Richard Nickel

Rick Nickel and students work on the Sea To Sky mural for Hampton, Va. Nickel will create the mural that will adorn one side of the News of Orange building in downtown Hillsborough.


Downtown Hillsborough’s second mural project has passed its final hurdle to becoming a reality. In the coming weeks, one dull, white, stucco side of the News of Orange County building will be transformed into a colorful tribute to Hillsborough.

About 18 talented muralists submitted applications for the project that was made possible through a partnership between the Hillsborough Tourism Development Authority and the Orange County Arts Commission. A panel of judges winnowed the entries and ultimately chose Richard Nickel, a muralist from Norfolk, Va., who has murals throughout the east coast. Nickel will receive $6,000 for his work and other expenses associated with the completion of the project. He will also be responsible for maintaining the mural for three years.

Nickel, who said he’s been doing murals for decades, was intrigued by the call for artists that was sent out for the Hillsborough project.

“I had a pretty good idea of what people were leaning toward as far as historical figures and designs because I did a lot of research into the history of Hillsborough,” Nickel said. “There are a lot of really interesting characters and figures that have come out of that region.”

He said he considered a mural that potentially included well-known locals, like vaccination scientist Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett; cartoonist Doug Marlette; Louise Smith, who was NASCAR’s first female driver; and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly, who made dresses for Mary Todd Lincoln. In the end, Nickel thought that idea was too literal and perhaps too much to squeeze into a mural. He opted for a design that was simplified, but illustrated more general characteristics of Hillsborough, such as cardinals, dogwoods, and a rolling landscape.

“It’s more of a traditional-style mural, which I’ve been actually trying to do for a long time,” Nickel said. “I’ve tried to apply this design style to a few other cities, but it didn’t work out. This one worked out really well.”

Nickel has taught at Old Dominion University since 2002 and served as Art Education Program Director from 2002 to 2015. He is an Assistant Professor of Ceramics and Arts Education. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and has been published in several books on contemporary ceramics and in art journals. Nickel has designed and painted murals in Rochester, N.Y., Niagara Falls, N.Y.; Norfolk, Va, and Virginia Beach, Va.

The original mural application packet asked interested artists to submit designs that either capture the rich characteristics of Hillsborough, or that include a connection to newspapers. The panel ultimately chose a design that visitors would seek to feature as a centerpiece or backdrop to photos, and was undeniably said ‘Hillsborough.’

The mural, once it’s finished, will look antique, like an old postcard. Nickel said the high-quality paint he uses will keep the bold and bright colors looking fresh for years.

Nickel said he dabbles in many different forms of art and has exhibited his work in galleries and other shows, but murals are what get him most excited. He also said he understands it’s impossible to please everyone, and the public nature of murals can open an artist and his or her artwork to criticism.

“It’s always like that with public art,” he said. “It carries certain assets aspects that gallery art doesn’t normally have. Working in both fields you get to see how the audience approaches them differently. I’ve been favoring public art more. It’s so much more exciting for these reasons. You get your haters and you gets people who absolutely love it. It’s hard to get that in a gallery showing.”

Another aspect of murals Nickel said he prefers is it enables him to invite members of the community to work with him and have even a small part of the artwork. 

“Part of the joy of having a mural in your hometown is actually participating in making it,” he said. “It’s not hard to do. If you want to volunteer, come in and I’ll show you what to do. Every part of the mural has its own color. There’s no blending. It’s color patches, so it’s really easy to fill in. Once people participate in the mural, two years later they can still look at it and go, ‘Hey, I did that right there.’ It gives such an ownership to the artwork. I love doing that and I want to do that with this one. It’s different from a solitary painting. You’re welcoming and you can become part of the history of the mural. It’s a wonderful process and I have enjoyed doing it most of my adult life. And I still enjoy doing it now.”

Nickel said his plan is to arrive in Hillsborough Oct. 28 to draw the image on the side of the News of Orange building. Friday and Saturday would for painting large areas, and Sunday would be for details and finishing. Nickel said he is happy for people to come by to help or watch.