at working with the kids who really needed a little more attention in order to have the best time that they could,” Scott said.

At the start of that week, all 350 campers took part in the standard boys versus girls cheer-off. Grace isolated herself while the rest of the girls shouted, “We are young girls, strong girls, living on a lake going to take on the world someday” to the tune of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”

Kreis made it her mission to take Grace under her wing for the rest of the week, slowly incorporating her into group activities with the rest of the campers. By Friday, the young girl was braiding her friends’ hair, exchanging school emails to stay in touch, and screaming “Angels, butterflies, daisies, too, we’re gonna rock this house for you” in the cheer-off rematch.

“As the week went on, things got really fun for her,” Kreis said. “She saw the magic of camp, which is a different type of magic from A Moment of Magic, but it’s still a great feeling.”

How COVID Impacted A Moment of Magic

Local hospitals have understandably transformed into impenetrable fortresses over the last seven months.

Many of the young patients visited by A Moment of Magic volunteers are immunocompromised, so limiting exposure to the outside world is a top priority for staff members. Those barriers are taking a toll on the Chapel Hill chapter’s progress that had been building since starting in 2018.

In-person visits switched over to 30-minute chats over Zoom. The group’s fashion show fundraiser, an event that would’ve allowed 30 kids to walk a runway dressed as their favorite characters, generated $5,000 in donations before COVID-19 forced the organizers to call it off. Executive members like Kreis, who now serves as the chapter’s Vice President, spend their days worrying about who will fill their positions in the future; the foundation doesn’t have opportunities to show new members the extent of its capabilities.

“Without all the momentum from going to club meetings to just being on Zoom, it’s hard to know what the future of this chapter will look like here,” chapter President Julia Drahzal said.

The organization is still doing whatever it can to try to replicate that pre-pandemic spark.

Kreis is part of a team that operates the chapter’s new hotline phones for patients to schedule calls with different characters. She oversees several of the foundation’s subcommittees, such as a fundraising group that just organized a trivia night event less than two weeks ago. She also helped implement book readings for children through Facebook live streams to help capture that original sense of joy in-person visits can bring.

And for some, it’s all working.

“[My kids] have really enjoyed the Zoom meetings, and I feel like they still get the same feeling during and after it,” Ivey said.

Staying in touch, regardless of any hurdles, in a socially isolated world is what helps Kreis keep those personal connections with former visitors, like Mia.

Kreis sent the Ivey family a painting of Rapunzel’s castle that still hangs on Mia’s wall three months after her doctors announced she was cancer-free.

“Rapunzel gave it to me,” Mia tells anyone who points it out.

edited by Jackie Sizing 

“Someone that never allowed someone to mute her”: Meet Arkansas’ first Black Rodeo Queen

By Ruth Samuel

Beneath the red, white, and blue diamond-encrusted crown lies the trailblazer who paved the way for Black kids in cowboy hats, long before Lil’ Nas X.  21-year-old Ja’Dayia Kursh became Arkansas’ first Black rodeo queen in 2017.

“I didn’t grow up on a ranch or with horses. I just had a dream,” Kursh said. “I did everything in my power to make it come true without help from family.”

With a father who is incarcerated, a cosmetologist mother, and five other siblings, Kursh had to work and raise her own funds to rent her first horse. Now, the “Classy Black Cowgirl” with over 12k Instagram followers is signing partnerships with Wrangler.

“My family always said, ‘She’s different. She’s always the one that’s doing something crazy.’ But they were supportive more than anything,” Kursh said.

Her Journey Started Early

At six years old, Kursh was sexually assaulted. After grappling with depression and anxiety for months, Kursh’s therapist handed her the reins to her freedom.

She brought Kursh and her mother, Nishawn Horton, to her ranch. The six-year-old had her first bumpy ride on a glossy chestnut mare named Sunshine.

“[Her therapist] said, ‘this is a 1500-pound animal. If you can control this horse, you can control anything that comes your way,’” Kursh said.

She then started riding in the Pony Express with youth amateur group the Arkansas Seven, making appearances at parades and festivals.

At age 13, she wanted to try out for the Old Fort Days Dandies, a premier traveling drill team. Her mother is her biggest fan. But, when her baby Ja’Dayia — “my chocolate” — wanted to compete, she was concerned.

Horton said, “No, we’re not going to do this. A Black girl has never done this. You’re going to get hurt. When I saw her in the arena and there were about over 1000 people, I was nervous and just in shock. One minute I’m excited, the next I’m praying, ‘God, don’t let her fall.’”

Wearing a hot pink top, a glittery silver vest, and Old Fort Days Dandies chaps, Kursh charged out of the white gates atop her steed, Queen. She won over the hearts of spectators at the Barton Coliseum, igniting so much pride in her own family members.

Her great-aunt Anita Faye remembers being overcome with joy the first time she attended one of Kursh’s shows.

“It was an emotional roller coaster for me, to see [my nephew’s] baby doing good when he should be out, happy to see her ride and everything,” the 57-year-old said. “I feel like my prayers have been answered as far as that child is concerned.”

Racism and Haters 

However, not everyone loved Kursh. She was the target of countless racist “jokes” from her own teammates. The prestigious veneer of the 41-year-old rodeo dynasty she was once obsessed with was completely shattered.

Kursh remembers one time she left her helmet at home, so the owner of the arena lent her a yellow construction helmet.

“One of my teammates’ brothers took a picture of me and he posted it on his story, saying that I looked like a Negro Bob the Builder,” she said.

Incident after incident, Kursh was told to “let it go” and to be the bigger person. From being taunted with the n-word, referred to as a monkey, and ridiculed in private group chats, Kursh’s Dandy “Sisters” isolated and abandoned her like an orphan. Despite coaches’ dismissal of her complaints, it never dimmed her light.

Financial professional Mike Tuttle said, there was a maturity about her that was beyond the kids she was with. He first met Kursh during the summer of 2015, when the Dandies headed to his five-acre ranch in Lindale, Texas for a competition.

“It was just one of those matches made in heaven,” Tuttle said. “Sometimes you just out of nowhere meet someone and know you’ll be connected to hip forever.”

He was drawn to her talent as a drill rider and was shocked to learn what she endured in the troupe.

“My first reaction was anger, number one. What would possess anybody to be so cruel to somebody for no reason?” Tuttle said. “By nature, I always root for the underdog. Immediately I told Ja’Dayia, I’m all in.”

The 70-year-old ended up paying for a semester of college at the University of Arkansas, where Kursh is majoring in criminology with a minor in journalism.

She Persisted, and Won.  

Horton remembers hearing the words: ‘‘2017 Rodeo Queen of Coal Hill, Ja’Dayia Kursh.”

“I promise you, I heard myself scream,” she said. “Before people were looking at the field, they were looking at me because of how loud I was screaming.”

Though it was hard for Horton to raise Kursh as a single teen mother, she has always been one of her daughter’s loudest supporters — and the only woman she can drive 45 minutes to for home-cooked lasagna each Sunday night.

Kursh didn’t even know that she was the first Black rodeo queen in Arkansas until 2 years later in 2019. She was a senior in high school, just doing something that she loved. Apart from her rodeo queen title, Kursh was the first girl in Fort Smith, Arkansas to play varsity football at Northside High School.

“There were so many times that I wanted to give up Rodeo Queen and just want to quit, but I know that I can go to Miss Rodeo America,” Kursh said. “For me, I just want to be remembered as someone that never allowed someone to mute her.”

Edited by Jackie Sizing